Bombay meets Chelsea
'Hijra' pits tradition against gay Indian life
by Richard Dodds
As a comedy with a gay-friendly message, Hijra can sometimes feel like an introductory course only a few steps beyond a curry-flavored Norman, Is That You? But the very fact that playwright Ash Kotak is dealing with gay relationships in Indian culture gives the play a hint of gravitas. After all, homosexuality was long illegal in India, and worse, shameful in a society where traditions don't easily evolve. This is only a guess, but I don't imagine there are many PFLAG chapters in Bombay.
Hijra, now at New Conservatory, is set in both Bombay and New York, but so tightly knit is the Indian community as depicted in the play that the locale doesn't matter when it comes to matters of family and marriage. And yet that's not so different from, say, the Italian, Greek, Asian, and Latino families in any number of plays and movies about new generations breaking from old ways.
But Indian culture provides Hijra with a plot twist that you won't find in Mambo Italiano. Ironically, in a country so blind to gay issues, there is a reverence for those known as "the third gender," mostly transsexuals and occasionally hermaphrodites, who live within their own hijra society and are fabled to have magical powers. In the eponymous play, even Westernized Indians living in New York have a meltdown when they think they've crossed a hijra.
But while the object of this fear was indeed raised in a hijra household, he's actually a garden-variety 'mo who met a sexy Indian-American in Bombay, and who must don sari-drag to accompany his boyfriend back to America. The joke is he must stay in drag to fool both immigration and his boyfriend's Indian mother who shows up unexpectedly in New York.
Hijra is the first full-length play by Kotak (born in London to Indian parents), and it often shows. Stylistically, the play lurches from broad comedy that would be at home in a dinner-theater farce to earnest speeches that sound as if they're being read from an op-ed page. Plausibility is not a priority, and the sudden feel-good ending doesn't feel at all earned. And Kotak's notion of how young Americans speak is odd. "Holy smoke!" and "You're as mad as a hatter" aren't exactly contemporary idioms.
The production does look good in Bruce Walters' polished and evocative set, and the cast looks and sounds authentically Indian (and their names suggest that this is generally so). Andrew Nance's direction can be both static and abrupt, but finds the play's heart when most needed.
Providing the biggest laughs are Sareeka Malhotra, Sukanya Sarkar, and Maya Capur as various mothers, aunts, and gossip-hounds who cannot rest until all offspring are married. Mukund Venkatesh is both dashing and gentle as the main object of marital pressures, and Wesley Cayabyab handles well his cross-dressing role of the boyfriend. Ashish Joshi has an intriguingly centered quality as an old-soldier hijra, and Michael Mohammed and Rachel Rajput complete the cast with distinctive performances.
In a program note, Kotak explains that he wrote Hijra to "speak primarily to a conservative South Asian audience in the UK about homosexuality." This helps explain the play's primer-like qualities, which may feel old-fashioned in both form and message to audiences here. But Hijra does have its share of exotic elements to spice the familiar offerings, and that may be just enough to make it palatable.
Hijra will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through May 7. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 861-8972 or go to www.nctcsf.org.