In March of 2020, Arpita Mukherjee’s New York city based Hypokrit Theater Company had plans to revive filmmaker and writer Sharbari Zohra Ahmed’s “Raisins Not Virgins,” seminal play from 2003. And Mukherjee was excited. After all, it was this play that inspired her to become a theater director. But, then the pandemic hit. “I was really excited about reviving the play at NextDoor Theater workshop, but obviously we had to cancel,” Mukherjee tells Seema.
The following months were challenging, to say the least. “I was just depressed,” Mukherjee said. “I enjoy bringing people together, so it was very difficult to adjust to the pandemic along with the uncertainty that came with it.” Mukherjee’s life was in limbo. “Theater requires a lot of planning,” she points out, and given the circumstances she couldn’t plan since “you don’t know where the world is going to be.” Thankfully, she had a few TV projects in India and the U.S., which eventually eased her out of the state of limbo.
Through the idea of bringing people together and building a community, Hypokirt was born over six years ago. In these years, the multidisciplinary company has been focusing on developing work by artists of color, and is dedicated to creating spaces for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, (and) People of Color) artists and producing work that appeals to a nontraditional theater going audience.
“It’s been a great adventure,” Mukherjee says. “I am really proud of the work we have done, the artists whose work we have nourished, the relationships they have built, and we are proud of the audience and the community we have built.” Hypokrit also develops television and film content.
Mukherjee, co-founded the theater company in 2014 along with Shubhra Prakash. “We founded Hypokrit because we felt that our community, the South Asian community specifically, and many other marginalized communities as well, were not invited to see live American theater, even in New York,” Mukherjee says. “Even the shows that were produced weren’t really catered to our experience or to the experience of most minority communities in New York,” she adds. “So our goal was always to sort of seek out audiences and tell stories of people who don’t feel represented in theater.”
Hypokrit works with “artists of color across the board,” but when it came to their South Asian content, Mukherjee says it was really important that they showcase the diversity of South Asian voices. “Not a single South Asian experience is like the other. So we enjoy telling stories of different South Asian perspectives.”
Mukherjee is currently directing “The Bollywood Kitchen,” an interactive show by cookbook author and television writer Sri Rao. It’s part of Geffen Playhouse’s virtual Geffen Playhouse series, in association with Hypokrit. In the virtual and interactive show, Rao cooks his signature chicken curry on camera and takes the audience on a personal journey of his family’s immigrant experience.
Mukherjee was working with Rao on a musical version of “The Bollywood Kitchen,” based on a cookbook by Rao by the same name. Mukherjee was thrilled to work on the project “because I have always wanted to display Bollywood and strike an emotional chord amongst Indian Americans.” The musical was replete with Bollywood music, original music, and the food component. But, the pandemic stalled the musical and so began talks of virtual theater. The idea of converting “Bollywood Kitchen” in a virtual format seemed daunting to Mukherjee, but eventually it all worked out.
“Sri was so unique really in terms of being able to tie food, a really personal story and Bollywood and all the emotional resonance to it,” she says, and adds, “Hypokrit’s involvement seemed so natural and a part of our mission, part of the work we do, and what our audience wants to see.”
Muherjee is aware that showcasing the work of South Asian artists also attracts a South Asian audience. “You can’t really support great work by a South Asian artist without having people in the audience who understand that experience,” she says. “Otherwise you are always explaining.”
She believes that what makes Hypokrit stand apart is “the world we create captures humanity of what it means, and it’s not work that is explaining us to other people. It’s like being and existing and I think the community feels involved and excited about representation.”
Mukherjee says that while Hypokrit has “a lot of South Asians,” their audience is still diverse. “A lot of our folks are younger, BIPOC, professionals, so the audience is diverse, but there’s definitely a core South Asian audience.”
When Mukherjee and Prakash formed the company, they envisioned Hypokrit to be a Classics company, since Mukherjee is more of a Shakespeare director. “I was really glad that once we hit 2015 we changed that and now we highlight work that has not seen the light of day before,” she says. “We also do work that maybe a decade or so ago didn’t get noticed at the time,” she says. “So [we are] reintroducing what we believe are classics.”
The company will soon announce a virtual 2021 season, Mukherjee says. Working during the pandemic in a virtual setting brings its own set of challenges, but it all makes it worth her while as she watches the artists adapt, and become incredibly creative and innovative.” And although everyone is working remotely, as opposed to being together on the sets, “somehow the magic exists in the synergy of all of us working together,” she says. “I do miss being with people in person, but it’s still quite lovely. I feel very lucky to be able to work right now, so my perspective has shifted from March.”
Mukherjee has been directing theater for 10 years, but with the introduction of remote and virtual interaction she feels as if she has just grasped what directing in theater is and now has to adapt to an entirely new way.” She calls it a mixture of TV and theater. “What people see on stage or screen is this collaborative effort of people.” In every endeavor she seriously considers who she would like on board the project.
Mukherjee and the Hypokrit team have another splendid season to look forward to and continue working on the vision and ethos of the company.
Read about another South Asian performing artist, and stand up comedian Zarna Garg.