Monday, January 25, 2016

A Nice Indian Boy - A Review

Keshav (Erik Scilley) and Naveen (Aditya Thakur)
in A Nice Indian Boy
I had a delightful encounter with globalization the other night at the Cubberley Auditorium in Palo Alto (California).  Friends had invited me to join them for an amateur theatrical production of a play called A Nice Indian Boy.  I went mostly to share an evening with my friends, but came away really taken with the performance, both for its quality and for its historical significance in the history of gay liberation.

I’ll name the friends.  They were Arvind Kumar and Ashok Jethanandani.  I met Arvind thirty some years ago now at the Gay and Lesbian Center at Stanford and his partner Ashok soon after at the very next Gay Pride Parade.  What stands out in my memory from that time was the uphill climb these two gay activists faced in raising consciousness among Indians and other South Asians about some very serious homophobia in their communities.  Arvind and a friend, Suvir Das, co-founded a gay South Asian non-profit LGBT support organization which they named Trikone (after the pink triangle, the Nazi marker of gays in the concentration camps; trikon = triangle in a number of South Asian languages) and he and Ashok ran the organization for years before they retired. Trikone is still going strong.

It’s still an uphill climb.  As in Uganda and other former British colonies, institutionalized homophobia in India may be traced in large part to the religious values of Victorian England. Prior to colonialization, Hindu culture had never criminalized homosexuality, but Britain’s anti-sodomy law of 1860 went into effect only two years after India’s incorporation into the Empire. Ironically, historically clueless modern-day Indian politicians have been known to describe homosexual behavior as a form of corruption.  Even India's Health Minister has described it as a "Western disease."  Despite the presence of around 2.5 million gay people in India (this figure reflects not the total, but only the number of self-declared gays), the vast majority of Indians still regard it as undesirable. 

Homophobia, we have learned the hard way, cannot be fought on the political level alone, important as recent court cases and legislative actions have been to the cause of gay civil rights.  It has to be fought on the cultural level as well.  It’s a question of hearts and minds, and of reaching members of the national community one by one and making them understand just what homophobia looks like up close.

Although it has a broad appeal, A Nice Indian Boy is an all-Indian production set in and addressed to the Indian community which does this brilliantly.  The local-born writer, Madhuri Shekar, still only in her twenties, has already written three plays.  This one, her first effort, was written for her MFA dissertation at USC, and the program states it has received a number of awards.  It is also a first attempt at directing a comic drama (and second directorial effort) for Ranjita Chakravarty.  Bringing it to the stage is the work of the Bay Area South Asian Theatre Company EnActe, its founder, Vinita Belani,  and a number of members of the Indian community on the production staff.

The play centers on the domestic difficulties faced by a Silicon Valley Indian immigrant couple with a gay son who wants them to accept his lover, the “Nice Indian Boy” who turns out to be Caucasian, just at the time their “well-married” daughter informs them she is getting a divorce.  What makes the play work, and keeps it from falling into slapstick or soap-opera territory, is the remarkable skill of writer Madhuri Shekar in getting each of the five characters just right.  She hits all the buttons, love marriages vs. arranged marriages, sex and gender stereotypes, racial prejudice within the Indian community.  The case for a more positive approach to homosexuality works because the struggle is depicted as just another one of many challenges the family needs to overcome, and because in the end the love parents and their children feel for each other can be channeled into mutual support and the strengthening of family bonds.  

Not all polemical efforts such as this succeed on stage or in other media.  It’s easy to get preachy.  But this one has a loving touch and the comedy is used not as a spin-off but as a skillful means for releasing tension.  The parts all come together, the lights, the sets, the costumes – even the Bollywood song and dance at the end – just in case you’d forgotten this was all about things Indian.

I began this by telling you I found the play a "delightful experience."  I might also have framed it as a case of future shock, given the changes it suggests in the Bay Area Indian community I first met thirty years ago, which changes I take to be a result of that community's interaction with the gay-friendly Bay Area.  But those are empirical issues best left to social scientists.   The bottom line, I think, ought to be to point out that one can do politically responsible theater while still giving the audience a great night out.

photo credit:  Photo is by Prabhakar Subrahmanyam and appeared in The Almanac in an article written by Karla Kane of the Palo Alto Weekly.

No comments: