Tuesday, Jun 28, 2022

What's In A Namesake?

"The Namesake: Casting call for extras. Wanted Bengali Males." Rarely does an email call upon not just my masculinity but my Bengaliness. So when one such came, I had to answer it...

What's In A Namesake?
What's In A Namesake?

"The Namesake: Casting call for extras. Wanted Bengali Males."

Rarely does an email call upon not just my masculinity but my Bengaliness. So when one such came, I had to answer it.

My name, my face, a love of sweets, an aversion to exercise and the body structure given me by my family's gene pool identify me as Bengali. A cursory look at me normally satisfies people that I am male.

I get off the F train at York street, the last stop before Manhattan. Mapquest leads me around a Dumbo corner into a scene so New York, I have to stop. Two tall buildings, their insides probably carved into studios, frame the eastern tower of the Manhattan bridge, massive cables saddled on its top. Right in front of me, a signboard over a doorway proclaims "Wine" in large serifed letters. It is a cellphone camera moment. I take the photo and set it as wallpaper, not deleting it till four months later - a month after I move away from New York and America for good - I decide that my cellphone needs to reflect my physical rather than my emotional location.

There is no studio at the given address, just an older Indian lady dressed in one of her most expensive sarees, clutching her cellphone in distress. The sight of my brown skin brings hope to her eyes. We confer, call the casting person. It was street not avenue. The studio is not in Dumbo at all, it is in the Navy Yard.

"I sent my driver home," says the aunty, in Punjabi accented Hindi. "He must be in Queens by now."

Her body language is clearly instructing me to take charge of the situation, so I put on a businesslike manner and ask her to walk down the street with me to a more cab friendly corner.

There isn't a cab in sight. An interrogation is launched. "Where are you from, beta?" "What do you do?" I walk her to another corner. The questions walk along. "What does your father do?" "Is your mother a housewife?" "Are you married?" I've never been happier to see a cab.

Getting into the cab, she asks me: "Hindi is your mother tongue?." "No," I say and start explaining our destination to the Russian cab driver. He demurs. I insist. He demurs. "Please brother, you must help us," she says. He agrees reluctantly and starts complaining about how difficult it is to get a fare in the Navy Yard area and how the streets are named confusingly in Brooklyn and how he is not sure he knows how to get to where we are going.

"What is your mother tongue?" aunty asks me, completely ignoring the man she had emotionally blackmailed not two minutes ago. "I'm Bengali." The wind goes out of her sails. She spends the rest of the cab ride agreeing with the cab driver that Queens is much better than Brooklyn.

Finally we reach the studio. A large unglamourous warehouse. "Isn't that Tabu?" squeals my travelling companion. Looking up, I see a famously melancholic face and its slender owner - comely in a cream coloured sari with a red border, her hair streaked white - loitering in the parking lot, smoking a cigarette.

We are led to a little room on an upper floor where the other extras are corralled. The lady with me immediately, noisily, reveals herself to be a grandmother of two: a six year old little girl with infinite energy and an infant of indeterminate sex carried by their mother - a girl in her twenties who has just managed to be shorter than her unimpressively statured husband. This husband, the son of my recent cabmate, looks much too young to be a father of two, despite his well groomed moustache.

I look around the room. As if placed there to provide a contrast to the mother's son, there is a tall yuppie-smooth doctor smiling self-confidently in the back. Engaging him in desultory conversation is a heroin-thin former Miss India New York finalist. Next to them sits a turtlenecked investment banker. He invests a lot of time in trying to start up a conversation with the sad gorgeous girl who is reading a script, self-consciously adjusting her paisley pashmina shawl from time to time.

Then there are the white folk. Two journeymen in their middle years, reposeful. An excitable older lady whose face had not recovered from its latest lift. She introduces herself as an actor's agent and hands out her card, to each and every one of us in turn. And there is Amy, young, blond, pleasant faced. This side of beautiful. She chatters excitedly with the big man who is minding us.

"I called them six times since I heard," she says. "Finally this morning I got a recorded message saying bring your headshots to audition next Tuesday."

"Yeah," he says, counting us and marking a piece of paper. "Movie. TV show. Whatever. Just as long as everyone in New York is working."

The agent lady nods in affirmation. When the minder leaves, Amy sits down between the agent lady and the two old hands. A wall of white people is completed. Amy smiles at all of us. Only the little granddaughter smiles back.

"Hey sweetie!" says Amy. "What's your name?"

