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Writing Out of Necessity: An interview with actor and creator of Fish Eyes, Anita Majumdar

19 Oct 2005

"Fish Eyes came out of total necessity. People are finally demanding to see themselves on stage. We want to identify with those people. We want our stories told on stage.”

Fish Eyes is an entertaining one-woman-show being performed currently at Passe Muraille Theatre as part of the Stage3: word.sound.power series which runs until November 27th. Anita Majumdar, who wrote and performs Fish Eyes, will be gracing the stage until November 5th.

Sitting in the second floor bar area of Passe Muraille Theatre, I met an initially deceivingly demure artist. What I had envisioned to be a usual interview about the play, character development, etc etc ... turned into an amazingly engaging discourse on the arts as tool for social change from an astute mind who, at some point, even slightly rose her clinched fist in the air and humorously quipped "I'm representing my peeps!" Representing her South Asian heritage in an affirming light she certainly does. But Majumdar also clearly states that her characters are real. With flaws, imperfections, warped views of history and misplaced insecurities. It's her mandate. "I refuse to show falsity on stage" she states.

In Fish Eyes, Majumdar plays multiple characters with breathtaking genuineness. Taking the audience across a long, yet captivating, narrative through the eyes of such different personalities requires remarkable skill. The main character is Meena, the short form of the popular Indian name Meenakshi (meaning Fish Eyes). Meena is a 17-year-old high school student torn between two worlds and who struggles to find her sense of self and cultural identity. In her fantasy world, she sees herself enjoying a romantic "summer of Meena and Buddy." Buddy Cane is a popular high school jock which Meena infatuates over. She has those grandiose Bollywood-like sceneries in her mind where Buddy will fall in love with her, dance to win her affections, and take her away from her mundane life.

On the other hand, her reality much resides in the world and vision of her Indian dance teacher, Kalyani Aunty. Kalyani Aunty is a "combination of older Indian women that I've met throughout my life, like in airports, in India, social events" says Anita Majumdar. She hesitates to call her a stereotype but there's an archetype she represents. She''s that icon we find in so many different cultures. When people come up to her after the show about Kalyani''s character and tell her "you must know my aunt", she feels like she''s done her job.

Meena is expected to take part in a dance competition in India. But that prospect comes crashing with her dreams of the "summer of Meena and Buddy." She's trying to muster the courage to tell Kalyani Aunty that she has other plans. But later. Now, she must dance.

"How close is Meena's character to you?" I ask Anita. "Meena is a separate character from me" she explains "but as a writer I have the creative right to give her some of my experiences". A lot of people think she is Meena. But while Majumdar embraces and understands her world-view, they are different people. She does say that she included some autobiographical elements in Meena's character but that "no one will ever find out."

Meena started Indian dance when she was five, but Majumdar started later -- when she was 17. It was a huge fight with her parents she recounts. "They didn't want me to, I wanted to. And I won that fight." Apart from her evident acting talent, Anita Majumdar is an amazing dancer. In fact, one feels like the dancing, in itself, is a main character in the play.

Her teachers at the National Theatre School (NTS) in Montreal, where she graduated from in 2004, had, from very early on, encouraged her to incorporate her Indian dance background into her acting craft. She didn't immediately adhere to that opinion. She used to take her acting very seriously and thought of her craft as dedicated work and turmoil. But, as she delineates, her NTS teachers thought that there was "something that happens to me when I dance that they didn't see [in my acting]. There's a spark in me that comes alive when I dance." They wanted to see that same joy in her acting. It was a constant comment during every meeting with them. "Come third year, I got fed up of hearing that comment so I decided ... If you want to see Indian dancing, I will show you Indian dancing." She wrote an early version of Fish Eyes and finally performed it while still at NTS and "it went really really well." The rest, as they say, is history. Chris Abraham, who was directing her at the time, highly suggested she take it to Toronto. She successfully obtained a double-bill at SummerWorks 2004 with Dian Marie Bridge's Tell Tales.

"I had an idea that I was a really bad writer" Anita Majumdar says. "It was really hard for me to sit down and flush this thing out." Fish Eyes "was this little play that was only meant for one night" but, two years later, she is still performing it to appreciative crowds. The success of Fish Eyes brought about the great opportunity to be part of the 2005 Tarragon Theatre's Playwright Unit -- where she is currently developing her second play which will be read next November. "I think they [Tarragon Theatre] offered me this opportunity to really prove to me that I can be a writer." She adds: "It's really important for me to write my second play because I don''t think I would have had I not gotten this opportunity."

Fellow National Theatre School graduate (playwright programme) Marie Barlizo, who joined us for the interview, commended Majumdar for being part of an historic era where "people are realizing now that people of colour can bring people to the theatre." Anita Majumdar doesn't mince words either:

"You can only see those formulaic ... I hate to say it ... white plays, white middle class shows so many times. And also, Toronto isn't white ... we need to accept that."

Fish Eyes sometimes makes people uncomfortable with its political sharpness and straightforwardness. Through the character of Kalyani Aunty, the play delves into the deeply painful period of English colonialism in India. Kalyani Aunty is an angry woman who tends to blame everything on the British. "It's definitely bias from a relationship she had with a Britisher named Victor ... she calls him Vicky" Majumdar says. "I think it's the most human aspect of what's happened to Kalyani. ... I think that's how racism really develops. One thing happens to us coincidentally ... and racism starts as a result of this bad interaction, or perceived bad interaction."

"She [Kalyani Aunty] really has a problem with White people." Anita Majumdar recounts how she often catches the uncomfortable look in some of the white audience members'' eyes. "I see the audience ... I always forget sometimes that it is offensive. ... I'm sort of saying things and I'd see the occasional white couple and they're just not laughing. .. The thing is I don't go out of my way to offend people or trying to be sensational. People like Kalyani exist. Yes, she's a fictitious character but there are people like her who exist. I have relatives who are very angry about the partitioning of India ... and rightfully so. ... The British didn't leave India in a great state." Majumdar certainly doesn't endorse Kalyani Aunty's intolerant views but she feels it's important to show this anger because it exists.

As the cast of Born Ready rehearses downstairs with racially provocative lines which have also made many in the audience uncomfortable, Anita Majumdar says of Born Ready: "It's such an important and timely piece for our times." She not only feels that about Born Ready but also about all the plays in the Stage3 series. She applauds Theatre Passe Muraille for bringing all of these talents together. To interact with "people we'd never meet" and to have the opportunity to see each other's work is a blessing for her. Stage3 is "really about the world we live in right now" she adds.

"There's a rumor in Toronto, or an assumption, that theatre people go see theatre" Majumdar argues. "It's very incestuous" how our money gets traded. "You saw my show so I'll see yours." It's nice to see "new money into the pool." New faces and people who never see theatre in this country now come out and they''re satisfied. "There's a satisfaction for me knowing that they walk away from my work and say ... you know what? I really like theatre. If that's theatre, I want to see more of it."

Crediting Trey Anthony for much of this artistic renaissance, Majumdar declares: "I think Da Kink in my Hair has done amazing things for diverse communities of theatre across this city. I hope they realize how many doors they've opened for artists like myself. Because suddenly it's booming; people are saying: "If they did it why not me?" She adds: "Da Kink started at Passe Muraille and I just think this building fosters so much incredible talent and they have so much faith and belief in just good work."

See Theatre Passe Muraille site or call 416.504.7529 for tickets

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