Dr. Cabbie's Vinay Virmani focuses on the immigrant experience

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      Actor, writer, and producer Vinay Virmani enjoys telling the tale about how his new comedy, Dr. Cabbie, was inspired by a taxi trip in his hometown of Toronto. The driver was trained as a doctor in India, but couldn’t practise medicine here because his credentials weren’t recognized by the Ontario licensing body.

      “He requalified, he retrained, and still, they couldn’t find him a suitable medical residency,” Virmani recalled in an interview with the Georgia Straight at the Fairmont Waterfront Centre. “He said something to me that really set off this whole thing, which was ‘I just came here to heal people. I just want to help people and treat people, and they won’t let me do that.’ ”

      In Dr. Cabbie, opening Friday (September 19), Virmani plays a young and naive Delhi-trained doctor named Deepak Chopra (not that Deepak Chopra) who can’t practise medicine after immigrating to Toronto, so he ends up driving a taxi. When he delivers a baby in a cab, Deepak gains celebrity status, prompting him to reflect on why he moved to Canada.

      “He says to himself, ‘I don’t need a clinic to heal people. I can do it in the back of my cab because that’s the only thing I know how to do,’ ” Virmani said.

      Deepak finds himself at the the centre of a series of madcap adventures while earnestly treating patients in the midst of a Toronto mayoral election. Underlying the humour is a serious message about obstacles faced by foreign-trained professional immigrants.

      “I just feel that a subject like this—that is about something important—can be told a little bit more effectively if it’s done through comedy and if it’s entertaining,” Virmani said. “Hopefully, it will make you laugh, it will make you cry, [and] it will make you leave kind of feeling entertained but also picking up on an important social issue.”

      Virmani’s first film, the 2011 comedy Breakaway, conveyed a message about overcoming bullying. Next year, he plans to create a film about the Komagata Maru, which sailed into Vancouver’s harbour a century ago with 376 South Asian passengers. Most were deported because of racist legislation of the era.

      “It’s a very important Canadian story but it’s also a really important Indian story,” Virmani said. “It’s important for the history of both countries because it really fuelled the freedom movement [in India] as people went back.”

      So where did Virmani develop his social conscience? He attributed it to being Canadian and attending public school in Toronto.

      “We were celebrating Chinese New Year,” Virmani recalled. “We were celebrating Diwali (the Indian festival of lights). You had diversity days where they said ‘Wear your traditional outfits to school.’ Yes, we have a long way to go, maybe, but I think we’re so fortunate to be able to celebrate each other in the way that we do.”

      He noted that his dad, Ajay Virmani, moved to Canada from Delhi in the 1970s with just $8 in his pocket. After graduating with an MBA, he became CEO and owner of Cargojet Airways.

      Virmani said Dr. Cabbie salutes immigrants’ struggles to adapt to a new country. “Even though this is about a doctor, I hope it speaks to a larger audience of people who are doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors—anybody who has felt that their life has been taken off course professionally.”

      Virmani said he benefited enormously from the guidance of Bollywood acting legend Salman Khan, who coproduced the film. One of Dr. Cabbie’s costars is Isabelle Kaif, whose older sister Katrina Kaif is India’s reigning female film star.

      Over the long term, Virmani aims to produce movies that showcase Canadian talent internationally.

      “I don’t think we can be confined by any border,” he said. “I’ve done a film (David) out in India, but also I’m very passionate about developing the film community here—maybe opening it up to audiences or demographics that are sometimes ignored by Canadian filmmakers. I feel that’s where I come in and that’s where maybe my niche will be.”