The grandmother smiles now, proudly.

In front of me, making up the quorum accompanying Ashok, Ashima and their children on a fake plane from Boston to Calcutta, sit two Bengali men. Not long after I realise that this is going to be a longer wait than I had anticipated, one of these men turns to me. He is holding a list with all our names on it.

"Are you Omitabho Bagchi?" he asks, smiling broadly.

"Yes," I say.

"Are you the famous Omitabho Bagchi?"

"Ummm," I say, not wanting to deny fame outright if perhaps I have some I am unaware of.

"He looks too young?" says the other. He is not as ready with his smiles as the first.

"Are you," clarifies his companion, "the Omitabho Bagchi who topped Higher Secondary in 1963?"

A quick calculation reveals that my existence was some eleven years in the future at the time of the declaration of the results of the Higher Secondary examination of 1963. This makes it fairly easy for me to answer in the negative.

The friendly man is Mr Chatterjee and his sombre companion is one Goutam Bagchi. My surnamesake.

The conversation lingers on safe ground for a while: the dilatory nature of film shoots, rising property prices, the politics within the Indian association of a place whose name I do not catch. Finally, inevitably, I am asked what I do.

Academics know exactly what a postdoc is, everyone else doesn't. Still I persevere and manage to convey the fact that I am a researcher with a temporary position.

"What will you do after the end of June?"

"I'm going to teach," I begin.

"Oh that's very good," says Mr Goutam Bagchi.

"At IIT."

There is a pause as this information is digested.

On the other side Amy has begun playing some sort of game with the granddaughter. The granddaughter's parents are looking on, relieved, learning lessons in positive reinforcement as they watch. The doctor and the former pageant contestant have run out of things to talk about. The gorgeous girl is still looking at the script. She hasn't turned a page in half an hour.

"Very good," Mr Chatterjee says, finally. "Very good. You are going to India, very good."

There is nothing to say in response so I just smile and laugh a half laugh. I want to say "thank you" but that would mean admitting that I think I am doing something creditable, so I say nothing. To my right Goutamda turns stony faced. He's bringing the mood down, I think.

"You know, we all wanted one time or the other to go back," starts Mr Chatterjee. The mood is headed down.

"But you see," he says. "It is so difficult, you know. Not easy."

Goutamda chastises him silently. Don't show weakness to this man, he seems to be saying, he is not one of us.

Down on the set, we board an eighth of an airplane. It lacks a ceiling and one wall. Getting into the window seat still involves waiting for the aisle to clear and then slipping in uncomfortably. I fall into place and, as a reflex, fasten my seatbelt. Outside the window is a large cutout blue sky. We are far above the clouds.

The baby is well received. "How can there be an Air India flight without a wailing baby?" the director says, completely unaware of the snobbishness of her remark.

Tabu and Irfan sit in front of me, the yuppie doctor to my left with the former model. "Hold hands, or better, you lean on him, like you're a couple." Across the aisle is Kal Penn and the girl playing his sister. Beyond them is Goutamda. He sits looking out of the non-window at the assortment of stagehands and teamsters.

Mira Nair asks to see the inside of my mouth.

"Man behind Irfan," she says. "Can you sleep with your mouth open?"

Rarely does a renowned filmmaker ask me to sleep with my mouth open. So when one does, I comply.

For two hours, I sit on a fake plane going back to India from the US. Three months before I get onto an actual plane and actually go back to India after spending nine long years in the US, I sit in a fake plane for two hours going back to India from the US. The irony is so overwhelming that I don't even attempt to share it with the doctor yuppie. Besides, he is too busy playing young couple with the former Miss India New York contestant.

"What would you like to drink, Sir?" a fake flight attendant asks Kal Penn over and over for two hours. I shut my eyes, open my mouth, and fake sleep.

At lunch - a buffet style spread out on the parking lot - Tabu walks from table to table affecting a melancholy familiarity with the teamsters. Kal Penn stalks around like a man whose career is on its way up. Mira Nair is the aunty hosting the party. It is the last day of a long shooting schedule.

I try to sit next to the beautiful sad girl but the seat gets taken. Goutamda and Mr Chatterjee have closed their body language to me. Amy says hi, then walks by and sits with the teamsters. So I sit alone surrounded by crewmembers who gossip about the trade as if I don't exist.

The shrimp is great. The profiteroles even better.

