Monday, May 24, 2010

Racism, Elected and WAGON PAAAAAARK!

I was at the BB production Elected on the 22nd of May (last Saturday). I think BB deserves a lot of praise, especially for openly discussing a sensitive topic like racism in Sri Lankan society and also the really good theatre production that they offered the audience that night. It was a forum theatre, meaning the audience got to participate in the story by modifying the way the characters behave in that situation and also giving their feedback on the actions, and basically starting a discussion on this topic of racism. Let me run through the story, and how I felt that it dealt with the issue of racism.

The story takes place in a national university of Sri Lanka, where student council elections are being held. The candidates are two bright 2nd year students, Mihiri, a Sinhalese girl, and Mohan, a Tamil guy.

The drama starts with Mohan giving his speech, talking about how the university infrastructure is crumbling and that he feels that he can give the leadership to change things in uni. He gives due respect to his opponent, and from his confidence it is apparent that he is a popular figure among the student community. Next up, Mihiri talks about very much the same things, but she ends her speech with a twist. "Some people" she says, suggestively turning her eyes towards Mohan, "seem to think that just because we choose to speak in our mother tongue, that we're incompetent. Does speaking in English make you a better leader?" and continues in Sinhala that she believes that she believes that she's one of them (the students, possibly meaning Sinhala students) and she ends it with the outrageous statement (that almost made me go "DAMN!" the first time I heard it) that "Even though the forest changes, the Tiger doesn't change his spots". Tiger. Campaigning against a Tamil student. Racial profiling much?

Ok, now dealing with this part, which is the first act of the play, the only obvious pieces of racism that I could pick up was the Tiger remark. Seriously. See, the director or the scriptwriter makes several key assumptions in writing Mihiri's speech. a) That Tamil students speak more/better English than their Sinhala peers. b) That only Sinhala students take pride in talking in their mother tongue. c) That Tamil students think they're more competent than the Sinhala students because they speak English.

As we all know, Sri Lankan universities conduct all their courses in English, and with good reason. But a majority of students (both Sinhala and Tamil) who enter uni don't have a working knowledge of English and find it hard to keep up with their coursework. This is a major problem in universities, so much so that the authorities are planning to introduce a 6 month English course and subsequent mandatory exam for all university students. Mihiri was trying to tap into this market with her remarks in Sinhala about being one of them and knowing of their problems. A cheap political trick, to turn the anger and disappointment of those students into votes, without actually addressing the issue and offering solutions (extra English classes, perhaps?). We see this a lot in national politics too, but my point is that Mihiri was going for the biggest chunk of that non-English speaking cake by talking in Sinhala (many of those voters might not even understand what she was saying in English previously) and that there wasn't really any racism involved in that decision. Her subsequent jabs about competency and pride in speaking the mother tongue were directed at the English-speaking community, and not at the Tamil students.

The Tiger remark, which she chose to end her speech with, was not at all appropriate and was clearly racist remark. She did what some Republicans in the US resorted to when Barack Obama was running for the presidency, and fear mongered. "That guy's a Tamil, ooooh he must be LTTE", was what she was saying there.

In the second act, Mohan is planning his campaign with a bunch of freshmen during lecture hours. A senior lecturer (one could say the big boss of the uni), Ananda, asks Mohan if he's got permission to take the freshmen out. Mohan cannot produce a letter to prove that he has gotten permission and the freshmen are chased away to their classes. Mihiri on the other hand has no such problems with Ananda, and he lets her use his name to get the hall anytime she wants for her campaign work. He also tells her that he wants to see "one of our people" (meaning Mihiri, the Sinhalese) elected to lead the council, and that he doesn't want to see the culture of the university changed. The audience also learns in this scene (away from Ananda) that Mihiri is using thugs to intimidate voters and get popular and bright students to support her campaign.

