On the road to stardom: our day of glory on Bangla TV

Eid-al-Fitr has passed, Ramadan feels like a distant memory, and Dhaka has filled up again, after the bi-annual holiday exodus.

My Bangladeshi friends and colleagues have come back to the big city from their villages, laden with regional mishti specialties (sweets), backyard-grown fruit and much-prized, free-range deshi chicken.  My bideshi buddies are back from their 2-week backpacking trips to Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangkok or Jordan; their souvenirs silver jewellery, golden tans, expensive cheese and cheap dental work.

Those of us who were left behind, luxuriating in the quiet streets and a 4-day weekend, are happy to have our friends back, but quietly wishing everyone else would stay away so we can keep sleeping in, reading in the sunshine and walking to the shops without being beeped at. Life is back to normal again.

But something has shifted. Over the break, we became mega-stars. Because Eid means Ittadi, and Ittadi means untold fame. And this year, Ollie and I are in it.

Move over J-Law, I’ve got this.

Ittadi is Bangladesh’s biggest TV variety show. Hosted and directed by huge local celebrity Haneef Sanket and running for over 25 years, it’s aired on the National  TV station every 3 months as a kind of 2-hour festival of skits, music, parodies, dubbed American movie segments and general celebration of Bengali humour, culture and arts. Every year at Eid, one of the most loved segments is aired: a short, insane teleplay about village life, featuring foreign actors dressed in rural costume and speaking Bangla.

While I like to think that being cast in this televised miracle reflects our innate photogenicity, glamour and acting talent, it’s pretty common for foreigners living in Asia to be asked to participate in reality TV shows, turn up on billboards, or feature in ads for mobile phones. At this point I should probably acknowledge that it’s not always just a novelty, and sometimes there’s an uncomfortable colonial/white-privilege element to this. Ittadi isn’t immune  – some of my foreign friends of South Asian extraction were turned away, despite wanting to participate and the casting being generally pretty open to all and sundry. This sucks.

However, at its heart, Ittadi is a send-up: it’s about the thrill of seeing us privileged white people taking on the role of the rural Bengali everyman – the guys in plaid lunghi and gumcha, the women in cotton sharees, everyone speaking an awkward and sometimes butchered version of village Bangla. Every Bengali I’ve spoken to about it loves it.

And every Bengali I’ve asked watches it. The Eid Special gets over 18 million viewers – that’s equivalent to the entire population of Chile. This is huge. This is as famous as we’re ever going to be.

After a week or so of hilarious rehearsals, on a drizzly monsoonal Friday in late May, at 6am Ollie and I climbed onto one of a herd of minibuses with about 40 other bideshis and drove to Haneef’s house and studio in Savar, north of Dhaka, where we got costumed out and practiced some of the dance steps we’d learned the week before. Then we headed further out of town to Haneef’s country house, where we spent the day filming, sweltering, dancing, getting rained on, eating biryani and having a grand old time.

The plot is about a man who loses his goat. Along with his wife, he searches for it until he finds it at the house of another villager. While an ineffectual local politician campaigns for reelection, the village is torn into two camps, eventually rising to fever pitch in an all-out stick battle over the goat. All is forgiven when two young people announce their love – and in true Bengali fashion, the show finishes with a wedding.

Without further ado, here are the fruits of our labour. Watch out for a curly-haired man yelling at a goat (Ollie’s crowning moment) and Villager Number 2’s Wife (scene 1, orange sharee) – I hear she’s a standout:

Thank you, thank you – I’ll be collecting my Academy Award later. Here are some pics the paparazzi took while we were filming – if you need me I’ll be in my trailer.

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A very deshi engagement

Two months ago, Bangladesh experienced something that hadn’t happened here for the better part of a decade: the entire country lost power. Those people lucky enough to usually have access to electricity (about 60% of the country) suddenly wondered how to function. Efficiency plummeted. Generators were powered up and then exhausted. To the dismay of my sweet-toothed driver, ice cream melted.

And quietly, but with much joy, in a small flat in Banani, something else happened.

