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The Universal Language of Cinema: Fulbright Scholar-In-Residence Abhijit Chowdhury Shares Expertise across Region

By Jeffrey Stanley

February 13, 2024

On the last weekend in January, Drexel’s Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence Abhijit Chowdhury gave a two-day workshop for members of Kushilob, an eastern Pennsylvania-based Bengali language community theatre group. Known for chiefly premiering their own original works, their most recent production was their bilingual, participatory 2023 Philly Fringe show Shikhandi: A Warrior Across Ages. The play was a timely exploration of transgender issues in professional sports using a tale from the ancient Indian epic Mahabarata as a springboard, followed by lively audience talkbacks with the ensemble’s collaborative writer-performers.

Chowdhury, an independent film director and screenwriter from Kolkata, West Bengal, India, who writes films in his native Bengali language, most commonly called Bangla, is especially well-known to the Philadelphia area’s Bengali community.  At Drexel, he is being hosted by the Screenwriting & Playwriting program in the Department of Cinema & TV at the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

On day one of the workshop, Chowdhury focused on engaging the group in a participatory storytelling game, then discussed the concept of boiling down a story to a one-sentence plot synopsis to help the creator sharpen their intended storyline. They worked together on these “loglines,” as they are called in the film industry, but he challenged the group by not having them boil down a movie plot but to try it first with complex, ancient Indian epics as a group exercise. Later, he explained story structure common to most movies around the globe, and then had them identify the plot structures of their favorite films and discuss whether they adhered to dominant storytelling norms or broke with them.

On day two, he focused on historic, tried-and-true cinematic storytelling techniques, how he utilizes some of them in his own work, the differences between stage and film acting, and his own ways of working with actors on his film productions. He pointed out that film itself may be art, but that producing a film involves many other artforms as well, from writing to acting to costume design to set design to lighting and editing.

His thesis was simple: the concept of collaboration to complete a final piece of art applies not only to cinema but to other forms of storytelling including the stage, meaning in this case Kushilob’s own productions. “I can show an audience the importance of family life, or that family life is materialistic, or spiritual, or any other meaning,” he explained in recapping the workshop, “which starts with writers and directors, but the thought is only completed by the emotional and intellectual participation of the audience.”

Kushilob’s founder and artistic director Kaushik Roy Choudhury started the company in 2016 and opened it to anyone who wanted to act and who spoke fluent Bangla. “That’s how we started, but we are moving towards accepting people who are not comfortable speaking Bangla,” he said, “hence our recent bilingual Philly Fringe production.” The ability to speak fluent Bangla is not required for membership, but having some sense of Indian culture and Indian life is beneficial, he said, because most of their productions address some angle of Indian society. “We challenge those angles,” he stressed, “especially the age-old sentiments and how they relate to modern day realities, both in modern India and in the Indian diaspora in the US.” He added that although he has written some of their plays in the past, “we often build from ideas that we generated on the floor in our own conversations in rehearsals. In that sense, everyone in our group becomes a writer.”

Why did they approach Abhijit in particular to lead a workshop? “Obviously, we are familiar with his work, but we also knew of his awareness of world cinema and world theatre. We were aware of his expertise around the craft of storytelling through drama and we thought, how can we leverage his stay at Drexel and learn from that expertise, so we reached out to him.”

Much of Abhijit Chowdhury’s work can be viewed on the Hoichoi streaming platform. Available worldwide through its website, the Kolkata-based company caters chiefly to native Bangla speakers in Indian states neighboring the Bay of Bengal as well as the country of Bangladesh, and of course the worldwide Bangla-speaking diaspora. Hoichoi’s English language subtitles and overdubbing into multiple Indian languages have made Chowdhury’s films and streaming series popular across India and around the globe.

In addition to teaching two courses at Drexel during his two-quarter residency, Chowdhury has screened his works and held discussions with Westphal’s Film & Television students and is scheduled for appearances at UPenn, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and as part of the Saraswati Puja cultural program at the Hindu Temple of Hockessin, Delaware.  Additionally, Drexel’s President Fry will host a university-wide reception for Mr. Chowdhury in March.