Festivals, Reviews, Stage

A Brimful of Asha review (Melbourne International Arts Festival)

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As a theatre director in Toronto, Ravi Jain made absolutely no money the year his mother Asha decided he should get married.

That didn’t stop Asha activating her network back in India to find her 27-year-old son a suitable bride. Not someone who would strike thunder in his heart, but “a nice, homely girl” of good family, all of whom would contrive the nuptials with Asha and her extended family well before the happy couple would meet and possibly only a few weeks before they would tie the knot for life.

That was how it was done in Asha’s day. For Ravi, Canadian-born and full of Western ideals, the prospect was infuriating. To Ravi’s friends, it was so hilarious they urged him to turn his exasperation into a play.

This two-hand, partly improvised play is a fascinating insight into the modern arranged marriage.

On a simple set with gold silk curtains, Ravi and Asha sit across a dining table with a plate of samosas. They pour each other tea even as they go to war about the worth, or lack thereof, of obeying custom and marrying young to a person vetted and approved by one’s parents.

Ravi feels his mother’s sacrifice keenly. Their mutual affection drives and complicates this unusual piece of theatre, in which mother and son talk directly to the audience and each other.

Ravi states that six months is his minimum for getting to know someone with a view to marrying them.

Delhi-born Asha was married at 21 to a man (Ravi’s father) she’d met only a month before. She says it turned out well, even though this Masters graduate had to give up her dream of opening a school.

Ravi feels his mother’s sacrifice keenly. Their mutual affection drives and complicates this unusual piece of theatre, in which mother and son talk directly to the audience and each other.

They replay emails, photos and mobile phone arguments as they recall age-old match-making via 21st century methods. Ravi, on a backpacking trip through India with a friend, is ambushed into a courtship in Jaipur, then in Bangalore. There’s uproar, suspense and a dash of the classic three-act structure but, in a story messed about by cultural and generational change, no resolution.

The morning after, I’m still in a dilemma. Asha was brainy and ambitious; should she have knuckled under to the social shame of being unwed? “The whole city would have talked,” she says, with an air of resignation. “They would have said my parents were too miserly to pay for a wedding. They would have said ‘The girl has problems’.”

How does a young person withstand that subtle denigration? And let’s not call this an Indian “problem”. It happens in Australia, among all ethnicities, often in more covert, insidious ways.

The audience on the night I saw the show was about 98 per cent non-Indian. We all connected with the charm of Ravi and Asha, and got to our feet to hail them for a story well told.

A Brimful of Asha plays The Beckett at Malthouse Theatre until October 13.

Tickets: $42-$62 at malthousetheatre.com.au

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