Begum Barve

(Yes, I still read plays, and now I’m going to write about them again. Call it inspiration or call it procrastination).

by Satish Alekar. This play is a surreal look into the world of gender and identity in India. Barve is a transvestite who dreams of the classical Marathi stage, where men played women. By day he sells incense sticks for her thuggish boss, Shyamrao. During the course of the play he meets and marries a middle-class clerk, Jawdekar, feigns having a baby, and of course is ultimately exposed and goes back to his old life the worse for wear.

It’s a delicate play I think, and one that requires some innovative staging in order to carry off the narrative. It also references the Marathi theater and its history so heavily that it wouldn’t transfer well to other locales. Even reading it in English seems a bit odd and stilted, although much of that has to do with the translation, I think. The takeaway message as a reader is that some plays really are nontransferable. As a writer, I think it is that things that are obvious to the audience need not be obvious to those living in the stage-world. Although Barve doesn’t fool us, he can fool Jawdekar and his friend Bawdekar for months.

In the end, I wanted the play to say more about transvestitism and homosexuality in India, but perhaps that would be asking too much. Mahesh Dattani’s Bombay Nights (remade into the atrocious film Mango Souffle) takes on those issues more directly but less beautifully.

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