Ollie and I have been together for about five and a half years now. We’ve talked about getting married, talked about not getting married, talked about waiting for marriage equality, about the sexism of marriage as an institution, about what we’d call our kids, where we’d live and who’d do the tax returns. We’d even been calling each other husband and wife since we arrived in the Desh – it’s just easier that way. But most importantly, we’ve known for a long time that a long time is what we want together – and the rest would sort itself out. As Joni Mitchell would sing, ‘We don’t need no paper from the city hall/ Keeping us tied and true’. (Thanks Joni.)

So after all that talking, and after starting to consider how I might propose to him, I was impressed that Ollie was still able to surprise me.

The country’s power had already been down for a few hours and we were getting ready to go to a friend’s wedding holud. While Ollie got dressed up in his punjabi-pajama outfit, I raced to sort out my sharee and makeup before the sun went down and I lost the light. I didn’t quite make it and we started lighting candles around the house. Just as we were ready to head out the door, we got a call from my friend asking us to come an hour later to give her family time to get the generator up and running. With no electricity and an hour to kill before we left, we put some music on Ollie’s phone and had a dance around the dark house.

I later found out that months before, Ollie had asked my wonderful friend and talented jewellery designer Sarah Mills to create a ring for me, and since it had been hand-delivered by some friends who came to visit us in Bangladesh weeks prior, he had been holding onto it, waiting for the right moment.

Now, Dhaka’s not a very romantic city. Finding the ‘right moment’ was turning out to be more difficult than he’d thought, and he was beginning to wonder if going out for dinner and having average sushi would be the best we could manage. But dancing around in all our finery, surrounded by lit candles surely qualified. He disappeared for a moment and reappeared with a small antique jar. I thought it was just a nice present he had picked up for me at the second-hand markets, but I opened it, realised I was wrong, and burst into happy tears. (After a big hug, he had to remind me that it’s traditional to respond.)

Some amazing friends of ours (who had also got engaged in the Desh – we’re treading a well-worn path here!) threw us a fabulous engagement party in true Deshi wedding style, even carrying us both into the party on a gold throne, to the tune of Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’ (Ollie came in first and I got the grand entrance, emerging in my sparkly splendour right on cue for *that* drum solo). A friend from work gave me a beautiful red sari (because no wedding event is right without a red sari) and a metric tonne of bling, while another mate helped me pick up a maharaja hat and curly-toed slippers from New Market to make sure Ollie was up to scratch. Up on our roof in Banani, we danced and drank and sang til late.

Thanks to everyone who helped, came and made it so special – we won’t forget it any time soon (and neither will the neighbours). xxx

SKs and mainstays: What to wear in the Desh (for women)

Clothes are a huge part of culture and, somehow, knowing what people put on their bodies and what they wear as they go about their daily lives helps us to understand what that life is like.

Loads of people from home have asked me ‘what do you wear?’ – and I know that was a huge question I had before I left for Bangladesh. Travellers know that women are often expected to change the way they dress when travelling or living in a different culture – often more so than men – in order to be culturally sensitive. So what do you pack? What should you expect? Is it necessary to wear local clothes? How easy is it to make the transition? Does it feel like wearing a costume? Is it comfortable?

So here’s my low-down on threads in the Desh.

SKs

SK three-piece

In a ready-made three-piece – see how my orna and the detailing on the sleeves match the pants? (This SK from Aarong; little person not included)

While the traditional dress for women in Bangladesh is the sharee (sari), the Salwar-Kameez (SK) is now standard everyday wear for most middle-class Bengali women. This outfit is made up of a long top (kameez – it’s distinguishable from a dress because of the slits down the sides from the hips), pants (salwar), and a scarf or shawl (orna).

Matching your outfits is very important here, and most Bangladeshi women buy their SKs as a pre-designed ‘three-piece’, either off the rack (‘ready-made’/’cut’) or as a set of fabric that is then taken to the tailor to be sewn up in your size (‘uncut’). Usually the salwar and kameez will be made with different but matching fabrics, and the orna will tie the outfit together, often by repeating the pattern of the pants.

village

A colleague wears a three-piece SK while we walk through a rural village on a field trip. This is standard office wear for most Bengali women.

