There are many privileges of being born Bengali.
I can live in a glorious past. I can appreciate Ray without subtitles. I can marvel at the Ma Maati Manush alliterative chchondo of Didi’s poems, by the grace of Ma Sharda. I can tremble my voice during elocution. I can consider telebhaja to be an industry.
And most of all, I can derive pride from the awesomeness of the new viral meme.
For those not fortunate to have been born in whatever the state is now called Bengal, let me explain what Mem Bou is.
Mem Bou is a series to be aired on Star Jalsa, around the same time that the Blair Witch Project comes out, and I shall say it is no co-incidence. Only two teaser trailers have been shown to the world, and the combined 100 seconds of their run-times have been enough to imprint it indelibly on the psyche of the global Bengali, like the “Maine makhon nahee khaiyo” innocent face of the released-on-bail Trinamool-heavyweight Madan Mitra, and the paunch of Ranjit Mullick, creasing out from his tight police uniform in “Indrajeet”.
In the first of these teaser trailers, a lady is taking pictures on the streets of Bongland when a Bangali gentleman, whose eyes start overemoting even before he says a word, gets angry that “these foreigners” are engaged in poverty tourism. The camera then focuses on the the said foreigner.
It’s a lady, who looks like someone put Monali Thakur outside in the sun, like pishimas do to dry boris, and then someone spread moida (flour) over face to make her look “white”, and if that was not enough, put a blonde wig (which looks like it was yanked off the back of a raccoon) on her scalp, and if you believe she is Caucasian at that point, you also believe that some stranger wants to transfer 100 million dollars to your bank account, even though he has misspelled your name. Then she speaks, in a Bangla accent that would make Bob Christo hit his bald pate on brick, and with such sweetness that would break Somnath Bharti’s xenophobic heart, “Haapni keee bolchen, shob bhideshira yekrokom howe naaaaa”.(What are you saying? Not all foreigners are alike) After that, she reaches out and says, in what Bengalis think is an Amreekan accent, “Hi I am Carol” and if this was during Christmas we could have called it “Christmas Carol” and broken Tiny Tim’s heart all over again.
In the second trailer, said Mem Bou is attending what seems to be Durga Pujo at someone’s house, when the matriarch crunches her face, and angrily points out that the presence of the “phiringi” has made the house unholy, which sums up pretty much the Bengal government’s attitude towards foreign industry. The hero holds her arm dramatically, and just when you think he is going to stand up to the matriarch, he , like the Bengali boy he is, actually turns to the mem bou and admonishes her for coming to their place on this day. To which she makes a face like the one one makes after having too many oily begoonis for snacks, and says “Haami buj”t’ei pyaari nae, haami sorry, “t”umra kyano hamaare beedyeshi byole dyure “t”hyele dao” (I didn’t understand, I am sorry, why do you push me away because I am a foreigner), after which she becomes the head of the Congress party, but that I am sure will be revealed in the next teaser.
Needless to say, there has been much chatter over this, over Whatsapp and in living rooms, over the source of the accent, the provenance of the blonde wig, and how many luchchis can be made from the flour that has been put on the Mem Bou’s face, and whether this is the official end of the Bengali “We are intellectually evolved” hubris.
Unlike many other Bengali uncle and mashimas of my age though, I am more Bullah-ish about “Mem Bou”, because I see it in the potential of “Chowdhury Pharmaceuticals”.
For those millennials, who have no idea of what I am referring to, “Chowdhury Pharmaceuticals” was the defining Bengali TV serial of my age, something so epic that even Satyajit Ray watched it regularly, or so we are told. Starring Subroto Mukherjee, then Congress and now Trinamool heavyweight and MoonMoon Sen, then state treasure and now Trinamool heavyweight, and as villain, George Baker, then the token “saheb” of Bengali film industry and now BJP politician, it had controversial scenes shot at Tolly Club, of not only Moon-square in swimsuit, but also of Subroto Mukherjee, a combined cornucopia of skin and flab that strained the flesh-tone rendering of early color TVs, like Bangali Jon Snow and Ygritte in the water of the cave but a bit more disturbing, dialogues like “Don’t be shentimental, be practical” and “Ami tomar chuler gora theke nokher aga porjonto chai” (I want you, from the root of your hair to the edge of your nails), lines that have stood the test of time, and sequences like where Subroto Mukherjee angrily tries to put a pen inside a pen-stand, and the pen bounces away and the camera keeps rolling. [Diptakirti has more here]
I know I may be pre-mature but I think I have found in the actress who plays “Mem Bou”, Vinita Chatterjee, a bit of MoonMoon. Ever since MoonMoon Sen went over to the world of politics, opining on how to look glamorous while campaigning in the heat and the appropriate use of gamcha, and other matters of national importance only she can handle, there has been a lacuna in the Bengali popular sphere, of actresses with the Moonmoonian dialogue delivery style, the regular use of phrases like “bhishon bhaabe”, that indescribable nyakamo or faux-feminity that MoonMoon made her trademark , and the confidence.
Some of that style and panache pours forth here, where she discusses her absolutely busy schedule and her top-of-line projects including roles opposite Harman Baweja’s brother, and how, had her talent not been discovered at a party, she would have gone on to become the next Barkha Dutt, a possibility that makes me want to thank the persons who unearthed her even more.
But what makes me happy about Mem Bou is that this is time for payback. For decades, Hollywood has made Caucasian actors do brown-face, and made them speak in a sing-song Indian accent, that is evidently inauthentic but which serves the purpose of feeding into the Western stereotype of the coolie trying to speak the proper tongue, a stereotype perpetrated from Peter Sellers to Mike Myers. And now the tables have been turned, with a very obviously Bengali-Indian, using white-face and blonde-wig and bad accent to do unto others what have done unto us.
Like Ganguly’s bare-bodied desecration of the holiest of holies of the English was a generational middle-finger at British snobbery and superiority, this is a defining counter-salvo at decades of cultural appropriation and biased casting.
Which is why I stand with Mem Bou.
Or to put it more appropriately, Mem Bou, haamra “t”umar songe dyanriye yaachi.