A cool breeze blows across the sunny parking lot. Saris flutter, napkins fly. Across the water Manhattan is shining. A long, hard winter is near end. The gentle spring sun wafts off buildings, glides over the FDR and skips along the river to Brooklyn.

The things I have seen, the places I have been, the people I have known, the houses I have called home, all those will remain. What will not remain is the life I have lived amongst them.

I turn to see Tabu hugging a teamster. Her eyes are shut tight, like she is weeping, or trying to steal a nap.

By the time the shoot ends, we are all exhausted. We file back into the waiting room and wait for the paperwork. Amy's cheer has finally evaporated. But when her friend comes up to her, and when that friend's grandmother says "say thank you to Amy aunty," she smiles a hundred watt smile.

The former Miss India New York contestant talks about the time she shot a video for an upcoming bhangra singer. I confess to having been at that party downtown.

"So you saw me there?" she exclaims, her excitement at meeting a potential fan overriding her exhaustion. "You knew it was me all day today?"

"Yes," I admit.

"Why didn't you say anything?" she asks, neglecting to mention what exactly I could have said. She starts telling the story of how she came to shoot the video. The story involves a famous South Asian hip hop artist, a nightclub and a fight. I feel like I should be taking notes.

The sad beautiful girl has opened up to the investment banker. She is talking about how she has done a couple of independent films, about how rigourous a job waitressing is, about how her neighbourhood in Manhattan is not as lively as the one her restaurant is in, about how her parents' place in Long Island is right on the beach.

The forms come and are filled. The minder of the extras tears off the white copy and gives us the yellow one.

"You can show these as proof that you've been looking for work," he says.

The journeymen actors nod. Amy's face grows tight.

"Three of these," the facelifted agent lady tells the sad beautiful girl, "and you can apply for SAG membership."

The sad girl folds the paper carefully and puts it into her mirrorwork bag.

We wait in the evening light for the van to pick us up. The fake stewardess is chatting with one of the other Indian girls who has been buzzing around all day.

"When Mira said we need an air hostess, let's take one of the interns," says this other girl. "I was like, it's totally going to be you, Lakshmi. And you got it. That's so cool!"

The fake stewardess smiles modestly.

"Yea for you," Amy chimes in, not a hint of envy in her voice. "You went straight to being a principal."

Near the studio door the former Miss India New York contestant is standing with the yuppie doctor.

"Have you thought of being an actress?" he asks

"I think I should study some more first," she says, a cloud of seriousness coming over her daintily formed face. Then, spotting Kal Penn coming out of the studio doors, she addresses him loudly: "I loved Harold and Kumar. My mom was all like, Indian boys smoke pot? And I was like, Indian girls do too, mom. Thanks for that."

Behind Kal Penn comes Goutamda. Mr Chatterjee emerges with him. He takes out his car keys and asks Goutamda to wait. The car is parked far away, he says, in Bangla. No use both of us walking.

Goutamda sees me standing by myself, turns away, then turns back and walks up to me.

"So," he says. "You are going back."

His broad forehead glistens in the evening sun, veins snaking across his temples to his oiled, carefully combed hair. His inexpensive but well tailored suit sits comfortably on his shoulders, the unbuttoned jacket open in front, his hands clasped behind his back.

"Yes," I say.

He fixes me with an unswerving gaze and says:

"Most people stay."

The sun sinks low over Jersey south of Manhattan as a tired group of extras waits for their pickups. Goutamda's three little words have silenced me. He is turning away now. His friend will be here soon. They will drive away and I will never see him again. Except for a brief moment in The Namesake, unless our scene gets edited out. I will definitely not get to say all that I want to say. So, I take my courage in both hands, and just before he has turned away fully, I say in Bangla, "Goutamda, this common name of ours, Bagchi, where does it come from?"

"Bagchi? Umm, well, you see," he says, taken by surprise at first, then recovering. "In my village in Behrampur district, there were three families with the last name Bagchi ...."

Ten minutes later, Mr Chatterjee draws up in his car. Goutamda and I are talking animatedly, like Bengali males the world over, swapping possibly incorrect information, telling half remembered stories, making not entirely logical arguments, cutting each others sentences off in our excitement.

Rarely in the nine years I spent in America did I get an opportunity to chatter in Bengali with a total stranger. So when I got one, even if it was just for ten minutes, I took it with both hands.

Amitabha Bagchi is currently looking for a publisher willing to convert a manuscript into a debut novel.


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