“You have to make a movie on this!”
That’s the reaction Ravi Jain got every time he talked about his experience visiting India in 2007.
He had recently finished his studies at École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and was busy setting up his company Why Not Theatre in Toronto. When an opportunity came up to hold a theatre workshop in Calcutta he took it – hoping to spend five weeks crisscrossing the rest of the country.
Meanwhile, his parents had more pressing concerns for their prodigal son: When was he going to find a nice girl and settle down? They asked him if he would be amenable to seeing some girls they had scoped out.
“I said fine, but give me two years,” Jain says. “Somewhere deep down, I thought maybe this could work – this whole arranged marriage thing.”
Jain is sitting in the basement of a gallery space in downtown Toronto. He shares a grin with his mother Asha Jain, sitting on the other side of the table, patiently waiting to tell her side of the story.
It’s this story, of how his simple plan to backpack around India turned into a search for a suitable girl, that forms the basis of Jain's latest play A Brimful of Asha. Jain and his mother play themselves – and Asha is making her theatrical debut.
“I had seen a play in Ireland once; it was called Susan and Darren, or something like that,” Jain says. “It was a choreographer from the north of England and his mother … She was older, maybe 65. And she had this thing where she shook without knowing. I saw that and I thought, holy cow, that’s real. That’s not an actor putting on [a tic] And she’s telling you a real story. It was simple and moving.”
Jain had been looking for a similar project to do with his mother, and the trip to India provided the perfect material. A week before his flight to New Delhi, his parents informed him that they, too, would be visiting India, ostensibly to meet some relatives. They arrived the day after Jain landed.
“And my father insisted that I must go to Bombay the next day,” he says. “I thought, sure, why not. It’s a great excuse to check out Bombay.”
It turns out a meeting with a potential match had been lined up.
Jain first met with the girl’s family, who sussed him out thoroughly. “They asked me how much money I make, and I said – actually last year I made no money at all.”
This is where his mother Asha interjects: “I said no, no. He just started a theatre company and he’s doing very well. Otherwise it was a deal-breaker!”
Then came an awkward blind date. “We had a pleasant enough conversation, but I knew this was not going to work out,” Jain says.
But his father continued to set up more dates.
“And I kept on getting caught in the middle,” Asha says. “On the one side, I have my son who argues with me about his freedom and his choices. On the other hand, I have to answer to my society. It’s my fault that Ravi is not a doctor or businessman, or that he is not married. And then my husband – he lights a fire and runs away … leaving me to deal with my son.”
The visit was full of intense fights, melodramatic pronouncements and reconciliations.
So, when Jain pitched the idea of the production to his mother, telling her it was a chance to defend her position, Asha immediately said yes. In 2008, they presented a one-night, interview-style show, and have since built it into a full-scale production.
“I was being presented as the bully mother, but in the end the audience agreed with me,” says Asha. “I got so much feedback, from all sorts of cultures … they all said we have the same issues, but we don’t talk about it.”
In the end, the show is less about arranged marriage than it is about families, Jain says.
“It’s about parents talking to their kids – or not talking to them.”
A Brimful of Asha runs at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space till Feb. 19.
Special to The Globe and Mail