After sold-out shows in Toronto, "A Brimful of Asha" makes it U.S. debut tonight at the Emmett Robinson Theatre. The autobiographical play explores the conflict between Indian cultural norms and the West.
Canadian writer-director-actor Ravi Jain, 34, stood his ground when his parents, originally from India, tried in vain to set up an arranged marriage. When he told his mother Asha that he was writing about his experience she agreed to perform alongside him - because she thought the audience would agree with her.
Through a lively dialogue about arranged marriage, the duo highlights the generation gap that often occurs in first generation immigrant families. As two journalists born in India and working in the U.S., we're looking forward to this cross-cultural production and interested in hearing both sides of the story.
Angela Zonunpari: How has it been acting with your son?
Asha Jain: We are very close and it's a great experience working with him. Before, theatre wasn't my cup of tea, but now I see the other side of it. I understand that it's a passion for the people in it and they work hard. I appreciate it more now.
Q: How is it being on stage?
A: From the first day I was very comfortable on stage, I don't know why. I don't know if it's because of Ravi's presence. I'm a very talkative person, but I'm shy of speaking in public. With this play, I just don't know where I get the strength. It could be because it's a challenge to prove my point. It's a good intention, but often mistaken for a bad one.
Q: Is arranged marriage still a trend among first generation Indians?
A: I've noticed children today are quite narrow-minded when it comes to this. If your friends introduce you to someone you're okay with it, but if parents do it, it becomes a big problem. They think it's "arranged". You can meet the person, see what your interests are and then decide. We're open to that. Even I had a choice.
Q: Since Ravi published his book and you became involved in the play, have your views changed?
A: I have really strong views and they will stay strong. Ravi will never be able to change my ideas when it comes to this. I feel strongly about a person getting married at the right age. There is a lot of good in our culture, which is lost here.
Q: How does your husband feel about this?
A: He feels more strongly. But, the problem is that he doesn't talk to the boys directly. Then, I become the bad guy. But I don't care, I don't have any bad intentions.
Q: What do people say to you after the play?
A: They say very nice things: 'I have kids. I wish I could talk to them like that'. A lot of people say they can see it's all good-intentioned. Initially, I was scared people would hate me. But, they see both sides of the story. They also say they've got new insight into our culture.
Arshie Chevalwala: How is it working with your mother on stage?
Ravi Jain: The show is constantly improvised. There's always a funny moment because she's so honest and able to be herself. Actors train for years to try to achieve that. This one time, in Vancouver, we were just coming to the end of the show and she just burst out laughing. It's called corpsing, when you laugh uncontrollably on stage. And I was talking to the audience saying I don't know when it will end, this has not happened before. She then turned to the audience and said, "This is the first time I really heard him and it made me laugh uncontrollably." It was great.
Q: What are the challenges working together?
A: The challenges are fewer than the positives. She's able to be present in the moment. And I've learned a lot from that. I enjoy watching how the audience responds to that. She can go off track sometimes, or forget her lines but that fits directly into the earnest aesthetic of the show.
Q: Has the experience changed your dialogue at home?
A: No, I still think I'm right. But it's made us both more patient. I now understand the pressure my parents were under. I can understand it but that doesn't mean I have to agree with it.
Q: What is your opinion of arranged marriage?
A: If you want to do that, it's great. You are in charge of your own life but you can't be forced to do something you don't want to do. You can't be rushed into it. Just because you're 26 or 27 doesn't mean you need to get married. I think the intention that parents have isn't always the same as kids do. Money, caste, religion come into these discussions and I don't think they should. But that's just me.
Q: What are some of the challenges in telling such an autobiographical story?
A: The biggest one is judgment. That was my mother's biggest worry. When you tell such a personal story, people judge you. I think the spirit of the story has us laughing at it, so it makes the audience a bit disarmed. The comedy happened because the story is funny and my mother and I have a good relationship. From the moment you enter, we greet you, give you a samosa, and make you comfortable. Basically, we invite the audience into our home.
Everybody gets a samosa? Being brought up in Mumbai and Delhi, we grew up eating these hot, crispy potato-filled pockets of goodness. We'll definitely be there to enjoy the treats "A Brimful of Asha" offers.
Arshie Chevalwala and Angela Zonunpari are Goldring Arts Journalists from Syracuse University.