REVIEW: Happy Birthday Sunita, a play by Harvey Virdi

Firstly, I want to apologise for being missing in action from this blog – it’s not that I’ve forgotten to write and just carelessly abandoned it, more like I’ve been drowning in a deluge of schoolwork that I’ve finally got under control and so I am returned to you! (Perhaps from now on at a lower frequency, but nonetheless returned). Remember, a blog is for life, not just for UCAS.

Secondly, a review. My family are not frequent theatre-goers, through my childhood we would go to the odd pantomime (Spamalot starring our beloved Sanjeev Bhaskar is a fond memory of mine), but never to any real plays until 20th September to the beautifully restored Watford Palace Theatre in my hometown on the fringes of London. Watford seems a strange place for internationally renowned actresses to grace the stage, but this is exactly what Shabana Azmi, critically acclaimed Indian actress and UN Goodwill Embassador, pulled off with tremendous sprezzatura in Happy Birthday Sunita from Rifco Arts.

The entire cast from left to right: Ameet Chana, Clara Indrani, Shabana Azmi, Goldy Notay, Russell Floyd

The title itself, Happy Birthday Sunita is a Bollywood in-joke of sorts, named after an infamous Hindi song that every Desi household bursts into every time someone celebrates their special day and is usually followed by servings of burfi and cake. The story itself revolves around a contemporary Sikh family, the Johals, on the 40th birthday of Sunita, the sulky, hermit-like daughter for whom her mother Tejpal throws a small family party – however for the first half of the play Sunita is nowhere to be seen. The play stars Ameet Chana, Clara Indrani, Goldy Notay, Russell Floyd, and Ms Azmi.

During this time, both Harvey Virdi (actress of Bend it Like Beckham-fame turned playwright for the RSC) the cast lovingly recreated an accurate portrait of a modern day British Asian family which resonated throughout the audience, the casual interweaving of English and Punjabi like a rich linguistic tapestry, a testimony to the incredible versatility and durability of diasporic South Asians in the UK. Virdi reminds us all the time of our presence in today’s world with a peppering of jokes about social media, yet not without remembering our roots, when a portrait of Guru Nanak, a Sikh guru who had an extensive interest in Hinduism and Islam alike, illuminates at significant turns.

Of course, the play tackles many taboos that still remain in South Asian culture – satirising the reactions to the LGBT+ issues, and inter-racial tension from our community, with a self-awareness that neither belittles nor alienates one from the topics, but engages one to reflect on how we deal with such topics even today. Even the subject of wives abstaining from having children is dealt with in a progressive way during an emotional revelation from Harleen, wife of Nav Johal (Tejpal’s boisterous son). In fact, a series of touching confessions reveal the secrets of each character, all supressed because of the ideas of taboo that are culturally ingrained, at the risk of giving spoilers.

In terms of racial dynamics I feel that Maurice, whom Russell Floyd portrays with finesse and experience, perfectly summarises the duality of changing White British attitudes towards the South Asian immigrant community. He indulges in Tejpal’s cooking, attempts to understand Punjabi and even elopes with Tejpal – or Tej as he calls her – himself, but not without the awkward phrasings: “your people”, “your lot”. Residual influence from the 1960s and 1980s is very much present and Virdi never forgets the hardship and violence that the Desi community endured with the each wave’s influx of immigrants, as it’s revealed Maurice may have had some part in the skinhead movement during this time. Much credit to Floyd for representing the character with just the right amount of awkwardness and attempted understanding and tolerance.

Tejpal (Shabana Azmi) comforts her daughter Sunita (Clara Indrani).

It’s no surprise that Azmi was the big star that attracted my parents – maybe even the entire South Asian population of the Greater London area – and her presence filled the intimate setting as soon as she stepped foot on stage and the entire audience clapped for her. Not just Azmi, but in fact, the entire cast gives a fantastic performance, although at times the younger cast members overact which seems to jar against the small space of the Palace Theatre stage however this does add a naturally comic dimension, whether intentional or not. There also are jokes at the expense of Harleen, who speaks less-than-perfect Punjabi, and this did strike a nerve close to the heart as I understand the inner turmoil of the second-gen immigrant whose mother-tongue they have forcibly Anglicized out of a former self-hatred. Old habits are hard to break. (Thankfully, I’ve broken mine.)

That is a small criticism – despite this there is great optimism without any hint of naiveté for the future of first and second-generation immigrants in the play which is achieved by dealing with the issues that affect Desis openly and loudly. The ending is bittersweet; there are consequences to deal with but the characters end up happy and spiritually refreshed after unloading their burdens. It’s a vibrant, colourful love-letter to the vibrant, colourful British Asian community. There is critique and satire, but there is also affection which Vidri, director Pravesh Kumar, and the cast all dedicate themselves to.

Happy Birthday Sunita opens at Watermans, London on Tuesday 14th October 2014

Before I finish, I want to marvel at Shabana Azmi a little more. Whilst I would never want to define her by her relationships to men, I think it’s important to mention that her father, the Communist Hindi-Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, had a profound effect on her, prompting her to pursue humanitarian and political efforts which she fulfills in the Rajya Sabhya (the upper house of the Indian Parliament). Her mother, once a stage actress for the Indian People’s Theatre Association and also member of the Indian Communist party propelled her interest in acting, and today Azmi has won: five National Film Awards for Best Actress, four Filmfare Awards, has appeared in over 120 films over four decades and is an advocate for women’s rights and general social justice. Truly an inspirational womanist role-model, Azmi’s 64th birthday fell on the opening night of Happy Birthday Sunita, and I somehow feel that the closing soundtrack of the play was also a secret serenade to Azmi on her birthday. If you don’t quite get what I mean, I’ll leave you with this. Baar baar din yeh aaye…