When one thinks of entertainment for the three million Indian diaspora in the United States, one invariably thinks of Bollywood shows with stars prancing about the stage. These Bollywood shows draw large audiences, especially when they attract reigning superstars.

But away from the glitz and glamour of big Bollywood names, a small organisation has been bringing offbeat, even commercially-risky, plays to the US for about 16 years now.

Vachikam, founded by Indian-American Ketki Parekh, has taken calculated risks in promoting content-driven plays. Vachikam, Sanskrit for language and speech, has its roots in a shloka of the Poorva Rangam, which is traditionally recited before the beginning of a performance.

Over the years, Vachikam has brought to North America, plays as varied as “Tumhari Amrita”, the Indian adaption of A.R. Gurney’s play “Love Letters”, to “Maharathi” (with Paresh Rawal).

Over the years, Vachikam has brought in numerous groups performing in Hindi, Gujarati and English: “Saalgirah” (Anupam and Kiron Kher), “Mahatma versus Gandhi” (directed by Feroz Khan); “Gandhi Godse” (with Paresh Rawal); “Salesman Ramlal” (directed by Feroz Khan and based on Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”); “Ismat Apke Naam” (three one-act plays based on the short stories of Ismat Chughtai); “Kaifi Aur Main: Saga of a Poet” (with Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar); “Broken Images” (written by Girish Karnad, with Shabana Azmi); and three one-man plays by Shekhar Sen – “Kabeer”, “Vivekanand” and “Tusli”.

Most of these plays were not tailored for a mass audience and Ketki took a calculated risk, even ending up losing money on some shows. The audience would at best be a minuscule percentage of what a Bollywood show would attract, and sponsors, unwilling to take the financial risk, backed out. Moreover, in the initial years, there were no email marketing lists and she had to spend hours calling friends of friends inviting them to the show.

Ticket rates were kept low and Ketki even promised that she would refund the money if the audience felt dissatisfied. Over the years, however, she has built a loyal audience who seek something beyond the superficial fare offered by “film nights”.

In 2010, Ketki helped establish the Chicago South Asian Film Festival (CSAFF), which may have been seen as a risky endeavor, given the fact that the Midwest did not appear to have a culturally-vibrant South Asian community, unlike other cities like New York.

In six years, however, the film festival has become a major event, with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel calling it “an extraordinary partnership between the South Asian community and the arts and entertainment industry.”

The festival repertoire has expanded and it now attracts submissions from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. All the films are subtitled in English.

The entries have grown to several hundred each year, which necessitated the hiring of an expert in Mumbai to curate the entries.

Ketki’s taste for theater goes back to her days in Ahmedabad when she was a member of the Darpana Dance Academy, founded by Mrilanini Sarabhai, and participated in plays where the artists had to act and sing on the stage. Later, she did a repertory course at the National School of Drama in New Delhi.

When she moved with her husband, a businessman, to the US three decades back, she realised that the only non-filmi cultural events here were the ghazal concerts by singers like Ghulam Ali.

Initially nervous about single-handedly promoting stage shows, her confidence got a boost when India Development Service, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes social and economic development in India, asked her to organise the shows on its behalf.

“My approach has always been conservative,” Ketki told IANS, “not taking too many risks financially. I try to promise less and deliver more.” A principle she has rigorously adhered to is to always pay the artists what she promises them, a rule honored more in violation than in adherence in the show business here.

Her most rewarding experience, she said, was the staging of the play, ‘Gandhi my father’, in 1999 with a cast of seventeen. She is especially fond of working with the actor Shekar Sen. “For all his prodigious talent and versatility, his humility astounds you,” she said.

(Ashok Easwaran can be contacted at [email protected])

By Ashok Easwaran