SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT by Anita Majumdar, directed by Brian Quirt, with Majumdar, Nicco Lorenzo Garcia and Reza Jacobs. Presented by Theatre Passe Muraille and Alberta Theatre Projects in association with Nightswimming at Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Opens tonight (Tuesday, February 18) and runs to March 8, Tuesday-Saturday 7:30 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $32.50, matinee pwyc ($20 in advance). 416-504-7529. See listing.
Just because Bollywood films are musical, colourful and enjoyable, don't dismiss them as merely lightweight entertainment.
Playwright/performer Anita Majumdar's Same Same But Different offers a sobering examination of shadeism along with the romance, song and dance of Bollywood cinema.
"What I love about the form, something that's integral to Bollywood, is its radical commitment to entertainment," says director Brian Quirt, who's worked with Majumdar on the show since 2010, when its first act was part of the Toronto Fringe. "There's no apology for the fun; the form embraces it with fervour.
"But beneath the romantic fluffiness it's possible to inject some social/political content, in this play a look at shadeism, an implicit hierarchy between dark- and light-skinned performers. This kind of discrimination, a prejudice toward others or even oneself, exists in many cultures. It's blatant but also insidious, since it can be practiced to a degree without our being conscious of what we're doing."
Majumdar tells her story across a period of some 30 years, the first act taking place in today's Vancouver, the second moving back in time to 1989 Bombay. Linking the two acts is the Bollywood form but also the central female characters: we initially meet Aisha, a Canadian shooting a Bollywood film, and after intermission are introduced to Kabira, her mother, who hopes for a better life in Canada with her new husband.
"Anita first wrote the contemporary story, but as we worked more on it she thought it would be useful to look at how Aisha got to be who she is. The second act lets us look at Bollywood in a different time and also a woman in a different time, a native-born Indian woman with her own dreams."
Quirt, who first worked with Majumdar in 2006 on Anosh Irani's Bombay Black, admits that he was a novice in terms of Bollywood when he began working on the show.
"Immersing myself in the form has been fantastic. Its storytelling has some unique elements but also uses Western techniques, though in different proportions and with different emphases. Learning a new vocabulary has been exciting for me; working in a storytelling mode that's part of another culture or another time is good for an artist."
Majumdar plays both mother and daughter, with Nicco Lorenzo Garcia as her song-and-dance partner and, possibly, something more. A skilled dancer, Majumdar's also done the production's choreography, with sound design and composition by Suba Sankaran.
"The dance itself makes its own statement," nods Quirt, a director and dramaturg who runs Nightswimming and is also head of the Banff Playwrights' Colony. "It ups the ante in how a production communicates story or feeling; it's like a direct injection into the audience's emotional vein.
"The cliche is that dances in a Bollywood film aren't related to storytelling, but that's not always the case. Certainly the large numbers are challenging and ultimately freeing to our conventional, straight Canadian theatre storytelling. We're working to embrace that freedom fully, sometimes letting the dance tell a story, sometimes just letting the musical number rip into fun and fantasy."
But Quirt doesn't want his last thoughts to be an analysis of the form.
"I really love the entertainment quotient of Bollywood, unrivalled in just about any art form. Though the content inside this play is sometimes serious, the container for the story is lush, rich and fun."