From New Zealand with Laughs

This is a story I did that ran in the May 29, 2009 issue of India Abroad:

In recent years, New York City stages have carried several plays about the Indian immigrant experience.   Sakina’s Restaurant, East is East, India Awaiting – each depicted aspects of life of members of the Indian community in the United States or the United Kingdom.

Since April, theater-goers have had a chance to see the New Zealand Indian experience as portrayed in the one-man comedy show D’Arranged Marriage, starring Auckland native Rajeev Varma.   The play arrived in New York after long runs in New Zealand, and sold out shows in Australia, South Africa, Singapore and Malaysia.

The idea for D’Arranged Marriage originated with comic, actor, writer and director Tarun Mohanbhai, who still resides in New Zealand, and was developed together with Rajeev Varma, who now makes Park Slope, Brooklyn his home.

Though Rajeev, now 33, and Tarun, 37, only lived some three miles apart from each other when growing up in Auckland, they had rather different childhoods and didn’t actually meet until both were in their late twenties.

Rajeev, whose Rajasthani and Punjabi parents separated when he was nine, grew up with a strong love of performing and was encouraged by his mother to pursue his interest at drama school.

Tarun’s family, who had been traveling back and forth between Gujurat and New Zealand since the early 1900s, were business people and Tarun, like Sanjay in D’Arranged Marriage, went into the family business, a grocery shop, when he graduated from high school.   Tarun had done some sketch writing and took a chance at an open mike night at a club in 1996 where, happily, he “killed.”

“When I graduated I didn’t really accept my ethnicity, I just felt that being an actor I “˜d be able to get by by doing good work, but I realized very quickly the industry works based on what you look like and what kind of type you are,” says Rajeev, about life after drama school.

“I did a lot of my self-created work through the late “˜90s and got bits and pieces of television and film work.   But it really didn’t take off for me until I met Tarun and in 2002 we created D’Arranged Marriage – from then, it just exploded.   As soon as I owned my cultural identity and used it as a source for my creativity then everything really started to move forward quite quickly.”

Though interviewed separately, Tarun echoes Rajeev when asked about how he describes himself, having grown up a Kiwi with roots in India.   He says:   “Over time it’s changed.   Initially as a New Zealander, now I’m a Kiwi Indian or an Indian Kiwi, either/or.   It’s really bizarre, but I feel that the very career path I’ve chosen has brought me closer to the roots of who I am.   But it’s probably the very career path that Indian people in general wouldn’t entertain as a viable or respectable career path.”

The summer before he met Rajeev, Tarun had begun working on the idea for D’Arranged Marriage, basing it on his experiences growing up in a large family (with an average 9 to 13 people at home any given time) and attending lots of Indian weddings and get-togethers.

“I met Raj when I was looking for a director.   We ended up co-writing it as a joint event.   I would tell him about my uncles and cousins.   Most of the characters are based on people that I know,” says Tarun.

The two founded the Those Indian Guys theater company and took the show all over New Zealand, where it’s been running ever since.   While Rajeev headed to the U.S. to pave the way for the show here, Tarun had just performed it in New Zealand two months ago.

The successful Rajeev-Tarun partnership led to From India With Love, a prequel of sorts that explores Sanjay’s parents’ emigration to New Zealand, and to an East-meets-West television comedy show called A Thousand Apologies, and various other TV and film spots in between.

Though often recognized on the streets back home, Rajeev is now living the hard-working New York City theater dream in relative anonymity.   The Saturday after his most recent performance, and after finishing his day job as a docent at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Rajeev gave a rundown of his life here:

“The last three months, life has just been auditions and callbacks and shootings, interviews, productions, marketing, rehearsals, rewriting, working and performing.   Since January I’ve just been living in a pressure cooker.

“I’ve been really fortunate as I’m auditioning all the time.   Last week I had an audition for a Warner Brothers film with Bruce Willis directed by Kevin Smith and I got called back and I got to meet Kevin Smith.   I’m just fully focused on my work now and it’s totally consuming, I barely have time to think.   Tonight I’m editing a DVD of D’Arranged Marriage and getting together an ad for it and I’m gonna put that on the “˜Net and do some viral marketing.

“Now my focus is finding Indian businesses and people who can help me raise funds to make a main stage production of D’Arranged Marriage.   I want get it on off-Broadway.   The show was mentioned in The New Yorker and listed in TimeOut, and Aroon Shivdasani of the Indo-American Arts Council came last night.”

If the show does go on to off-Broadway and maybe a national tour, then Tarun would come over and the two partners, who get on Skype every weekend and write together for several hours revising lines of the show, will take turns performing nightly.

“New York audiences are very, very theater-savvy and they’ve seen a million shows before, so you get away with less and you have to rely more on the writing, and it has to be clever and tight,” Rajeev admits.   “I feel very privileged to be performing a show in a city where artists come to pursue excellence.”

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One-man barmy army

In the first ever telling of the Indo-Kiwi experience on a New York City stage, Rajeev Varma plays Sanjay Gupta (no, not he of CNN fame), a thirty-year old New Zealand Indian who manages the family grocery shop while being urged by parents Manohar and Pushpa to let them find a match for him.

In fact, Varma plays his parents too, as well as all other roles in this one-man show.   It’s a high energy whirlwind sprint as Varma takes us through Sanjay’s youth into adulthood, giving us a peek into his dreams of a career as a stand-up comic, and the hilarious pratfalls of his first encounter with Neenu, the girl who wins his heart and turns out to be the one his parents wanted all along.

Varma appears variously as village idiot Rundeep, who is dating the girl of his dreams; an uncle who is looking for a woman who can cook, clean and play cricket; a cousin who is an information geek, the information he tosses into conversations at random moments being totally useless; Dave Patel, Neenu’s father and whisky-addicted snob”¦

It is a cast of characters instantly familiar to most Indians, who have met the “˜types’ in their own daily lives.   And in between, D’Arranged Marriage touches on the uniqueness of being an Indian in New Zealand (including relationships with Fijian-Indians and the Maoris) as well all the broader pop culture references that Indians in the UK or the US would find familiar (cricket, Anil Kapoor, bhangra and a bawdy litany of every film set in the desh from A Passage to India right up to Slumdog Millionaire).

Varma’s only accompaniment are images from a slide projector and some recorded music.   While I would have liked a little more back story for some of the secondary characters, Rajeev Varma pulls it off with his versatility and endurance in a show that requires him to play eight characters on a bare stage with no costume changes, as well as sing and dance, all which he does with ease.

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Note: the show’s run in NYC has been extended through the summer.

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