If you’re working in an office with mainly local staff (like me), wearing SKs is probably the easiest way to fit in, clothes-wise. It’s easy (buy whole outfits in one go and never worry about making decisions in the morning again!) and comfortable (yes, thank you, I would love to wear pajamas to work every day).

What is a boob curtain and how do I wear one?

As in any country, to avoid scandalising anyone, it’s important to ‘dress modestly’. Putting aside the slut shaming politics of this for a moment, let’s look at what that means in practice.

You might think your boobs are covered, by a shirt and several layers of fabric in your bra, but you were wrong! You also need an orna (sometimes called the ‘boob curtain’ by certain volunteers I know). The function of an orna is to hide your chest modestly. Most women wear their scarves ‘back to front’, with the end hanging down your back and the middle fold sitting over the chest, as this keeps the hot fabric off the back of your neck. It’s also fine to wear a scarf hanging down your front, or looped around, as long as it hides your chest.

Hippy chic

Hippy chic: If I’m wearing a shorter shirt I’ll often wear super-baggy pants to compensate (yes, I actually wear poo-catcher pants to work). Note I’m still wearing a thin black scarf.

My crotch is exposed? What do you even mean?

The length of your shirt/top is also important. Feel free to wear t-shirts, shirts, blouses etc from home (even if they don’t look like a kameez) but ideally whatever you wear will cover your bum and crotch. Wearing anything that doesn’t come down past your hips will leave your crotch ‘exposed’… Yes, even if you’re wearing pants. The idea is to keep that region as baggy and invisible as possible.

Remember to also keep your shoulders covered: short sleeves are fine, but if you have a sleeveless top you can use your orna to wrap your shoulders up with a scarf.

Alternative styles that work well

While buying SKs here and wearing them all the time can seem like the simple and culturally friendly thing to do, chances are there will be days when you just want to wear western clothes and feel like yourself again. You won’t be able to wear anything too revealing in the street (unless you’re happy attracting a lot of attention), so I recommend bringing short shorts and dancing around the house in them, just to get it out of your system.

But there are other things you can wear in public. DIY three-pieces are a way of inserting your normal clothes into a Bangla-friendly outfit. You might wear a baggy, long top with local pants and scarf, or on a cooler day you might wear a kameez with jeans. If your top is loose you might want to ditch the scarf.

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You can also wear short (or calf-length) dresses with leggings – as long as you’re covering your bum, tight pants are A-OK.

maxi dress

The Maxi dress and shawl combo (complete with turtle tank in background)

Maxi dresses are also a great alternative to pants and tops, and provide a bit of variety. Just wrap your shoulders up with a wide shawl!

If you’re heading out on the town and want to wear something more revealing but don’t want to draw stares on your way there, you can even wear a short tight dress and take the leggings and orna off when you arrive. Kimonos are also known for coming in handy if you want a full-body cover-up.

Head coverings

Bangladesh is a Muslim country, and many women choose to cover their heads for religious reasons. Some women wear their orna as a ‘veil’, draped loosely; some use the end of their sharee in traditional style; some wear a more Arab-inspired hijab; and some choose to wear a full niqab, covering the lower part of their face, often with long dark-coloured cloak over their normal clothes.

However, head-covering isn’t essential and many local women choose not to cover. In Dhaka, it will generally be assumed that unless you are Muslim you won’t want to cover, and most people are comfortable with that. In more rural villages where expectations can be more traditional and conservative, you might want to cover as a sign of respect, but again, it’s not expected.

Dressing up

Dressing up

Dressing up for a formal dinner: me in a sharee, Ollie in punjabi/kurta.

You’ll see a lot of people wearing sharees around town – poorer and more traditional women often choose to wear them every day, tying them with a simple and comfortable drape.

While most wealthier women don’t wear them every day (although some do – especially older women), they are an essential part of any formal occasion. If you’re invited to a wedding, important party, meeting with dignitaries or even just a conference, sharees are standard formal attire. I wouldn’t want to wear one every day (they’re a bit restrictive), but they’re great fun and incredibly elegant – a room full of sharee-clad women is really quite a sight.

