A Brimful of Asha review

3 out of 5 stars
A Brimful of Asha // Why Not Theatre Melbourne Festival 2019 supplied
Photorgaph: Erin Brubacher

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

This mother and son tale is told with humour, heart and samosas

In Hindi, “Asha” translates roughly to hope, or expectation, though these things don’t always go hand in hand – especially when parents are involved. For Ravi Jain, the director, co-star and co-writer of A Brimful of Asha, the stickler is his Indian mother Asha, whose fanatic focus on her son’s wedding prospects clash against his own romantic ideals. And in the show itself, playing as part of this year’s Melbourne Festival, the dichotomy appears simple – a mother’s expectation of a prosperous marriage; a son’s hope of a happy one.

But the way it plays out on stage – with Ravi playing himself, and his mum, Asha Jain, playing herself – is far more complicated. The play centres around one true-to-life anecdote that follows his parents’ desperate, borderline Machiavellian antics to find him a girl to wed – the kind that involves plane tickets, accommodation-based dupes and unexpected banquets with second-degree relatives of potential spouses. Ravi on stage, electrified with exasperation, spins the tale with a brash, mock-outrage humour – transforming into his dad, mum, uncle or aunt with the simple widening of the eyes and the thickening of the accent.

The real comedy though, comes from Asha, credited as co-writer, whose own snide, sharp interjections are the kind only an Asian mum can really pull off, as she disputes Ravi’s frenetic hyperboles, throws offhand insults and gleefully cuts the dramatic tension her son has worked so hard to build. Though Asha, as a non-professional actor, recites many of her lines with a slight stiffness that comes off as a bit ingenuine, she does it with a clever tease of a smile, a genuine smugness that’s immeasurably satisfying and frequently hilarious.

Beth Kates’ lighting, bright and unforgiving, combined with Julie Fox’s simple, dining-table set, give a no-distractions simplicity to the show, leaving enough room to spotlight Ravi and Asha’s relationship. Between them is only a pot of tea and a plate of samosas (which we are treated to pre- and post- show, and are soft, fluffy and delicious). While Asha stays in her seat the entire time – a serene, monolithic force – Ravi can’t sit still. One moment he’s sprawled out on his wooden, hard-back chair, another he’s with his forehead on the table, knees inches from the ground, in absolute defeat. His physical liveliness is a charming juxtaposition to Asha’s immovability.

This is all to say: visually, audibly, kinetically, Ravi and Asha Jain operate in binary opposition. Ravi’s animated Canadian brashness is all the more pronounced against Asha’s stern, sly, Indian repose: they are of different generations, different cultures and thus different ideals. But as Asha notes so beautifully – they are two sides to the same coin. Their happiness is of a shared currency. 

If only this strange, charming paradox were explored more in the play’s script. But Ravi, and by extension the play, treats his mother’s laser-eyed fixation on his romantic prospects with such a blunt affront that he fails to interrogate his own ideals and expectations, and ultimately stumbles in fully understanding hers.

Asha explains why she wants Ravi to marry an Indian woman: she doesn’t want Ravi to lose sight of his culture; his heritage, once she’s left. Her voice catches. But then they move on. At another point, Asha speaks earnestly and honestly of abandoning her own dreams for an arranged marriage and a subsequent immigration to Canada – where she knew no one but her newly-wed. It’s a story that brings out a brief bitter sense of loneliness and entrapment – the same kind she may be forcing on her son.

The ideas that arise from these tender bits of nuance are sidelined for most of the play, with Asha characterised mostly as a typical overbearing Asian mother. Rest assured though, Asha’s not just that. In brief moments, she is given space to talk candidly of the insular Indian community around her and its various gruelling pressures. As the matriarch, she’s expected to shoulder the heavy responsibility of cultivating her son’s romantic and financial successes. It’s her burden to bear – but as she insists, it’s all borne from love.

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