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Shabana Azmi returns to the stage with a well-made multicultural drama. Photographs by Helen Maybanks
Shabana Azmi returns to the stage with a well-made multicultural drama. Photographs by Helen Maybanks

The Brit-Punjabi matriarch

After a long tour, Shabana Azmi's new play about mixed identities arrives in India

One of the highlights of the ongoing NCPA Centrestage Festival is a new play from the UK-based Rifco Arts, Happy Birthday Sunita, which stars Shabana Azmi. The play is a snapshot of the lives of contemporary British Indian families, and tries to faithfully depict cross-generational conflict, or the fusion of two cultures. And even while centred on the home and hearth, it tries to unearth the contradictions that bubble under the surface. Azmi plays Tejpal, a British Punjabi matriarch, and Clara Indrani plays her daughter, Sunita, who has just turned 40, but is conspicuously absent at the birthday her mother has been cooking all day for.

With its mix of classic Punjabi entertainment and nuanced satire, the play has received excellent reports from Britain’s thriving online reviewing culture. Although The Guardian or The Independent haven’t written about it, unlike Rifco Arts’ musical Britain’s Got Bhangra, director Pravesh Kumar isn’t worried, “The big papers don’t come unless there is a long London run...and to be honest we sold out so far in advance they probably thought we don’t need them." The word “crossover" itself carries double-edged connotations. It could either entail a dilution of minority themes in order for it to be assimilated better (in line with the politically correct notion of multiculturalism) or it could be a more organic intermingling of cultural sensibilities. “British (itself) now means a very different thing, if you walk in any city here you’ll find it’s very mixed culturally," says Kumar.

Shabana Azmi.
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Shabana Azmi.

Happy Birthday Sunita is a rare international project for Azmi, and comes long after her celebrated turn as Nora in an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for the Singapore Repertory Theatre in the 1990s. Her Twitter feed is redolent with glimpses from the play’s tour—from travelling by tube in London (“Liberating!"), to being surprised at Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe’s low-key TV appearance with her on ITV’s Lorraine show, to pointing out “Sold Out" signs with co-star Notay.

It is interesting to note how the stars of 1980s parallel cinema continue to find exciting new avenues in theatre. With his Motley group, Naseeruddin Shah has long been a prime mover in this bijou universe, prolific in output and relentlessly high-calibre. Recently, Deepti Naval made a hesitant first entry on the stage as writer Amrita Pritam in the play Ek Mulaqat, opposite Shekhar Suman as Sahir Ludhianvi. In the 2012 edition of Centrestage, Om Puri returned to theatre with the Punjabi play Teri Amrita, an epistolary romance which, although heartfelt, couldn’t match up to the incandescence of Azmi’s own Tumhari Amrita, on which it was based. Tumhari Amrita, in turn, was an adaptation of A.R. Gurney’s American play, Love Letters.

Happy Birthday Sunita will be staged at the bustling Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre before its “pick of the fest" opening in Mumbai—there will be four shows at the Experimental Theatre, as opposed to the single showing afforded to other productions at the fest. Then it will move to New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre (5-6 December).

This India tour was already on the cards when the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) was curating the 2014 festival, so the timing was propitious. Kumar is hopeful of finding an eager audience in India, without having to tamper with the play’s ethos, “I had a lady from Mumbai say, maybe you should take out the Punjabi for Mumbai... I asked her why? She said people won’t understand it. I told her that it’s not just about what’s spoken, it’s about what’s happening in this family...language and communication is much more than what we speak. I think families are universal."

Happy Birthday Sunita will be staged at NCPA Mumbai’s Experimental Theatre on 2-3 December, 3pm and 7pm, as part of the 2014 Centrestage festival. Tickets, available on in.bookmyshow.com and at the NCPA box office

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