On the whole: Bangladeshi clothing is generally comfortable (I can’t stress this enough, I basically wear pajamas to work every day), easy to organise (three-pieces really take the decision-making out of your morning) and colourful (let loose your inner rainbow unicorn child!)

Packing: If you’re travelling through, bring cool and comfortable long pants, some longer, baggy shirts and a couple of scarves.

If you’re moving here, I recommend planning to buy quite a few three-piece SKs when you get here, as well as some kameezes to go with other pants. But don’t throw away your jeans and minis just yet – there’s a place for them here too. (For more packing advice, see my post on What to pack when you’re moving to the Desh).

Deshi weddings

Weddings aren’t just a joyous celebration of commitment in Bangladesh – they’re a national obsession. Last time I was at the salon getting my nails done (one of life’s little pleasures in the Desh) I forgot my book and wound up reading a Bengali trashy mag: every single article/fashion page/makeup tutorial, bar only two was about weddings, marriage, what to wear to your wedding, what to wear to a friend’s wedding, celebrity wedding photos, interviews with hot Bengali soap actors about when they planned to marry, ads for wedding jewellery…

And then there’re the ads on TV. Young, westernised women refuse to marry the man their parents have selected for them until they see the jewellery they could be wearing, and they swoon and capitulate. Whole villages dance in rapture when a bride appears with shiny white teeth. (Ok, I made up that last one – but it’s plausible). It’s estimated that people, including the rural extreme-poor, spent on average two years’ wages on a wedding. In the development sector, marriages are considered a significant ‘life shock’ causing major financial difficulty – right up there with serious illness, natural disaster and bereavement. The standards are lavish, and unavoidable. Like fish and rice, huge, glitzy weddings are a deeply ingrained part of Bengali culture.

A few weeks ago my friend Mahbub got married to (total babe) Fahima – in serious Bengali style. For a few of us bideshis, it was an amazing opportunity to throw ourselves into the colourful chaos that is the mutiple-day extravaganza. Bengali weddings normally primarily consist of three separate events: a Gaye Holud (generally held by the bride’s family – a bit of a hen’s/buck’s night extraordinaire of dancing, eating, music, and colour), the actual Wedding (usually a smaller gathering with family and closer friends, often held up to a week or two before the rest of the celebrations) and a Reception (a giant dinner party with so many guests there are often two dinner sittings). Mahbub and Fahima were kind enough to invite us to two of these amazing events – the Holud and Reception.

Holud

A band and dancers welcome us onto the Holud tunnel of love

The Holud, which literally translates to ‘yellow on the body’ is a party where family and friends rub turmeric on the bride and groom’s faces to ‘cool them down’ (turmeric is considered a cool food), condition/moisturise their skin and make them ‘more beautiful’. It has the added bonus of being super fun.

The bride and groom being blessed by family

The bride and groom being blessed by family… ie having turmeric rubbed on their faces

Fahima is carried into the Holud in style

Fahima is carried into the Holud in style

Everyone’s supposed to wear bright colours – yellow, orange or red – and let loose with a bit of all-out bollywood dancing.

Mahbub's cousins bust out the entertainment

Mahbub’s cousins bust out the entertainment

Us enjoying the festivities

Us enjoying the festivities in our yellow and orange

Explosions of colour

Explosions of colour

The Reception was a more serious affair – and understandably: Mahbub later told me that they had over 1,000 guests – and that it had been ‘small’ because the festivities were mid-week, so fewer people decided to come. Apparently there were about 800 at the Holud as well.

Dinner sitting #1: over 500 people eating dinner at the Reception before the next round

Dinner sitting #1: over 500 people eating dinner at the Reception before the next round

The dinner was delicious and I poked my head an my camera into the kitchens to take a picture of the industrious cooks, kitchen hands and waiters in a flurry of activity.

In the kitchen at the reception

In the kitchen at the reception

Posing with the happy couple at the reception

Posing with the happy couple at the reception

All in all it took months to organise and a small army of helpers to make it all happen. Now it’s done, Mahbub and Fahima are finally enjoying the down time together. A huge thanks to both of them and their families for their incredible hospitality and a great week of fun!