Public Obscenities is a bilingual play by Bengali-American writer-director Shayok Misha Chowdhury, that I had the good fortune to get to see just before it ended it’s off-Broadway run at the Soho Rep (thanks to a friend of my daughter’s in the theatre industry, who got me two tix for an otherwise sold out show).
The play is indeed a “slow boil” experience as several reviews have billed it. It is a play that harkens back to the pace and texture of Bengali neorealist cinema a la Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen—both of whose names are invoked by characters in the play, especially by the film buff house-husband of Pishimoni (Gargi Mukerjee). She is the middle-aged aunt of the young and gay Bengali-American Choton (Abrar Haque), a Film Studies Phd student, who is staying in his aunt’s ancestral house in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), where his dad grew up before emigrating to the US; he is in Kolkata with his cinematographer African American boyfriend Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell), to conduct some research about queer underground life in India.
What I loved most about the play was how it plays with the notion of authenticity, a concept much-analyzed in post colonial and post modernist theory, in ways that make you see how, what is seen as “authentic” from anyone’s perspective is always full of layers of complexity, and never quite what most of us are encouraged to believe is this one clear and unambiguous understanding of the authentic self, culture, history, or identity.
The play in that sense becomes a performative: it unravels but also (re) creates simultaneously a sense of home (Ghaire) as a time and place of memory imbued with nostalgia for an authentic interiority; the set, for instance, is an amazing recreation of South Asian homes of a certain era and class, down to the detail of plastic flowers, ceiling fan, electric panels, peeling interior paint and windows with bars. It is also peopled with “authentic” ghosts of the past such as the patriarch of the house, the dead grandfather, referred to affectionately as “Dadu.” His framed photo looks sternly down at the double bed on which his grandson and his lover sleep and where the former, gazing at pictures of potential queer interviewees on that avatar of (post) modernity, the phone app grindr, starts to jerk off, then stops when he realizes the grandfather’s photo is watching him!
But then as the gaze of the model—“authentic”—heterosexual patriarch is reversed on itself, the grandfather becomes an object of scrutiny once old photos taken of him are discovered in an undeveloped roll of film (which is developed by Raheem as everyone is excited to see what “authentic” images this time-capsule reveals). The very idea of authenticity itself, predicated on our binaristic beliefs in exact correspondences between interior/exterior selves, the ghaire/bhaire dichotomy, starts to unravel.
Suddenly, we the audience, along with the characters on stage, begin to see ourselves in the stage mirror much like the figure of the hetero patriarch, who has been photographed on an old rolleiflex camera he himself used to take photos with, and much like the original camera obscura, what is “exposed” are inverted images, almost as if viewed through a pin-hole aperture.
The question that is central and remains appropriately veiled, mysterious and unresolved— is, who do we see when we see our “straight” selves through inverted images that are the very stuff of apparatuses of representation (here signified by the camera obscura references). What happens to those parts of us that are kept hidden from the full frontal gaze, obscure shadows we would rather not acknowledge the existence of in the bright light of day?
We know that queer sexuality in the nineteenth century was described in terms such as sexual inversion, homosexuality, and antipathic sexuality.
According to sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895):
The “inversion” in sexual inversion referred to the inverted, or upside-down, quality of a body that did not reflect the “true” essence of its possessor.
According to this theory of “sexual inversion” homosexuality was an upside-down state of being, against nature as it were, and while it acknowledged the existence of queer sexuality and its practitioners, this view naturalized heterosexuality as the “correct” way to be, with “queers” being seen as “trapped” in the wrong bodies; hence, conventional categories of sexuality and gender were never challenged, so for eg, “a man’s homosexual desires, effeminacy, or both, did not challenge masculine gender or heterosexual sexual norms; rather, a perfectly normal heterosexual woman with a feminine gender was [seen as] trapped inside him, yearning to come out.”
But the play cleverly itself inverts such a heteronormative explanation of our selves and our worlds, by showing us two gay men perfectly at ease with each other (and accepted as such by Choton’s “authentic,” “traditional,” Bengali family)—, neither of them portrayed as effeminate men/women trapped in male bodies. Nor is the grandfather- caught on camera in a back-lit shot, as though glimpsed upside down from within a camera obscura, with his pants down in a manner of speaking- exposed as “really” or “authentically” a “woman trapped in a man’s body” struggling to escape.
Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that everyone wishes to escape some structure, some convention that insists there is only one way of being, of living “authentically.” After all, the hapless film-addicted husband of Choton’s aunt, Pishe (Debashis Roy Chowdhury), spends his days playing virtual billiards with an American woman in Minnesota with whom he is engaged in a deepening flirtation, an “escape” from his daily humdrum existence.
The family servant Jitesh (Golam Sarwar Harun), is also not so much “revealed” as the grandfather’s definitive/authentic boy-lover, as much as we, the audience, are led to question the limits—and motivations-of our own desire “to know” the “truth” of what happened when he was a young employee in the house, taking photos of the grandfather, his master. What was the nature of that relationship? Can we ever really know? Must we know? How do we even know what we know? What are the epistemological frameworks that allow us to construct meaning, to render what is an interpretive act as somehow unmediatedly “authentic.” And to what end?
Similarly, we see how the character of a trans/nonbinary subject that Choton and Raheem find to interview and film for their project, played with such verve by Bangladeshi trans actor and activist Tashnuva Anan Shishir, eludes easy categorization. She/they (named Shou in the play), like the “kothi” non-binary gender they claim and perform, doesn’t fit the model of an “authentic” hijra/khwaja sirah as trans folk in S Asia are commonly known. Indeed the character is played as simply a bubbly, funny, pretty looking woman, with dreams of becoming a movie star, and aspiring to get to the US some day; a rather common story that cuts across gender binaries, and hints instead at the class divides that propel such ambitions.
When her friend Sebanti (NaFis) suddenly appears in the park where Shou and Choton are chatting, we are clearly in the presence of a trans woman who fits more easily the stereotype of the pejoratively-referenced “she-male.”
Which one of them is more “authentic”? More importantly, what does this search for authenticity in our selves and others, reveal about us? And what happens when this endeavor is proved futile, resulting in an epistemological dead-end?
The play, ending in media res, no big “reveal” to elicit audience gasps, asks us to stay in the realm of the unanswerable. What unravels, what is created anew, it seems to want to ask, if and when we are able to recognize our “selves” in the mirror with the aid of a pinhole camera? How very different from the phallic thrust of Scottie’s camera trained to uncover the secrets of the dangerous world outside his window! Perhaps instead, we should consider drawing the curtains on our rear windows and face our own image inside the dark room of the Camera Obscura.