How does one fit into the shoes of the protagonist in a play about the history of forced prostitution by the Japanese during the Second World War? By "being a woman, before being an actor", says Gargee Dutta, who has been nominated for the Best Actor in a Lead Role (Female) at the 13th edition of Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) 2018 later this month.
As many as 2,00,000 women were forced into prostitution, brutally beaten, raped and held as prisoners by the Japanese military during the war. They were commonly referred to as "Comfort Women", also the title of the play that Dutta stars in.
Her role is that of a girl named Sarengla -- a simple village girl residing in a small hamlet somewhere in the Tangkhul hills on the Indo-Burmese border. Her marriage is fixed with her lover Rishang, who is also from the same village. In the meantime, another villager, Vedisili, who is on good terms with the Japanese, tries to lure Serengla to the other side with the intention of selling her.
When she refuses, she is taken by the Japanese Army and is forced into prostitution, resulting in her losing her lover, Rishang, who refuses to accept her.
"The play is about the trauma that she has to go through every night during her days as a comfort woman," Gargee said.
How exactly did Gargee, who has been felicitated with the Young Artist Scholarship by India's Ministry of Culture, go about preparing herself to fit into the shoes of Sarengla?
"Being a women, before being an actor -- it is extremely painful for me to get attached, as well as to detach myself from, the character. The transformation of a girl who romanticises youth in the spring of her life to the character who is forced to become a comfort woman, the trauma of failure, to escape from the cruel hands of Japanese Army -- to finally escape (only to) be rejected by the villagers and her lover Rishang.
"I had to constantly discuss my character with the director to prepare for my role. I also watched documentaries on comfort women and consulted psychiatrists to get into the mind and psyche of Sarengla. I also had to study the mannerisms of a woman from that era by watching videos and studying them on the internet," Gargee elaborated.
She started her journey as an actor under the guidance of eminent theatre personalities such as Pakija Begum, Baharul Islam and Bhagirathi Bai Kadam. So far she has acted in about 20 plays at various platforms across the country and done two regional feature films.
She maintained she is not sure with what level of authenticity she has been able to get into Sarengla's character.
"Being a woman myself, my experience is very emotional and enlightening at the same time. It was tough for me to put myself in the shoes of a comfort woman, that too (from an earlier) era. It was emotionally and mentally a draining experience," she elaborated.
At the same time, Gargee also expressed hope that while Sarengla was not accepted by her lover or society when she returned, the times have now changed and modern society would learn to unconditionally accept such victims.
The one-hour-fifteen-minute Assamese play will be performed at Shri Ram Centre on Sunday, April 15.