Brimful of Asha – a barrel full of laughs

Brimful of Asha
Mother and son resolve their dispute in public

“Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow, everybody needs a bosom!” 1998 is a lifetime away in actual years but in so many ways, it feels like yesterday, when I recall the words to the song Brimful of Asha by the Indie/British Asian band, Cornershop. Warning – playing on cliches is a bit of a running theme here. Cornershop were inspired by listening to Asha Bhosle on 45 RPM records of their parents for their hit song of this title. In this theatre production, Ravi has had a brimful of his mother who is called Asha and has written a play to resolve the dispute he’s been having with her.

When we entered the Tricycle theatre (Kilburn, northwest London), we were told not to forget picking up our complimentary samosa at the door. There weren’t any to be seen but the usher (a young Indian girl in tracksuit and sweatshirt with a thick single plait) urged us to go say hello to the two actors and pick up the samosa from the dining table on the stage. Like in any Indian wedding, we lined up to meet Ravi who shook hands with each one of us and introduced us to his mother. Part of me wanted to have a chat with the friendly woman in a pink sari, but we picked up the spicy offering and went to sit down. Within a few minutes, we realised that this was a cleverly devised piece of theatre. It was not just an autobiographical piece of work – the authentic feel was heightened because of the mother’s presence. Asha Jain playing herself was hesitant in parts but said so. Her comic timing was pretty fantastic and the show was exceedingly funny, mainly due to her.

So much of it was stereotypical of the diaspora experience – in 2007, Ravi Jain, at 27 is about to launch his theatre company after a stint at the University of Athens. On returning to his hometown of Toronto, he receives a muted reception from his family. “It’s time for you to settle down and you need to get on with it,” he’s told in no uncertain terms. The helpless angst is palpable – a parent-child relationship where saying “none of your business” to the crucial matter of marriage, is just not acceptable.

Ravi sets off for Kolkata where he conducts a week of theatre workshops but his family have set him up to meet Neha’s relatives in Delhi for a preliminary interview. There begins a long sequence of awkward encounters related in great detail, where we feel for his plight but laugh with his mother. For example, Neha’s uncle asks him, “How much did you earn last year?” Ravi who comes from a successful business family is quick to reveal – “Actually, not much at all.” Mummy (Asha) interferes and says, “No, no, he’s just joking,” and by some quirk of fate, he’s told that he can go and meet Neha.

Ravi travels to Mumbai with his dad beside him and they go out for pizza. For a brief moment, he contemplates saying yes to getting married (after all, that’s how his parents got hitched) but is paralysed with shock at the prospect of marrying this stranger with whom he has no spark whatsoever. They agree that they are not suited and you’d think this was enough for the extended family to lay off Ravi. But Ravi’s father and Neha’s family have other ideas. Ravi and friend Andrew who has joined him on an  Indian adventure go to Jaipur by train where Neha’s grandparents have a palatial residence (he’s been told he can stay there). When Ravi and Andrew arrive, his parents, Neha and her family are all assembled to make this deal happen. The play is interspersed with Ravi’s excellent impersonations of his father and the various uncles – he was inspired by watching Amitabh Bacchan as a child, he says.

There are more botched attempts at introductions and proposals and it did get a little repetitive. Ravi describes the three and a half hour argument he has with both his parents when they all meet in Toronto. Just when we are lulled into believing that he’s had a cathartic experience and that there is a better understanding between all of them – his mother tells him, “but you still need to get married.” The show ends with them arguing this and after the applause and the bows, Ravi made an announcement that he and his mother have been doing this show for many years now and he has since got married in 2012.

For some reason, it left us feeling a little cheated. After all, we were drawn into the minute details of their lives – I guess that was the point when we realised it was a play after all. Respect for Asha Jain for treading the boards with her son – it felt as if it was quite an empowering experience for her. Full marks also for making a stereotypical story into an authentic and original piece of theatre.

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