When Shayok Misha Chowdhury wrote the character of Shou for his new bilingual play, “Public Obscenities,” about a couple who interviews queer locals in Kolkata, India, he was “super worried” about casting the role. The performer would not only need to be of the appropriate gender but also a Bangla speaker with the right “linguistic fluency”to capture the character, who speaks “exuberantly and forthrightly and confidently,” he told me recently.
Shou identifies as kothi, an Indian gender that encompasses a breadth of expressions, Chowdhury said. So he reached out to a friend for advice: a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is “very in the sort of Bangali queer and trans space.” After the professor mentioned Tashnuva Anan Shishir, Chowdhury searched her name online, and several questions came into his head: Is she even in New York? Would she be interested in auditioning?
When he posted a casting call on Instagram, and Anan responded, a plan started to coalesce. She was in New York, performing in Queens, in “I Shakuntala,” a play by Golam Sarwar Harun and Gargi Mukherjee, a married couple who would also go on to star in “Public Obscenities.” Anan’s role was small, but she “stole the show,” Chowdhury said.
After she auditioned for his play, it was practically unanimous, he said: “We have found the person.” While Shou doesn’t appear until 50 minutes into “Public Obscenities” — its run at Soho Rep (in a coproduction with the National Asian American Theater Company) has been extended through April 16 — the character has been among its most memorable.
In March 2021, Anan made history as the first transgender news anchor in Bangladesh. For three minutes, on International Women’s Day, she spoke on the air and was seen by millions of her compatriots. She went on to anchor occasionally for the network, Boishakhi TV, through November 2021.
In December of that year, she came to New York, her first time in the United States. Her trip was primarily to receive care related to what she calls her transformation. And while here, professional opportunities have arisen: Last year she became the first transgender model from Bangladesh to walk in New York Fashion Week.
Anan, 31, grew up in a conservative Muslim family and has had a grueling journey to this point. She has endured relentless harassment and survived suicide attempts; been shunned by family members, including her father; and lived penniless in a slum.
“I really wanted to be an actress,” Anan, who performed in theater in South Asia and in a small Bangla film, “Kosai,” told me recently in a video interview. “People shouldn’t be considered by their gender. People should acknowledge their work. People should acknowledge their skill.” Being a news anchor in Bangladesh was eye-opening, she said, but it couldn’t quite open up the world for her like the United States could. “I was feeling that I have to swim. So I should swim in the ocean, not in a pond, not in a river. So if I can achieve, I can achieve. If not, then not.”
Here are excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity.
How has life in New York been for you?
It’s a lot of adaptation. I’m born and raised in a village, not a city. The city is highly competitive, but I like this competition. Being an activist, this is a great eye-opening for me to learning, to adapting to each other, to teaching how is the activism going on. When I was in Bangladesh, I was working in a national level. Now I’m in New York, and I’m working globally. I’m contributing internationally. So this is a good opportunity for me.
You’ve shown remarkable perseverance. What gives you strength?
For myself, that I believe: Do your own job. Just do hard work. There is no shortcut in life. Just believe in yourself. And just, first, inspire yourself. I have competition only with myself, because I’m trying to do a little bit better than yesterday.
Why do you think Shou has been so memorable to audiences?
Shou is intelligent, Shou is extra-talented, an extrovert, and Shou knows actually about this scenario: the situation of queer people, queer activism, especially in Kolkata, Bangladesh, Pakistan. So Shou is charming everyone. Shou is connected with everyone.
Shou is very common character in South Asia because Shou is kind of a feminine guy, so Shou would like to wear femininity in her body or in their body. So this feminine guy represents South Asian queer community also.
How do you see yourself in this character and how are you different?
Tashnuva bold, Tashnuva sexy, Tashnuva brave, Tashnuva iconic — and the brand I created, I had to pay a lot. I had to leave my family to prove my identity.
Shou is also powerful. Shou is also entertaining. Shou is also jolly. Shou is also friendly. Tashnuva is sometimes moody, because people can consider my self-esteem or people can consider my self-respect as an ego, but I had to maintain it. But Shou doesn’t have that; Shou is more friendly.
When I get confirmation from my team, I was a little bit tense actually, because, see, I have long hair, and the show is going to put, like, a wig. Then I asked Misha, “Should I cut my hair? I can’t!”
First time, when I watched myself with that wig, with proper costume, I was so low — believe me, I was so low. I didn’t feel well because still, then, I didn’t believe Shou. So I was trying to just discover what was going on. Now, I literally fall in love with that wig. Yeah, this is me, this is Shou.
How has the reception been from South Asian audiences?
Oh my God, they appreciate a lot. They were looking at their sorrows in front of them. They’re looking at their life in front of them, through Shou’s eyes. I got lots of messages from my friends — “Tashnuva, you’re doing really well because this is not doing acting, this is very natural.” I wanted to be a natural actor. I want to play a character that should be more natural, that should be believable. I really believe when I am doing something, people should believe.
Last night, when I’m coming toward audience, a girl literally was crying, and she was from Bangladesh, and she born and raised here. She only heard me by social media, and this is the first time we get connected in person. And she was telling me, “Tashnuva, this is the story that we know but we couldn’t tell in front of people.”
What’s next for you?
I don’t like to say my dream because people are always critics. So I love to keep my dream inside. I am looking for opportunities to act more. So I think now, just now, after this project, I want to jump into another project. There I can play a more powerful character. There I can say another story. I don’t want to pursue any character that is very common.
When I think about performance — light, camera, action — I love Broadway performance. Today and tomorrow, is my dream that I will perform in Broadway, or I will perform in a Hollywood film. When I start working, I just forget my every pain. I just forget everything. And this is the performance that inspired me a lot, that did a lot for me.