The audience reactions to this part was really interesting. Some argued that Mohan being a Tamil, should have known that this was going to happen and made sure that he got a letter. I think that BOTH candidates should get proper letters, since pulling a student out of a lecture is a serious thing to do, and shouldn't be done without permission. So I agree with Ananda's course of action there. In the second scene, it is made apparent that Ananda has a thing for Mihiri, and that Mihiri's milking every bit of her sexuality to get this powerful force on her side. As an audience member pointed out, Ananda is using this "Us and Them" thing as a cover to protect his own interests, or in other words his thing for Mihiri.

In the next part, the lecturer in charge of elections, Himali, confronts Ananda in the common room. Ananda accepts that he did tell the freshmen to return to classes due to the lack of proper permission, and that he doesn't like Mohan. Himali tells him that she thinks Mohan's a perfectly good candidate, and this leads him to mock her telling that she likes to think differently (or in other words, that she's not a racist like him). Preservation of interest? Dunno. It's also revealed that Ananda has been involved in several election malpractices in the past.

The audience generally agreed that Himali, as the 'elections commissioner', should've known that Ananda was trouble and taken steps to neutralise the threat before it became a problem. But having lived through countless elections, and seeing how the elections commissioner gets pushed around, most Sri Lankans would understand that this is hard business.

Now we approach (IMO) the most crucial scene. Mohan approaches an old friend (I don't remember his name so let's call him Aruna) who's a bright student and a brilliant marketer (according to Mohan). Mohan asks him to join his campaign work and do some posters for him, but Aruna refuses, citing exams coming up. Mohan does very little to empathise with Aruna, and after a few more "No"s, leaves telling him that his friend (Mihiri's thug) is here to meet him. Mihiri's thug does a much better job of empathising (or understanding) with Aruna's situation. He is facing economic hardships and his siblings are joining the uni in the near future. The thugs could really mess up his and his family's life. So Aruna is left to decide which candidate to support, his old friend or the one that has the thugs.

Now, Mohan completely dropped the ball in this one. He should've empatised with Aruna's situation and made Aruna see that the only way that his siblings could come into a thug-free campus is if Mohan gets elected. He should've basically said "Look, I'm not doing this for myself. I'm doing it for you. Do you want to be pushed around by these thugs all the time? Do you want your siblings to be pushed around? Or do you want someone clean and thug-free running the place?". He didn't, and he let Aruna and his family down by doing so.

A few minor scenes follow. Mohan complains to Himali how Ananda is interfering in the campaign and supporting Mihiri, but doesn't have any proof. Later, Mohan goes to talk to Mihiri as a friend but is given the 'Talk to my hand' by her, and gets beaten up by her thugs. The thugs later kill him or beat him up, and even though the audience interventions were supposed to change this tragic ending into a good one, I don't think we succeeded. We also ran out of time, and I think the BBites should take note of this next time they are staging an FT. :)

Not much racism to discuss, in the end. Just thuggery and a sexy candidate against a guy who can't empathise with his voters and supporters. I'm sorry you lost Mohan, but I don't think it was because you were Tamil. Seriously.

Ok, now Wagon Park. The poster lied! :( There was no Wagon Park, just Milo and Madu (the two guitarists), and you don't promise Wagon Park unless Buddhi's coming, right? That being said, the pre-play music was pretty good, just that Buddhi's Buddhi man... I don't know if he was going to come and then cancelled or something but the poster, in my humble opinion, should've said who exactly was playing. Just a thought. :) Ok, I got to know that the whole group was coming and it was a late cancellation. That being said, the music was pretty good, especially Thushara who sang two excellent covers of a Bob Dylan song (All Along the Watchtower) and a Nine Inch Nails song (Hurt, I think). Good stuff! :)

P.s. My PC's out and it still hasn't been fixed. Woe is me! :( I'm really sorry I'm missing out on you guys and your blogs... but I hope it'll be fixed within the week! :)

Also, ADSL is so bloody slow. It took ages to get this post posted and I can't load some of the other blogs even. It's due to a cable snap I hear... :/