Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai on playing an Indian stewardess in Boeing Boeing: “She is funny, not because the accent is funny”
Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai's joining the mile high club at the end of this month, but she's doing so responsibly. As one of the leads in Boeing Boeing, W!LD RICE's production of the French comedy, Dorai plays Air India stewardess Jayanthi, one of the three girlfriends of a playboy. According to the 26-year-old actress, Jayanthi has an Indian accent and even an "Indian walk", something she elaborated further during our phone conversation last week. I had just caught her after a lunch break, one and a half weeks into rehearsal.
Last month, you couldn't go anywhere without someone — or even yourself — bringing up Singaporean actor Shrey Bhargava's viral Facebook post. In it, the actor recounted his experience auditioning for Jack Neo's next installment of Ah Boys To Men, where a casting director called for Bhargava to "be a more full-blown Indian man". It fuelled much-needed conversations between the majority and minority races on the importance of an honest representation of the latter in local media. While the controversy has seemingly died down, it showed where Singapore stands as a society when racial discrimination reared its ugly head.
Which is why it piqued my curiosity when W!LD RICE announced their staging of Boeing Boeing, which will start its run on 23 June. Theatre regulars Judee Tan, Oon Shu An, Rodney Oliveiro and Shane Mardjuki also star in this 1960 comedy, which has been staged thrice: In 2002 at the Jubilee Hall, 2005 at the Victoria Theatre and in 2010 at the Drama Centre Theatre. In fact, director Pam Oei was part of the casts in the 2002 and 2005 productions. Internationally, Boeing Boeing has won Tony Awards and was even adapted into a 1985 Malayalam film.
Rebekah Sangeetha who?
While Dorai might not have the star power — yet — of top billed names such as Tan and Oon, the actress has been in the industry since the age of nine. She studied stage management alongside acting, and has been in professional theatre for five years. You might have even heard the voiceover artist in a Colgate commercial. The multi-hyphenate also sings. Seeking out diverse roles, Dorai has played the likes of a refugee, characters from both the Quran and the Bible, and Lady Macbeth in LASALLE productions. In celebration of one of her favourite quotes from the Shakespeare classic, she had the phrase "What is done cannot be undone; what's done is done" tattooed in Hindi.
"I really wanted it to be in Tamil," shared the actress of her left forearm tattoo. "But unfortunately Tamil sentences are very long, so instead of a simple tattoo it could become a sleeve tattoo — so I decided to get it in Hindi. My grandmother, who also has a tattoo on her forearm, inspired it. Hers is of serial numbers, something she got during the war."
Racking up Air India miles
Adding to her growing resume is Jayanthi, who Oei had described as a force of nature, according to Dorai. "She's unapologetic, comes in like a hurricane and goes off like a typhoon," she said of the character. "Jayanthi has an Indian accent, has an Indian walk and style but above all, she's a human being like everybody else. She has real feelings and that's something I find so amazing about playing her."
In reading and performing the character, Dorai revelled in the opportunity to talk about who she is, her love, her aspirations, her drive and her feelings. You'll be hard-pressed to find any similarities between the actor and her stage character. "To be honest, Jayanthi really freaks me out," she laughed. "She's actually very exciting but also at the same time, very daunting, because she's this huge person with a big personality, but at the same time she's also very rational. She has so much confidence and I remember thinking, 'Wow, that's not me'".
When we approached the subject of research, I jokingly asked if Dorai had watched Britney Spears' Toxic music video for any inkling into the life of an air stewardess. Thankfully, the actress' groundwork took a different route. She travelled to four different countries on a solo trip and flew six different planes via Vietnam Airlines, Korean Air and Air Asia, observing crew life on board. She saw how they worked, walked, talked, and what mattered and frustrated them.
Walking the talk
While the Indian accent came easy to Dorai, the biggest challenge for her was to carve out a woman who is not a caricature. She had a long chat with director Oei about what kind of accent they were going to put on, which region Jayanthi was from (because not all regions are the same), what language she would be speaking and the gestures she would be making.
"She's not just an accent", Dorai surmised. "She speaks like that but she's a real woman, an intelligent woman." As for the "Indian walk" that Dorai mentioned earlier, it had much to do with the mechanics in the way Indian women in saris walk. The way the garment hangs on the body makes you walk a certain way, much like how wearing high heels or loafers alters the way you strut.
I mentioned Bhargava's audition experience — which involved him putting on an Indian accent —and whether it impacted Dorai. "There are moments when I tell myself that there's so much more to this woman," she commented. "She is funny, not because the accent is funny."
Dorai shared that when actors are faced with scripts that are not as well crafted, they are asked to embellish with caricature to make the characters funnier than they actually are. "If you already have a well-polished script and characters that have depth, it's a lot more witty as opposed to reaching for caricature to make things funny."
With its diverse cast, attention to character development and responsible representation, W!LD RICE's Boeing Boeing is the last place you'll find cheap laughs — here's hoping.
Boeing Boeing runs from 23 June to 22 July at Victoria Theatre. Book tickets.
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