Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
“Why Indian dance?”
This is my immediate question on seeing an evocative photograph of acclaimed screen and stage actor Anita Majumdar performing Boys with Cars at the Young People’s Theatre (YPT). In the photo, she is mid-mudra, swirling in a stylized Indian dance costume. Considering that the solo show explores “issues around unchecked male privilege, female empowerment, and what constitutes consent,” the duality of drama and dance within a polarizing social commentary fascinates me.
As it turns out, this is the first of many questions about this show, which playwright-performer Majumdar describes as a “performance ‘about’ questions.” Through the dance-play, she hopes to spark conversations about gender double standards among many young people today. More specifically, she hopes to encourage dialogue about fighting for equal rights for all women, “not just the women we think deserve it, and [whom] we like as people.” She elaborates with the example of ongoing media harassment of Mischa Barton: “Even as we speak, Mischa Barton (of The O.C. fame) is fighting a ‘revenge porn’ lawsuit where a man she trusted made videos and photographs of her and tried to sell them for public consumption. Some people have certain opinions of Mischa Barton’s past ‘sex appeal’ branding, and struggle to understand ideas around consent and which women ‘deserve’ what.”
What does all this have to do with Boys with Cars? Plenty…if you look. The YPT play is an adapted version combining two plays within The Fish Eyes Trilogy: Boys with Cars and Let Me Borrow That Top. The plays present two perspectives of one incident, recounted by two girls of different cultural ancestry, Naznin (“Naz”) of South-Asian descent and the Caucasian Candice. The multitalented Majumdar plays an ensemble cast to relate Naznin’s and Candice’s stories through words and dance, flowing seamlessly from one character to the next, against a backdrop of classical Indian music and hits from Bollywood films, Chris Brown and Destiny’s Child.
Naz, a classically-trained Indian dancer and high-school student in Port Moody, BC, dreams of attending the University of British Columbia and is in a romance with her charismatic Irish-Indian boyfriend Lucky Punjabi. The founder of the Coventry School of Bhangra and owner of a red Mini Cooper, he aspires to be the next Bhangra star. When Lucky goes out of town to audition for Bhangra Idol, his friend Buddy makes a move on the unsuspecting Naz. Buddy then speaks with Lucky, announcing that she made the move on him, a lie that catalyzes a collision course of prejudice, gender and racial presumptions, and misalliances. Lucky breaks up with Naz before leaving Port Moody, and in a dark turn that recalls Barton’s “revenge porn” trauma, the “cools” then turn on Naz.
Wrongly blamed and rejected, Naz loses not just the relationship but almost every aspect of her current life. We see her reduced to peddling Eastern “culture”- performing dances from Slumdog Millionaire – at Western wedding receptions. The second of the source plays, Let Me Borrow That Top, recounts the incident from Candice’s perspective, allowing the audience to compare their different motivations and observations, and yielding more questions about assumptions, power dynamics and appropriation. Candice is Naznin’s nemesis and harbours aspirations – and troubles – of her own. Also a dancer, she secretly yearns for Naz’s culture and her dance skills in a quest for fame and recognition.
Majumdar inhabits both roles, becoming Candice in front of the audience via blond wig, white concealer and blue contact lenses, a transformation which has yielded unexpected questions from young audiences: “Many young women identified with Naznin’s struggles with bullying,” she avers, “but I think what has surprised me most were the questions around the use of “white face” in the play, and the play’s agenda in using it to subvert the traditional (and racially humiliating) practice of “black face”.
So my initial question seems answered by Majumdar’s own dance training and its central place in her characters’ backstories. However, Majumdar’s reasons for incorporating dance in this play are nuanced and strategic, and go well beyond demonstrating a skill that is culturally intrinsic to her and Naz, and coveted by Candice. Dance is also an expedient shorthand, allowing Majumdar to encode her themes more economically and eloquently than with words alone: “I’ve always maintained that dance is no different than the words I write as a playwright,” she explains. “It falls into the category of ‘a picture is worth 1000 words’. There’s a communication that’s available through dance that 1000-plus words can’t fully harness or convey, and what’s more important is that dance doesn’t need the equivalent time or space that 1000 words require.”
In our age of digital information, Majumdar feels dance remains “ahead of its time.” “We can be given information about a character, the mood, and the story in a very short dance phrase,” she offers. “It’s a way of expanding the repertoire of how an audience receives information and puts the story together for themselves.” She explains that – in both this adapted production of Boys with Cars for YPT and the larger The Fish Eyes Trilogy it derives from – the central conceit is how different female protagonists use Indian dance as a tool to navigate dilemmas in their contemporary teenaged lives, and find some form of empowerment.
“What has always struck me about watching classical Indian dance, be it bharatanatyam or kathak or any other form,” she points out, “is that it requires both stamina and power, while making an audience believe it’s effortless and delicate.” She observes that even the most iconic telling of Radha-Krishna stories from Hindu mythology takes a great deal of skill, awareness and nuance. Radha is at once demure, dignified and aware when she knows Krishna has strayed from their relationship. In reflection of this, “both the South Asian-Canadian teenager Naznin and the Caucasian teenager Candice grow to learn how to harness a dancer’s knowledge in their own ways and at different levels of skill, through the playing out of their young lives.”
Having answered all my questions thoughtfully and thoroughly, Majumdar ends our conversation with two important re-frames. First, she gently emphasizes her abiding allegiance to creating enjoyable entertainment… “to using humor and lightness to tell a story” and doing so by remaining aware of and “focusing the magnifying glass” on the seemingly trivial details of “everyday stories.” Second, while acknowledging all of the serious and important matters we’ve discussed in Boys with Cars and current affairs, she calls deliberate attention to the “small and insignificant.” She asserts a powerfully sympathetic and inquisitive perspective: “I think those small, insignificant moments add up and contribute to how we see the world and the people in it.”
And here, in the mudras’ impossibly subtle, individually insignificant movements – inflected with social commentary, character and yes, entertainment — I find the full answer.
Of course Indian dance!
News You Can Use
What: Boys With Cars, written, choreographed and performed by Anita Majumdar; directed by Brian Quirt; commissioned and produced by Nightswimming Theatre; additional development support by Young People’s Theatre and The Banff Centre
Who: Recommended for audiences 13 years of age and older
When: March 23 – April 1, 2017
American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreted Performances: Sunday, March 26, 2:30 PM and Monday, March 27, 10:15 AM
Where: Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street, East, Toronto, ON
Information and Tickets: YoungPeoplesTheatre.ca and 416.862.2222
Explore and Learn: Study Guide
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya