In the company of Auntie Netta

As Nimmi Harasgama prepares to launch the Auntie Netta Chat Show on ETV next month, Smriti Daniel sits in to watch her transform into the eccentric old lady to take on well known theatre personality Indu Dharmasena and wife Sanwada. Pix by M.A Pushpa Kumara

Auntie Netta is trying to break free...and Nimmi Harasagama is going to let her. It is not a gradual transformation - her refined conversation slips into a screech, her chuckles take on a sinister edge as she begins to cackle and her gesticulations are so abrupt and enthusiastic you worry she will knock something over. Seated close by, Heshani Sothiraj Eddleston remains unfazed – she’s seen this happen before. In fact, Auntie Netta is more than welcome here.

Auntie Netta’s peculiar attire helps
create the image of an eccentric old woman

As the undisputed star of ETV’s soon to be launched television series ‘The Auntie Netta Chat Show’ the eccentric old woman has already interviewed a dozen prominent Sri Lankans and we are just in time to see her apply her unique methods of persuasion on Indu Dharmasena and his wife Sanwada. In the half hour that follows, Indu and Sanwada are treated alternately to rude suggestions, gentle mockery and prying questions. Throughout, Auntie Netta never hesitates to deploy the most potent weapon in her arsenal - heavy flirtation.

“It wasn’t intentional, we didn’t plan it – we didn’t realise it would be such a shock to the interviewees,” says Nimmi of Auntie Netta’s effect on her guests. “A lot of them have gone away saying, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what just happened.’” Having created Auntie Netta over ten years ago, Nimmi has used the character for stand up comedy and will soon relaunch her in a piece of theatre at the upcoming Edinburgh Festival.

Though you may have seen Auntie Netta on youtube, the chat show reveals a more sedate version. Heshani insists that Auntie Netta is really Nimmi’s alter ego. As if to prove it, Nimmi will often slide into Auntie Netta mode even in casual conversation but the reverse rarely happens. Even between takes, Nimmi stays firmly in character much to the amusement of those around.

At the shoot that day, Sanwada handled Auntie Netta quite well, and didn’t appear to be in the least uncomfortable. “Everyone has an aunt like that, though perhaps not so loud or so extreme,” she says, confessing that she drew on her own experience with quirky relatives to cope with Auntie Netta. “I liked the part where we got snacks to take home,” she says smiling. Indu, who looked like he wasn’t altogether comfortable, took more time to get used to his interrogator. It must have helped that she knew he was an avid collector of pens and gifted him a new one for his collection right at the start. “I think Auntie Netta as a character is a very lovable creature,” he says, adding that she has hints of the iconic Mr.Bean.

The all important crew behind the show

Considering all this, Auntie Netta is surely an unlikely chat show host – she’s often impatient with her guests and doesn’t hesitate to yell at them should they not be quick enough with their replies. She’s always perilously close to scandal: one minute she’s flashing a scrawny ankle and demanding appreciation and then next she’s offering you a thalaguli with a hearty helping of innuendo. Pianist Eshantha Joseph Peiris had his cheeks pinched by Auntie and when interviewing Dr. Harsha de Silva, she actually climbed onto the MP’s lap. However, Auntie does sometimes meet her match. While interviewing her childhood friend and radio personality, Karin Hatch, Auntie found herself outtalked and put in her place, much to Nimmi’s delight. Of course, this is still Auntie on her best behaviour says the actress – “I have to really hold back...the thing with Auntie Netta is that she just goes for it.”

In the middle of the action, Nimmi trusts her friend, director and co-scriptwriter Heshani to orchestrate some of the action. “In the first segment everyone is really shocked...the second segment is ok and then the third one goes completely mad,” says Heshani describing a typical 25 minute episode. Having worked on the script in advance, both women know that they’ll still have to improvise when their guests come into the mix. A small headpiece allows Nimmi to hear Heshani’s suggestions and unwittingly, that interaction has helped shape Auntie Netta’s unique interviewing style.

“She [Heshani] keeps saying you don’t have to ask it immediately,” says Nimmi adding that she nevertheless feels compelled to “spit it out” the moment she hears it – sometimes to hilarious effect. For instance, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to confuse ‘sex life’ with ‘success’ or for Nimmi to unexpectedly respond to or echo something Heshani said in the middle of a scene. While the latter understands why Nimmi suddenly said ‘relax your face’ or ‘I don’t want to ask that question,’ the guests on the show can’t help but be surprised. There’s something about the randomness though, that Heshani says she identifies with aunties the world over (incidentally, she considers herself one of them).

“This auntie is a collection of aunties from all over the world,” says Nimmi, admitting that she’s channelling her own inner Netta. She’s created a signature look for her character – beginning with the oversize men’s sneakers that she pulls on to her own tiny size four feet. The rest of her outfit could politely be described as peculiar – for her interview with Indu she’s wearing a striking pink sari with a green geometric pattern, a deep blue silk jacket with prettily patterned pink cuffs, a bright yellow t-shirt for a blouse and a wig. The last, a fluffy monstrosity with pigtails, once belonged to her mother, says Nimmi, adding mysteriously that it helped her mother disguise herself. The rest of Nimmi’s clothes – think shoulder pads, caftans and 1980s tracksuits - tend to be borrowed from friends, family and on occasion Pushpa, their domestic help. Deciding what to wear takes an average of 15 minutes around here, says Heshani.

Heshani: Director and friend

Considerably more thought has gone into the set. From the old fashioned rotary dial telephone on one table to the prettily set up tea service and, of course the house itself, the entire scene is a perfect foil for Auntie Netta. Having been in pre-production for six months, the ETV crew and the two women have been on a marathon shoot to get the first season of the chat show done in time for its debut this May.

“Nobody has done something quite like this,” says Heshani, adding that despite its unusual format the show has room for serious conversation. Explaining that they try to devote at least one segment to such exchanges, Nimmi says that their guests have been carefully chosen as accomplished people in their own right. Heshani in turn believes that comedy is as good a platform as any to communicate from.
Having known each other since they first worked together at YATV in 1995, the two women talk over skype every day and share a love for noughts and crosses (Nimmi is also godmother to Heshani’s daughter.)

Having worked on multiple scripts together, Heshani says she’s always believed in Auntie Netta. Now between the two of them, they’ve found a way to introduce her to perhaps her biggest audience ever. Still, their ambition hasn’t changed: “we just want to have a good time and entertain people,” says Nimmi.

You can catch the pilot episode of ‘The Auntie Netta Chat Show’ on the May 10, at 8 p.m. on ETV.

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