“What do you do when home is in two places?”
Indo-Canadian theatre artist Ankita Kumar-Ratta grew up in Canada and then moved, somewhat reluctantly, to India as a young adult to live with extended family and find her cultural roots. She has ingeniously turned her sense of cultural displacement into a one-woman show called ‘Undercover Indian’, a witty, laugh-out-loud take on the search for identity and belonging.
Ankita plays all nine key characters in her story, from her visually impaired, 87-year-old Indian grandmother to the unreliable young man she falls in love with. ‘Undercover Indian’ is ultimately a play about the confusion and beauty of identifying with two worlds, and it’s a brilliant example of how one person’s intimate, real-life experiences can have universal appeal when conveyed with playfulness and pathos.
‘Undercover Indian’ premiered in Toronto, and had performances in India in early 2018.
CATRIONA MITCHELL: Ankita, you were raised as a Canadian, but your parents had strong ties to India, and they wanted you to live in India for a while to put you in touch with your roots. What kind of culture shock did you experience in your early days there?
ANKITA KUMAR-RATTA: I didn’t grow up in a joint family, and I liked the element of routine that came with it. Of course, there was a certain restriction in freedom, because I couldn’t just think about what I wanted to do; I had to think about how what I wanted would fit into the flow of the home where I was living.
I’m a big night owl so it also took a bit of time for me to warm up to being at home most evenings.
One time I forgot to put my diary away in my room and left for work. Every now and then, my aunt would check my room to make sure it was tidy and I was horrified that she might see it. This whole obsession with privacy and giving someone space is actually pretty Western. Being in India made me realize that we’re hyper sensitive about it.
Ankita Kumar-Ratta in the role of her granfather in ‘Undercover Indian’
Did you bump up against sexual mores as a free-thinking, modern young woman who found herself in a conservative social environment?
I don’t know where people have sex in India since everyone lives at home and there’s no privacy. You have to get creative.
While I was in India, people would often openly share stories with me about their thoughts when it came to sex. I guess a lot of people felt like I was a safe space to share, since being “sexual liberally” or whatever you want to call it, is definitely something the West is known for.
To me the most moving part of your story was your sense of culture shock on moving back to Canada, after India. This caused you to look at North American culture through a new lens. Why was it hard to go back?
In India, people love to talk and there’s a lot of social interaction. When I came back to Canada, I noticed people wanting to leave conversations. Social interaction was harder. People were always ‘busy.’
I felt underwhelmed when I came back. Being in India, I was always very stimulated by my environment, and even though I was active in Toronto and did a lot of things, I liked the challenge and adventure of being in India. In comparison, Canada really felt like the land of “build your own adventure or risk not having one” (a line I say in the show).
Will it always cause you internal conflict, to feel that you belong to two worlds – and perhaps fully to neither one?
Sometimes I feel very pulled to India, and other times I feel pulled back to Canada. Being in both places has been integral to my artistic growth. Sure, it’s been conflicting at times but I’ve come to realize how incredible it is to feel a sense of belonging in two very different worlds.
At what point did you decide to turn this sense of ‘being torn’ into a performance? Why did you want to tell it comically?
When I came back from India, I knew I needed to process what I’d been through. It was my Mom who suggested I take a class with Tracey Erin Smith, the founder of SOULO Theatre Company, a company based in Toronto that specializes in teaching people how to tell their true story onstage.
I wanted it to be a comedy, because I wanted to make people think through laughter. The show has been called a dark comedy, and I can see why.
While writing your story, how did you strike the right balance between sharing your pain, while not going too deeply into vulnerability? Did you deliberate about divulging details that might invite judgment, such as using marijuana to numb your pain on your return to Canada?
It took time for me to understand the difference between what stories needed to be told and what stories needed to be heard. I only thought about divulging details when it came to my Mom seeing the show, but I wasn’t addicted to marijuana anymore, so it wasn’t as scary.
Actually doing the show helped me work through my addiction, because I had to be super organized to put the show up – and when you smoke up, it can be great yes and I’m still a supporter – but it’s not the real world. You need to come back to the real world to be productive.
The part about weed is an unexpected turn in the story – and I’m glad it’s there. It’s a truth, and I think it needs to be talked about. Anyone who’s judged me for it hasn’t told me to my face.
Ankita Kumar-Ratta performing her show. Left: at a workshop as part of the Shen Development series in Toronto at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Right: at Yatra Arts Media during a run of the show in the Auroville / Pondicherry area in India.
Your use of mime and dance in the show is brilliant, adding to both the sense of comedy and liveliness. What role does the body play for you, in conveying a story that touches audiences?
Movement has always been a very important part of my life – my mother is a kathak dancer, so she encouraged me to dance since I was young. Understanding how to effectively tell stories through movement, mime and gesture is something I’ve been actively working on as a performer.
I do believe that movement is an unspoken language, and I use it to tell my audience things that are otherwise hard to describe in words.
Do you think that the authenticity in your play – it being inspired by real, lived experience – is something the audiences recognise and respond to? Does this enhance the audience’s emotional experience?
Yes, I really think it does. Hearing a true story onstage is a very powerful experience.
What role do you see humour playing in the world today – a world so full of suffering? Is comedy an effective prescription for pain?
Absolutely! Laughter is the best medicine. Comedy is a great way to talk about pain, deal with it, and move forward from it. It can be a great tool.
For more information on Ankita Kumar-Ratta and Undercover Indian, see here.