When Toronto theatre artist Ravi Jain was invited to conduct a workshop in Calcutta in 2007, his parents decided to come along for the trip—and arrange a marriage for him. Now Ravi and his mother, Asha Jain, are touring their wo-person hit A Brimful of Asha, which is a debate about that experience.
Ravi was open to the possibility of an arranged marriage but, in his version of the story, he wasn’t prepared for just how pushy and sneaky his parents got about it. For her part, Asha says in the script, “Every generation always believes that it is smarter than its parents, and I don’t doubt it for a minute. Of course, they are the future. They are much smarter. But they don’t have common sense.” Off the top of the show, she explains to the audience: “That is why I invited you all. To help me sort it out, and you will give me your honest opinion telling Ravi he is wrong.”
Speaking on the phone from his car—he is driving back to Toronto from Montreal, where he has just opened Iceland, a show he directed, at the Wildside Festival—Ravi says that he had a hunch that his mother’s outspokenness would make her an engaging performer.
Following that hunch, he immediately hit a gold mine. “In Toronto, we did a 15-minute scratch presentation of the show when it was just a baby idea,” he recalls. “And it was the very first thing: I introduced my mom and she said, ‘You know, actually, I hate theatre.’ And the audience laughed. And then she was like, ‘No, really. I really hate theatre. Don’t you people have jobs?’ And they just laughed even more. I watched the audience watch her and I knew that, as long as we could keep her in an element where she could just tell the truth, it would be as hilarious as it is around our dinner table.”
Mother and son spent the next year developing the text together at Tarragon Theatre, where Ravi had become the Urjo Kareda artist in residence. Although the piece is now essentially scripted, its structure allows the performers to improvise and keep things fresh. When A Brimful of Asha opened, it became an instant smash and went on to enjoy three extended sold-out runs in Toronto. By the time the show arrives in Vancouver, it will have played four additional Canadian cities; in the spring, it will visit South Carolina’s Spoleto Festival; and then it’s on to a run in Berlin.
Ravi says that he was initially afraid that the public would dismiss the play because of the negative connotations that arranged marriage carries in the West. “But that’s been my favourite thing about doing the show,” he continues. “A lot of people agree with or can hear my mom’s point of view. I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘When I was your age, I agreed with you, but now I’m your mom’s age and I agree with her.’ I think it’s great that there’s a balanced perspective.”
And the discussion isn’t as culturally specific as one might think. “People have come to us and said, ‘You guys aren’t Indian, you’re Orthodox Jews,’ ” Ravi explains with a laugh. “Or ‘You’re Italian.’ Or ‘You’re Greek.’ That’s where I think the universal appeal is: in the mother-son relationship.”
Asked if Asha still hates theatre, Ravi answers: “I would say no. She loves the exchange of energy every night, and she loves meeting people, that interaction. Most importantly to me, she finally understands why I do it.”
But Asha’s responses remain uncensored: “I’ve taken her to a couple of other plays,” her son says, “but she hasn’t managed to stay awake.”