Racism with a dash of axone

Updated: Sep 23, 2019, 07:09 IST | Suman Mahfuz Quazi |

A new play explores the travesties of racism through humour and by changing the conversation around stereotypes associated with the Northeast. And then, it ends with a bombastic N-E meal

Merenla Imsong in a scene from the play
Merenla Imsong in a scene from the play

I don't eat dog meat... I am a cat person," comedian and actor Merenla Imsong quips. It is this ability that Imsong has — to laugh at herself — that helped forge a friendship between her and actor Ratnabali Bhattacharjee when they met at the set of a play in 2014. Over the years, Imsong would often reiterate to Bhattarcharjee, racist incidents she had experienced as a Naga woman in India. But almost always, she managed to convey these tales in a humorous manner. This became fodder for a short 10-minute play called Akhuni that the two worked on in the same year for Prithvi Theatre's Fringe Festival. "I had been thinking about making it into something longer.

At first, I thought I would include experiences of people from different communities. But Merenla insisted that she had enough," Bhattacharjee shares, speaking about Not Just Akhuni, an hour-long piece of documentary theatre, featuring Imsong, that will be staged at the basement of Leaping Windows, a library café in Versova that has hosted comedy and music gigs in the past, but which opened their doors to theatre for the first time on September 3 for Not Just Akhuni's first show.

Mustard leaves with black sesame
Mustard leaves with black sesame

Scheduled for tomorrow, the play employs a unique format, ending in a Northeastern meal that will be prepared by Josie Paris Renthlei, who is originally from Mizoram. Incidentally, Bhattacharjee met Renthlei on a set as well. "I had been toying with the idea of putting together an immersive play. I love food and think it's a form of art, because it requires a lot of creativity. I ran into Josie a few years ago because she also works as a costume designer and stylist," she tells us, explaining how this marriage between food and theatre transpired.

Watch and eat

Renthlei, who started Josie's Kitchen, a Northeastern delivery venture based out of Versova , six months ago, says she had always loved cooking. "I was putting this off for a very long time, but I finally managed to kick things off this year. I am taking it slow, so you won't find me on any other app or platform except Instagram. I prepare the food based on pre-orders, because I think this is the kind of cuisine that takes some time to adjust to," she shares, adding that for this play, she has curated a brief menu featuring a Manipuri-style spicy pork made with fermented bamboo shoot and umaroak or king chilli; chicken with chayote squash; and green mustard leaves cooked in a black sesame stew for vegetarians, all of which will be served with rice and piquant chutneys.

Spicy pork with bamboo shoots
Spicy pork with bamboo shoots

And while the novelty of a play, which attempts to address the issues of identity and culture, culminating in a meal that offers a peek into that culture is thought-provoking in its own way because it lends itself to the idea of cross-pollination between different forms of art (cooking, included); it is the approach to the larger issue in question here, i.e. racism and the affable approach to it, that remains most poignant.

Slurp it up

"I think the first time someone called me by a racial slur, I was super happy because I thought it was a complement. I was laughing until someone explained to me what it meant. But the truth is, so much of what I have experienced is so silly, even if it's racist, that it just makes more sense not to treat it so seriously. I guess it is a matter of perception," Imsong tells us, speaking about how superficial both the logic behind and reaction to racism is. "I have noticed that people are scared to tread this topic, and particularly when it comes to people from the Northeast. I mean, for example, it makes no sense to ban a word because people will find 500 other things to call us. How about including the history of our region in your educational texts instead?" she inquires.

Josie Paris Renthlei
Josie Paris Renthlei

Once, a guy who wanted to allure Imsong called her "Chinese chicken." "I just couldn't stop laughing," she shares, adding that it makes much more sense to talk about these issues through the medium of humour by consciously desensitising the dialogue around them, rather than nose-diving into a heavy-handed lecture.

"People listen more. You have to have the ability to laugh at yourself. At this point though, I am at a place where others are insulting me, but my mind is thinking, 'Wow, that's new material.'"

Ratnabali Bhattacharjee
Ratnabali Bhattacharjee

On Tomorrow, 6.45 pm to 9.15 pm
At Leaping Windows, Versova, Andheri West.
Call 9769998972
Log on to bookmyshow.com
Cost Rs 850

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