The minute you steal one of their good ol' boys," he warns, "you will be Indian again.
Sakina's Restaurant, a monologue written by and starring Aasif Mandvi, is rightfully commanding attention and acclaim. Originally an off-Broadway production, where it received substantial praise and favor during its extended run at the American Place Theatre, it recently finished a two-week Toronto run in February. Sakina's Restaurants scheduled for further runs in Chicago, Los Angeles and London.
The ninety-minute work is fashioned around a series of vignettes starring members of a South Asian restaurateur's family. The play opens with the eager Azgi departing India for New York City where his uncle, Hakim will employ him in his restaurant. Hakim is the hard-working immigrant businessman with a wife who sees her life in America as a sacrifice for her children -a teenage daughter, Sakina, and a younger spoilt son. These and other characters are all played by Mandvi with Azgi as the central narrator.
Semi-autobiographical, Sakina's Restaurant draws upon Mandvi's experiences of resettlement abroad during the 1980's. Born in Bombay. Mandvi and his family moved to northern England when he was young, and then to the U.S. during his adolescence.
Sakina's Restaurant explores the complicated experience of immigration from an Indo-American perspective. One theatre critic's review began with the confession that she dreaded seeing "another eager to please immigrant with a story." However, Mandvi's effort actually challenges such one-dimensional portrayals of immigrants. Although Azgi is initially portrayed as the obsequious colonial servant, Mandvi explains that over the course of the play "he sheds this conventional naivete and optimism."
The play closes with a poignant, Rushdie-esque allegory about throwing a perfect stone in a river and not being able to retrieve the stone downstream because one had never really known what it looked like. The stone symbolizes the cherished "American dream" immigrants intend to chase upon arrival. However, as Azgi realizes, the dream is nebulous and escapes him in a torrent of disenchantment.
Sakina's Restaurant incorporates other stereotypes assigned to South Asian culture: the dutiful wife, proud father, and the ambitious pre-med university student. Mandvi plays each with remarkable fidelity. The characters similarly serve as starting points to explore complex experiences and themes encompassing immigration and disembeddment. Mandvi uses each vignette to consider, develop, and interweave a theme of struggle - struggle for faith and for acceptance. In a powerful scene, Hakim, while taking dinner reservations over the phone in a pleasing and suave manner, confronts his adolescent child about her "American ways." In a telling tone, he predicts that, despite all her efforts to disassociate herself from her Indian background, she will not receive unqualified acceptance. "The minute you steal one of their good ol' boys," he warns, "you will be Indian again."
Sakina tries to convince her dimwitted white boyfriend Tom that "I'm not like them." Her plea is more than a girl trying to win male approval. She is seeking acceptance from the dominant culture.
In her scene, Sakina tries to convince her dimwitted white boyfriend Tom that "I'm not like them." Her plea is more than a girl trying to win male approval. She is seeking acceptance from the dominant culture. Her scene symbolically closes with her inability to tear up the photo of her arranged fiancee to prove to Tom her complete allegiance to him, and more so to mainstream culture.
The work is technically and physically ambitious. Mandvi challenges himself to switch characters with minimal use of props and stage. Transitions between characters and scenes are seamless - no doubt assisted by the skilled hand of the play's artistic director, Wynn Handman.
Mandvi points out that it is also difficult to articulate the subject matter and scope of the piece. Although marketed as a comedy, Mandvi clarifies that Sakina's Restaurantis "a drama with comedic moments." His characters originally surfaced in his stand-up act but were removed after they received little response. He laughingly recalls how one of the best pieces of advice he ever received was from Woody Allan, "Remember that at least they are there and are listening." Recently Mandvi has had to deal with mainstream media who lack the insight to comprehend the piece's scope. Now Magazine, acclaimed as Toronto's leading arts and culture weekly, printed a negative review that described Sakina's Restaurant as overly melodramatic and lacking humour. A staff theatre critic regarded Sakina's confrontation with the notion of arranged marriage as confusing and exaggerated.
Mandvi's proclivity for writing and drama emerged in childhood when he staged solo pieces for his parents and their colleagues. He attended the University of South Florida on a theatre scholarship. After graduation, his endeavors mirrored the stereotypical North American actor: moving to New York; waitering; attending acting workshops; and eventually winning minor commercial work in ads, television, and film. Currently, he appears in two major Hollywood productions. He plays Dr. Shulman in Ivan Reitman's Analyze This and Khali' opposite Denzel Washington in Against All Enemies.
Mandvi remarks that Sakina's Restaurant serves as a catharsis. He has explored and deepened his understanding of his family's experience and also has been able to deconstruct the stereotypical South Asian roles he has played professionally. "I refuse to play the cab driver again unless they are paying me an extremely obnoxious amount of money." He soundly predicts that such depictions will change as more South Asians emerge to write. Mandvi won the coveted Best Monologue award from the New York Press for Sakina's Restaurant The writer and thespian is currently negotiating a film adaptation of this stage piece.