Three generations of a Pakistani American family meet for a reunion in the wake of 9/11? The one line synopsis rankled, and as I walked into Tara Arts, it was with some trepidation. Islamic fundamentalism? The rights of women? Arranged marriages? The cultural divide between the generations? And since this is an American play, there might even be a failed American dream theme thrown into the mix as well. All these subjects were indeed brought to the stage. And yet, this remains a very good play and a highly enjoyable production.
Wajahat Ali takes the classical dramatic structure of a family homecoming as his starting point. What is familiar to me as a British Pakistani is the discussion about the aforementioned big themes, though admittedly, they may be novel and interesting to a non-Asian British audience. What is startling, however, because now so rarely seen, is to watch a tightly constructed narrative in which our interest in the characters grows from act to act. In this five act play we move from revelation to revelation, and the drama is, as it should be, relentless.
The play opens with the azaan/call to prayer. A middle-aged woman, Kulsoom//Mamta Kaash enters, dons an apron and puts on the radio to Tom Jones singing, ‘I just want to be loved by you.’ Enter her daughter Fatima, the law student, in a grey suit and hijab. This scene, and indeed, the clothes of the two women, depicts the situation of many Western Asian households, where it is the daughters who, discovering Islam for themselves, have become distant from their culturally Muslim families. Fatima’s (Shyam Bhatt’s) tone, with the exception of one later scene, is rather earnest and as the way with singularly moral types, rather irritating. As mother and daughter battle away, enter the prodigal eldest son, Salauddin (Taqi Nazeer), a slick city operator, phone always in hand, and with a taste for the ladies, particularly if they are white. This is Salahuddin’s first return home since his rift with his father; he is here to celebrate his baby brother, Ghafur’s twenty-first birthday.
Salahuddin is the play’s funny man; though Khulsoom/the mother has her fair share of surprisingly ball-breaking lines. Kulvinder Ghir, as Salman the father has a big lit entrance and we soon see why. Not only is his drama at the heart of the play, Kulvinder Ghir is an incredibly captivating actor. Whenever he is on stage, it is to him that our attention turns. Ghir uses a voice reminiscent of the old comic Jimmy Durante, though unfortunately, we don’t get a taster of Durante’s iconic laugh.
Enter Ghafur (Kieran Vyas), the family’s hope: he is to become a doctor. In the second act, he makes a revelation that lights fireworks. Kulvinder Ghir has a great monologue in this act. Act three takes place in Ghafur’s room where first Ghafur and Salahuddin talk and when Salahuddin leaves, Ghafur and Fatima talk, and her secret, though known to the family, is revealed to us the audience. This is the second best act in the play, because of the level of intimacy achieved by the script and the actors. The best act, however, is the next one. It takes place in the closed room of the parents. Attacking his wife for her failure to be a good mother, Salman sinks into apathy about the failure that is his life. Ghir shines in this show-stealing act. Act five neatly ties things together.
‘The domestic crusaders’ works incredibly well on the family level; the political discourse I found a little wan. This is a funny play with lots of jokes; some of which don’t work, though most do. Jatinder Verma’s directional reins are lightly held and Sohini Alam, a Tara staple, as the musical advisor (and I believe the singer) behind the wide range of Urdu and English songs that are layered into this play is, as always, quite stunning. Kulvinder Ghir is a revelation. He has the kind of stage charisma one feels cannot be taught, and Taqi Nazeer as Salahuddin offers him a credible match; Nazeer is clearly an actor worth watching out for. Though Kieran Vyas has perhaps the slimmest role, he carries off the wide-eyed big man role convincingly.
Of course, in the father-eldest son relationship and in Salman’s particular kind of failure there are strong overtones of Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’, but if one is to be influenced, it is fitting that it be by the greats. I’d be very interested to see what Wajahat Ali does next.