At the height of summer last year, a woman appeared on social media, offering viewers a cup of tea. “Hello friends, chai pi lo,” she said, and broke the internet. Identified as Somvati Mahawar, she had tens of thousands of followers, inspired memes and set an online trend. In Pune, an award-winning theatre actor, Ruchita Bhujbal, was intrigued by the trend. She played and replayed the videos with her friends. “Who was this ordinary woman who had become an internet sensation overnight? She seemed very innocent. From the videos, we know that she has a husband and children but nothing more. And then, one day, her videos stopped and she disappeared from all platforms,” says Bhujbal. She explores the inner life of the trending star in a play, titled Hello Friends, with writer-director Saurabh Shamraj. It won the Excellence Award Gold in Expression Lab’s solo festival 2018 along with a grant for seven shows. Hello Friends was performed at Sudarshan Rangmanch on Sunday. It will have another show on November 16 at the same venue.
The set takes the audience into the woman’s one-room home, where a cradle is kept near a bed, clothes hang from a wire, a table acts as a kitchen top and a wooden frame as a door. Here, the protagonist, Supriya, looks after her baby, dances to Bollywood numbers, eats papaya and records every activity on TikTok. “Hello friends, dekho main kya banayi hoon?” she says, pointing her cellphone at the masala papad drying on her corridor. “Heart karo friends,” she signs off in every upload. Supriya becomes famous as the Chaiwali aunty, the hearts multiply on her posts and trolls rear their heads. How Supriya hands abuse as well as the fleeting fame on social media makes up the body of the Marathi-Hindi play.
“What was the value of the content of their videos? Most of us watched it to ridicule it but what was the woman’s point of view? Though many media outlets covered the trend, we could not find any news of the woman herself. We imagined a fictional story in which only the character is inspired by the real person,” says Bhujbal, who gets under the skin of Supriya right down to the latter’s habit of sticking out her tongue while concentrating. Supriya’s rural Maharashtrian accent comes from Bhujbal’s native village near Pune city and her mannerisms from the domestic workers that the actor observed. “I like to go deep into a character’s mind and recreate her realistically,” says Bhujbal, who was a part of Pune-based Natak Company’s Item, which won Best Play at Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards 2018.
Bhujbal, who was born and raised in Pune, had never participated in a play until she decided to audition for a recitation competition when she was in Class XII at NMV Junior College. “My professor said, ‘I can see from your recitation that you have acting talent. Why don’t you try acting?’” says Bhujbal. She performed a monologue by PL Deshpande before the entire college and “found out that I can act”. Through Fergusson College and further studies, Bhujbal has performed with a number of prominent groups. She wrote a thriller about a serial killer for IPTA Pune, titled Days Are Numbered, which won her an award for acting at the Maharashtra State Competition. With Dhyaas, Pune, a group that focuses on physical theatre, Bhujbal acted in The Last Colour, about the remaining tiger left on earth that is scared and hiding from humans.
The actor, who has an MSc in video production, teaches creative writing, editing and scriptwriting at Fergusson College, and uses social media with care. “I choose not to comment on everything because I would be trolled. Random people feel entitled to visit your profile and comment on your body and appearance, as happens with Supriya in the play,” says Bhujbal. “Supriya doesn’t have any filters. She’s not trying to conceal her personality by posing as someone she’s not; like we sometimes tend to do while posting on social media. She offers what she can and remains true to herself instead of unnecessarily decorating her content. I find her very simple and honest in that way. She’s also fearless. People like her are very rare, which is why I love to get into her skin,” she adds.
Hello Friends will be staged at Sudarshan Rangmanch, Pune, on November 16 at 6.30 pm along with playwright’s another solo, Loaded With. Entry: Rs 150 for two plays