India Night 2009: Bollywood comes to Foellinger

Suraj+Nellikar+%28Right%29%2C+a+graduate+student+in+engineering+and+a+member+of+the+Mithya+performance+group%2C+practices+the+part+of+Obama+on+Monday+evening+at+a+rehearsal+for+a+play+which+he+and+his+group+will+be+present+on+India+Night.%0A

Suraj Nellikar (Right), a graduate student in engineering and a member of the Mithya performance group, practices the part of Obama on Monday evening at a rehearsal for a play which he and his group will be present on India Night.

By Hannah Hess

When the curtains of Foellinger Auditorium open Saturday night, Seema Kamath will grace the stage for her fifth India Night performance. The first year graduate student swung her hips to South Asian beats in dance sequences as an undergraduate, but for India Night 2009, Kamath showcases a different talent.

“I’ve done Indian themes in dancing. Now this year I’ll apply Indian themes to acting,” she said Monday night after a rehearsal of the 8-minute skit “Indian Family Guy Gets a Visitor.”

The skit is written, directed and performed by members of Mithya, a new dramatics RSO that focuses on Indian subjects and characters. The popular animated sitcom “Family Guy” inspired the India Night performance. The plot centers on a fictional trip by President Obama to explore grassroots India, as well as his encounters with an Indian version of the show’s main characters, the Griffin family.

Sibin Mohan, a post-doctoral researcher at the University who co-wrote the script said he chose to base the skit around the FOX TV show because the style of comedy works well in both Indian and American contexts.

“Indian comedy is all about sarcastic one-liners and really focuses on the dialogue,” Mohan said. “Here, there is physical comedy involved.” Saturday night’s performance offers a taste of both witty dialogue about the President’s “stimulating package” and an embarrassing trip and fall by Kamath, in character as the Griffin’s awkward daughter Meg.

Blending South Asian and American cultures comes naturally to Mohan, who came to the U.S. six years ago at the age of 23 after growing up in India. Mithya’s membership is not restricted to Indian students.

“The group was started by Indian students and it’s always good to expand and get more cultural flavor,” said Vrashank Shukla, a graduate student who dons a cow suit—complete with udders—to play the Griffin’s family pet. He described his take on the sitcom’s character Brian, a talking dog, as “hilarious.”

Shukla said he is not a “hardcore actor” but like the other performers in Mithya, he did receive some formal training. The group coordinated a theatre workshop in early February with two professors in the University’s Theatre Department. Associate professor of acting Robert Anderson led the group in stage movement, acting and performance exercises. Later in the day Robert Ramirez, an assistant professor of acting, conducted a vocal warm-up and speaking exercises.

“We used the workshop as a sort of generic audition to figure out our main actors,” Mohan said. Actors make up about half of the 40-person Mithya while the rest of the members work on projects such as lighting, sound and costuming, he said.

“The cast of ‘Indian Family Guy Gets a Visitor’ is 12 characters,” said Apeksha Godiyal, a graduate student who plays the mother in Saturday’s performance. “With the people working on projection picture displays behind the stage and the lights and music we have 19 people involved.”

Godiyal said she hopes that the group will eventually have the resources to expand and make more extensive productions.

“In India even comedies are full-fledged 40 or 50 minute plays, not skits,” she said.

Champaign-Urbana is a good environment for Mithya’s productions to expand, Godiyal said. “There is a large Indian community here and the theatre community is really big.”

As for upcoming projects, group members say they intend to work on a short movie and hope to begin filming this summer.

“Right now we are actively looking for a good script,” said Mohan. He added that Mithya is also seeking to expand their membership.

“We’re looking for people who are interested in writing and directing, people who want to learn about theatre along with us,” he said.

At India Night 2009, Kamath expects a positive reception from the South Asian cultural community. She said the plot highlights the “idiosyncrasies of living as an Indian and the stereotypes of Indian-American life,” and includes “funny exploitations of Indian culture that both younger and older crowds can relate to.”