In Anita Majumdar’s Same Same But Different, an obnoxious film director, dissatisfied with the physical attributes of his leading lady, tells her to do him a favour and “lose a few shades.”
Wait a minute – did he say “shades?”
That’s right: we’re in Bollywood, which, like its L.A. counterpart, is in the business of promoting false standards of beauty. And for the commercial South Asian cinema, that includes preferring actresses who are less “dusky” and more “Nicole Kidman.”
Playwright-actress-dancer Majumdar’s provocative but disappointing new play, making its debut at Theatre Passe Muraille, focuses on one of the more insidious aspects of racism – the way it works itself into mainstream perceptions of attractiveness – by using the “shadism” practised in Bollywood. It asks us to consider whether this obsession with pigment is a legacy of India’s colonial past, and to appreciate that it can be just as psychologically damaging to young people as a fixation on weight.
There’s enough in that topic to spin out a decent 60-minute one-act play – especially when you embroider it with affectionate spoofs of Bollywood dance numbers. Trouble is, this show is 140-odd minutes (with intermission) – far too long when the second act is essentially a less lively rehash of the first. Indeed, it’s more “same same” than “different.”
Act 1, set in the present day, is about Aisha (Majumdar), a Vancouver-born Bollywood starlet shooting her latest blockbuster in her hometown. Aisha is getting grief from her colour-conscious director (the offstage voice of Reza Jacobs), who considers her “dark meat” and urges her to bleach her skin. At the same time, he promotes local dancer Ben (Nicco Lorenzo Garcia) from the chorus line to Aisha’s leading man, in part because of his fair complexion.
Ironically, Ben, a Filipino-Spanish kid who hails from Markham, grew up a Bollywood fan and became obsessed with looking Indian. His sympathy wins over the resentful Aisha, who has spent a lifetime trying to lighten her looks.
Majumdar, in turn, lightens the play’s dark patches with Aisha and Ben’s amusing dance sequences, choreographed to real Bollywood tunes that she’s cleverly repurposed with the help of composer Suba Sankaran. The playwright also captures the absurdity and capriciousness of big-budget filmmaking via Jacobs’s mercurial Mumbai director, whose guiding impulse seems to be a desire to impress that paragon of Hollywood shallowness, Michael Bay.
This is a tasty mix of the serious, silly and satirical, but Majumdar spoils it with that bland Act 2. It takes place in 1980s Bombay and concerns itself with Aisha’s mother, Kabira (Majumdar), while showing us the less glamorous side of the industry. Kabira, days away from marriage and a move to Canada, has come to a cramped recording studio to sing backup on a film soundtrack. Instead, she and fellow vocalist Filipe (Garcia) spend most of the time half-heartedly jousting and flirting as they wait for their procrastinating sound engineer (Jacobs) to get his act together.
Majumdar’s attempts to discuss racial and cultural identity are defeated by a confined setting and stagnant dialogue. And while her performance as the unworldly Kabira is as distinctive as her petulant Aisha, Garcia’s one-note acting becomes a liability.
The bright spots are when Kabira and Filipe do finally sing – their numbers turn out to be Hindi versions of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Beat It. Jackson, the most famous celebrity to be uncomfortable with his own skin, is a recurring figure here. So too are the ultimate symbols of light and dark: the sun, stars and night – suggested by designers Beth Kates (set and lighting) and Nina Okens (costumes) in a movie set’s blinding klieg lights and the actors’ glittery sequined wardrobe.
Same Same But Different is a co-production between Passe Muraille and Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects, where it runs next month as part of the final Enbridge playRites Festival. The play was developed by Brian Quirt’s Nightswimming company and it’s surprising that Quirt, as its director and dramaturge, never realized that the second act – coming after all that singing, dancing and (to use a Majumdar word) tomfoolery – would be a letdown.