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Review: Gheri Dosti: Enlightened but Dull

SAA/BGLTSA venture is an intellectual success but a failure as drama

By Eugenia B. Schraa

Gheri Dosti: An Evening of Plays with a South Asian Bent ;-)

Leverett Old Library, Oct 23 - Nov 15

Directed by Paul Knox; Produced by Naresh Ramarajan ’04, SAA and BGLTSA

At first glance, Gheri Dosti: An Evening of Plays with a South Asian Bent ;-) is a baby with seriously mismatched parents. What led the South Asian Association (SAA) to team up with the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) to produce a project of this magnitude—a professionally run show with a four-week running time? After all, these two student groups are on opposite ends of the spectrum; one celebrates tradition, the other breaks with it.

As it turns out, SAA and BGLTSA are not so irreconcilable. Western culture has been inundated with so many out-of-the-closet stories that it seems like we’ve seen them all. Even that ultimate gender-bending symbol—the drag queen—has become cliché; witness the Adams House jocks who were vamping it up on Drag Night last Friday.

But when you’ve got a “South Asian Bent,” it’s easy to spice up such stale material—by discussing, for example, how India still has laws to prevent what it calls “sex against the order of nature.” Gheri Dosti’s playwright and director Paul Knox discovered the complications caused for gays by the hostility of a tradition-bound society while he was exploring issues of HIV/AIDS in South Asia. Adding considerably to the show’s pathos, the five short plays which make it up are all based on true events, often of tragic proportions.

In “Eating Jain,” for instance, Mahvi yearns to escape to New York with Bobby, his American boyfriend, but a powerful sense of duty compels him to stay in India and go through with an arranged marriage. Although Bobby loves Mahvi for his Jain spirituality, he hates him for allowing the dogma of his faith to ruin both their lives. On the other hand, although Mahvi’s life as a married man would be a lie, he would feel equally oppressed in liberal New York, where his open relationship with the man he loved would be a sin against his faith.

Yoga is another ingredient of tradition that Knox uses. “Two Men in Shoulder Stand” is great fun to watch, despite its tragic subject matter. We watch as a boyfriend pushes his HIV-infected partner to do difficult yoga poses—the exercises are the most healing gift that he can offer, given his inability to afford retroviral drugs. But despite the fascinating themes this piece explores, the excitement here is in the choreography, not the dialogue.

In fact, the show’s first four acts—all straight plays—get dreadfully dull despite their provocative subject matter, and the acting is too uneven to make the plays significantly more engaging. We’re led to wonder whether Knox wouldn’t have made a better essayist than playwright.

Thankfully, the show’s fifth and final play is a thoroughly enjoyable Bollywood tribute. It’s a riotous parody of the evening’s themes, conducted entirely in rhymed verse and full of Bollywood’s requisite song-and-dance outbursts. Although this act is the evening’s most shoddily acted, it is far and away the best of the lot. The audience and the cast are quite ready, after the concerted seriousness of the evening’s first hour, to party.

On top of the final act’s general silliness and fun, it also reinvigorates the institution of the drag queen, giving her a shiny, unique appeal. Surrounded by her “assistants”—your usual boys in wigs—Gheri Dosti’s surprise-in-a-sari uses traditional dance moves to intrigue (she is played by Sudarshan Belsare, a classically trained Bharantanatyam dancer). The power in her moves may be manly, but the sensitivity with which they are executed makes them “disconcerting” in the best sense.

Tellingly, a lot of Ghungroo talent went into Gheri Dosti. Although SAA’s audacity in undertaking a piece of drama of this scope is laudable, they undoubtedly would have created a more powerful piece of theater if they had stuck to dance.

Speaking of which, one aspect of Ghungroo which was sorely missing from this show was its ability to advertise itself. Despite having received funding from what seems like every possible University source—money which went towards glossy posters, and, of all things, a professional press contact service—the show has been miserably advertised. Leverett Old Library is not a large venue, but the turn-out—15 people were in the audience last Thursday—is pretty sad, especially when compared to Ghungroo’s annual sold-out showings at Sanders.

Gheri Dosti has some wonderful elements, but it just doesn’t work as a piece of drama. The one thing that it does do is stimulate and challenge. Enticingly, the organizers are accompanying the run with panel discussions, film screenings, and a series of post-show sessions with activists and faculty members, including the ever-popular Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies Diana Eck. This kind of coordinated planning is a great touch from SAA and BGLTSA, who understand that the true purpose of Gheri Dosti and its surrounding events is to get people to think. In this, they succeed marvelously.

—Crimson Arts critic Eugenia B. Schraa can be reached at schraa@fas.harvard.edu.

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