Paolaexpat tells us about her participation in a Bangladeshi Tv programme. Lots of fun, contact with her hosting culture, courage and creativity!
During my last six months in Bangladesh, I wrote a book, JOYRIDING IN DHAKA, which I hope will be published soon. The book is an account, in diary form, of my three and a half years in one of the world’s ‘least liveable cities’, and takes the reader from my unsettled, bewildered beginnings, looking into an unfamiliar world, to the final phase of integration and fulfillment. Playing the Part is one of the final chapters, during which I have come full circle, and am looking out of my new world, rather than into it.
I studied my lines assiduously. I took my script with me to The Dazzle, my favourite beauty parlour across the road from my house, and recited my lines to the girls as they wrapped my sari on me and fell about giggling at my efforts. I made the most of car gridlock time, with my driver Willington correcting my pronunciation. ‘Mar-se, Madam, mar-se, not mar-che! Ki hoi – se – re, not ki koi – che -re!’ I asked Shaila, my friend who is Associate Professor of linguistics at Dhaka University, for her help, and she told me that I was supposed to be speaking a sort of village dialect, not the posh Bangla I’d been trying to master for over three years. She helped me make recordings on my mobile, speaking each phrase first, with me repeating.
I’d received an email from a friend a couple of weeks before: ‘Looks like it’s Ittadi time and Hanif Sanket is looking for volunteers for the show. I’ve offered to help him source some of Dhaka’s finest expat talent (actually any expats will do)…’
This was for me. A dream come true. An opportunity to take part in a Dhallywood-type satire, with no acting skills required. Ittadi—it means et cetera—is the most popular programme on Bangladeshi TV, with 77 million (yes, seventy-seven million) viewers. Hanif, its creator, has been running it once a month for twenty-five years, and for the last fifteen years he has reserved one episode a year for foreigners. Not foreigners acting as foreigners, but foreigners acting as Bangladeshis. Last year my friend Danielle was cast as a mad woman in it, but I was unable to take part.
Now here was my chance. I signed up at a preparatory meeting, marking my dancing skills as 0 and my Bangla skills as 2. I added an extra column for commitment and gave myself 5. The scale we were supposed to use was 1 – 4 (1 = 0, 2 = some, 3 = good, 4 = excellent). I could hardly contain my excitement.
‘The programme deals with serious issues,’ Hanif explained. ‘Politicians wrangle for hours on TV debates and everyone gets bored watching them. With Ittadi, we get our message across through fun. The public loves it.’ Over the years, he has won several awards.
The last time I acted in a play was when I was ten, at boarding school in Kenya. It was for my Swahili class. I was cast as the mother of a girl who was mute. I had one unforgettable line: ‘Mwanangu Hazina, jarubu kucheka, jaribu kusema!’ (Hazina, my daughter, try to laugh, try to speak!’ The story ended happily: a jolly young man called Omari appeared in the village, cheered Hazina up, and she spoke. They got married and presumably lived happily ever after. We all sang a joyful chorus that went ‘Omari hodari alikwenda safari, yoho, yoho!’ (Brave Omari went on safari, yoho, yoho!) The song went on, but I can’t recall the rest.
So, after many years, here I was, moving forwards at last with my acting career. This time I was to be the mother of a girl who had been possessed by an evil spirit.
And I had a full five lines. The spirit was very, very willing…but the memory was not. I managed to master two out of five lines during the rehearsal, complete with wailing and falling to the floor. However, three refused to fix themselves in my mind. And it’s not that they were long. Instead of ‘Chup kor!’ (Stop!), a meaningless ‘Kup chor!’ kept coming out of my mouth.
My friend Rilla, who was playing Third Woman, and who was in the show last year, reassured me. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll all come together on the day.’
And it did. From dawn till dusk, thirty-one expats experienced pure joy. We gathered at the Nordic Club at seven a.m., some more soaked than others from the monsoon rain. From there, a few of Hanif’s minibuses took us to his office in downtown Dhaka, where we were offered a scrumptious Bengali breakfast, complete with chapattis and vegetables.
Preparations started. Our costumes had been neatly laid out for us, and makeup, hair, and wardrobe assistants set to work.
Then we were on the road again to Savar, about fifteen miles out of town, where Hanif has bought a plot of land which he uses for filming. There, while one group was whisked off to a tea stall to film Scenes 1 and 2, the rest of us settled down to study our lines, catch up on sleep (World Cup matches in Dhaka happen in the middle of the night), or practice the dances. (I had already been told at the rehearsal that it was quite okay, in fact advisable, for me not to take part in the dancing.)
Someone was summoned from Dhaka to bring a pair of white trousers that had been forgotten: our clean-shaven hero and deus ex machina from the city couldn’t possibly make his entry in a lungi like the villagers.
In the first two scenes, a villager stormed in to the tea stall announcing that my daughter, Kulsum, had just returned from Dhaka possessed by an evil spirit. They all dashed off to find her.
And that’s where the next scene, and my first appearance, came into play. Fortunately the rain had eased off. We were in a clearing in the village, and Kulsum, her hair dishevelled, was acting crazily, chanting and dancing and giggling. People were discussing her condition. At some point, prompted heavily, I came in. ‘What has happened to my daughter? What demon has possessed her?’ This is where I was supposed to fall to the ground in shock, but Hanif said I should just cling in desperation to whoever was standing beside me, because if I did my (perfectly rehearsed) dramatic fall, my sari would be disgustingly muddy for the rest of the show. Disappointed, I found it even easier to wail loudly.
As Rilla had predicted, there was no need to worry about lines. Hanif’s crew had infinite patience, and shot as many times as it took for us to get it right. Throughout, the support team were there to touch up makeup and hitch up sagging saris.
Back to the story: there was nothing else for it: we all agreed that Kulsum had to be taken to the exorcist. We marched her off. The dreadlocked exorcist and his gang were scary: they sat, dressed in red, under a canopy, with a snake-shaped piece of wood on a table, chanting and drumming. Someone who had showed up to dance but wasn’t confident about it was quickly allocated a new persona: she was dressed in black and tied up on the exorcist’s verandah as a prisoner. A chicken was bound nearby to make the scene more authentic. Although we would have all liked to give the hapless chicken its freedom, we understood that its short suffering was necessary for the cause. Someone’s young daughter who was taking part fanned it to make it more comfortable. (It was untied and strutted away happily once the scene had been shot.)
In we all came, dragging the reluctant Kulsum, amongst much shouting and weeping. The exorcist got his broom out, ready to beat her.
But then…dramatic twist…a dapper young man from Dhaka arrived on the scene in his white trousers, flanked by three burly policemen, and the exorcist was arrested.
It had all been a plot to catch him: unbeknown to me or anyone else in the village, Kulsum had been feigning madness all along. So, in unison, we announced to the audience that witchcraft is always bad.
And so to the final dance. I told Hanif I needed to make the absolute most of my chance of stardom, so rather than retiring and letting the dancers get on with it, I was allowed to sit on the verandah (in filming range) clapping my hands and smiling, watching the dancers in the clearing in front of me, as the children danced beside me.
Afterwards, as dusk set in, a bulbul atop a mango tree sang his bubbly lullaby, and the muezzin in the distance called the people to evening prayer, I asked Hanif: ‘Why is the bideshi episode of Ittadi so popular?’
‘We just love that you are happy to speak our language and be a part of our culture. It makes us proud.’
And if any of you want to share the fun, watch here: