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THEATER REVIEW

South Asia’s Homosexual Problem ;-)

Gehri Dosti, a Wrenching Play, Boldly Addresses Taboo Subject

By Chikako Sassa

Gehri Dosti: Five Short Plays With a South Asian Bent ;-)

Leverett Old Library Theater, Harvard University

Thurs-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 2 p.m., Oct. 23-Nov. 15

Written and directed by Paul Knox

Starring Sudarshan Belsare, Rupak Battacharya, Poorna Jagannathan, Anjali Khurana, Nitin Puri, Anita Raghuwanshi, Donald Ringuette, Weerawat Runguphan, and Fred Smith, Jr.

Anyone who has been to India can attest to the conspicuousness of same-sex couples holding hands in public, walking with arms and shoulders locked in intimate embrace. Had the same phenomenon been witnessed in Chelsea or P-Town, we would have no doubt that they are gay. These Indian dostis, however, are not gay. They simply invoke more physical intimacy during their daily interactions of friendship. And the silent minority of men and women who do fall in love with sweethearts of the same sex also do not consider themselves to be gay in our culturally specific sense of the term: they are men who love men, and women who love women.

Paul Knox emphasizes this distinction in Gehri Dosti: Five Short Plays With a South Asian Bent ;-). His work sheds light on the complexity -- and the contextual niceties -- of the pain encountered by same-sex lovers in the face of persecution and intolerance. Because homosexuality in India is culturally and religiously offensive to the heterosexual mainstream, LBGTQs are rendered invisible and nonexistent, or else considered a subversive cultural import from the West. LBGTQs exist, but sometimes their freedom to express their homosexuality overlaps with the intolerance of those who do not love homosexually; occasionally, the consequences can be fatal. Hence, the homosexuals have little choice but to banish themselves underground or overseas in fear, burdened with guilt and shame. Many are ravaged by HIV and die uncared for.

But even more powerful than the pain of persecution, Gehri Dosti rises above the misery of LBGTQ Indians with a steadfast dedication to love life and live love. The intoxication of falling in love, the ecstasies of mutual affection, Quixotic acts that could only win the tender kiss of a lover, and the wistful and intense longing to know and understand their beloved other over cultural, social, and religious barriers -- these are the forces that drive the characters in Gehri Dosti. The histrionic result is intensely gratifying, sincere, and memorable.

Composed of five widely divergent vignettes, Gehri Dosti explores a series of unconventional relationships fraught with misunderstandings and failures. In “Loving Japamala,” an Indian nun falls in love with a gay stripper in the South Bronx. In “Eating Jain,” a dashing Chelsea boy pursues his Indian lover halfway across the world, only to discover that his lover’s Indian heritage is exerting tremendous pressure on him to forfeit his homosexual orientation. “I Am Mou” is particularly haunting in its sensitive reconstruction of a true-to-life tragedy that took place somewhere in Bengal, wherein an affluent but depressed wife of a well-reputed doctor falls in love with a young instructress, whom she employs, at truly tragic costs. “Two Men in Shoulder Stand” explores two indelible chasms between Sarath and Hasan: difference in religion, and difference in HIV-positive status. After the slew of tragic plays, the last and only intentionally comical play “Tara Tara Didi” is a welcome treat. (The plot is best left unexplained to encourage readers to discover it on their own.)

Knox’s plays have a power to transport the audience into the raw, private, even secretive, and plaintive reality of his characters. The audience is allowed to live vicariously through them, and we privately watch from one end of the room as the actors publicly writhe naked under sheets or lose themselves in yoga meditation. Knox, who wrote the plays and also directed their performances, chose to furnish his stage with minimal set and props. He succeeds in recreating a plausible environment for the tragedies take place, and our hearts willingly sink into the scenes, alternately shattered and soothed.

At its finest moments, Gehri Dosti culminates in a remarkable chemistry of talented actors. Most notably, Zehra Fazal’s performance in “Eating Jain” as N, the wealthy doctor’s wife, and Rupak Bhattacharya as P, the doctor, stirs profound emotions. Both already have built up impressive careers as undergraduate thespians at Wellesley College and Harvard College, respectively, and their experience definitely shines through in their mature, consistently riveting performances. Among pioneering thespians who have never been on stage before, Anjali Khurana as Sister Japamala is worthy of special mention for her outstanding interpretation of her character’s innocence and warmth. At the other end of the spectrum, some plays fail to exude much theatrical brilliance beyond that of a high school drama experiment. “Tara Tara Didi,” for all its comical satisfaction, fails to deliver its humor to its full capacity, mainly because of a paucity of coordination among actors and musical misadventures.

As if to recreate a macrocosm of the plight of its characters, Gehri Dosti has garnered a polar reaction from the press and the general audience. The Boston gay community warmly embraced it, while many members of the established South Asian community firmly rejected it. This reaction may well speak of its success in delivering its message on the difficulties of being gay and South Asian.