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Stars of ‘Happy Birthday, Sunita’ reveal inner demons (of their characters)

Stars of ‘Happy Birthday, Sunita’ reveal inner demons (of their characters)

September 18 2014

A well-known Indian actress will team up with British talent to go around the country and then onto Dubai and India…

WATFORD seems an unlikely place for an international icon to be traipsing the boards.

But that is precisely what the much decorated and hugely respected Indian actor and social activist Shabana Azmi (pictured above as her character) is doing.

A member of India’s upper house of parliament (Rajya Sabha) and with a glittering 40-year career behind her, she will be touring the UK for the first time and appearing in a British Asian production that will also take her to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Mumbai, India.

Along with actors Ameet Chana, Goldy Notay, Russell Floyd and newcomer Clara Indrani, Azmi will appear in Watford Palace Theatre-based Rifco Arts’ new work, “Happy Birthday, Sunita”.

The play is written by actor Harvey Virdi and developed with Pravesh Kumar, the artistic director of Rifco and the play’s director.

Azmi, Chana and Notay all spoke to www.asianculturevulture.com about their roles in what Chana described as a “Kitchen sink dramedy”.

The play opens this Friday (September 19) in Watford, before heading to Wolverhampton, Leeds, Oldham, Brentford, Colchester and Gravesend on October 25 to complete its one month long-plus tour of England. It will then transfer to Dubai and finish with shows in Mumbai from December 2.

Azmi has a significant roll call of theatre credits alongside her better-known film work, which includes “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and “Midnight’s Children”, both in 2012.

ACV
Goldy Notay (Harleen Johal) and Ameet Chana (Nav Johal)

She has toured with the Singapore Repertory Theatre and last appeared on stage abroad in the US on tour in 2012 in Indian playwright Girish Karnad’s much acclaimed, “Broken Images”. This charts the experience of an Indian author who achieves fame and fortune as soon she writes in English, after years of toil and struggle writing in Hindi.

Azmi told www.asianculturevulture.com it was the challenge of doing a stage play on tour in the UK that captured her.

“I took it on thinking this was really going to be out of my comfort zone. In film, you are protected in an outdoor shoot, there are so many people looking after you.

“Here, it’s going to be living on your own in a flat and fending for yourself. I was excited by that. I think it’s very important for actors every now and then to pull themselves out of their comfort zones and say, ‘okay, let’s do something (different).”

She was also swayed by the talent involved and has been impressed by the way Rifco has itself grown and nurtured new audiences – a sentiment echoed by Chana too.

“I had met Pravesh before,” explained Azmi, “to discuss another project and he wrote to me about this and told me Goldy was involved.

“I had already worked with Goldy on the Gurinder Chadha film (“It’s a Wonderful After Life” – 2010) and I have great regard for her as an actress and she told me it would be an experience I would not regret. I think they were surprised when I said that I would also do the tour.

She continued: “Rifco has done so many path-breaking things, and its biggest contribution is that it has been able to create a theatre-going audience from a non-theatre going audience.

“These are people who were only watching Hindi cinema and now by Rifco keeping their rates low and telling stories with which audiences can identify has actually created an entirely new audience – all credit to them for that.”

Azmi plays Tejpal Johal, the matriarch, who throws asunder convention and expectation.

“At one point she says ‘I am not going to hold onto pretences any more and I am going to do what makes me happy – which comes as a shock to the rest of the family as they have never really seen her as a person – and all hells breaks loose,” said Azmi with a glint in her eye.

Her daughter-in-law in “Happy Birthday, Sunita” is Notay, who plays Harleen Johal – “a wonderful nightmare”, as described Notay herself.

“She is acutely self-conscious and tries to attract attention to herself so that everyone will love her – especially her husband’s mum (Azmi).”

Needy, attention-seeking and sharp-tongued, Notay has had to dig deep to find the character (we hope).

“There are elements of myself in her I daresay,” she joked. “I don’t want to say which ones – not the annoying parts – all the likeable features are all from me.”

Her husband is Nav (Chana).

Chana told www.asianculturevulture.com: “Nav is an every-day kind of young, Punjabi Sikh guy who grew up in and around where he’s from and he’s never really moved away from there.

“He is very much a mummy’s boy but he is married to a lovely girl called Harleen whom he met in university and fell in love with.”
The family have gathered to celebrate Sunita’s (Indrani) 40th birthday and Nav and Harleen make the short way over to the maternal home ruled by Nav’s Mum (Azmi).

Chana again: “The relationship between Nav and Harleen – it’s very tempestuous and very argumentative, but it’s also very real, they have been married six years, and they live nearby.

“Harleen is a very posh middle-class girl, it’s real – they don’t want to live as an extended family any more they want to do their own thing.”

Both Chana and Notay helped Virdi develop the characters at an early stage before the script was complete and you can tell a lot of interesting detail has been added.

“It’s a comedy that comes from dark places, which if you are watching from outside is funny, but to the people involved, it’s not,” explained Chana.

An actor now for 24 years, he said he has noticed a change and improvement in Asian inspired drama writing.

“I remember my first production at the National Theatre in 1994 and a lot of Asian actors I didn’t know coming to see it and saying in 10 years it will be better, but then I kept meeting them and things hadn’t progressed as they should have.

“But that’s changed now and I can tell you why – young British Asians, particularly actors, are now branching out and saying ‘if people are not going to write good stuff for me, I will go away and write it myself’.

“We’ve got Harvey who is an amazing writer and a phenomenal actor (you can see her in the Shan Khan thriller, “Honour” released in spring 2014 and in a totally different type of role in Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy, “Citizen Khan”).

“Pravesh was also once an actor and he decided to change the game of the theatre scene and generate a British Asian audience that is going to come to the theatre – it was something that didn’t happen 15-20 years ago,” said Chana.

Now there is one…roll on “Happy Birthday, Sunita.”

Listings/links

  • Watford Palace Theatre, September 19-21, check times and prices: evenings and matinees, Watford Palace Theatre, Watford Palace Theatre, 20 Clarendon Road, Watford WD171JZ www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk
  • Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton September 23-27, 7.30pm and 1.30pm Saturday, Arena Theatre,Wulfruna Street,Wolverhampton, WV1 1SE. http://www.wlv.ac.uk/
  • West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, October 1-4, 7.45pm, West Yorkshire Playhouse
    Playhouse Square, Quarry Hill Leeds http://www.wyp.org.uk/
  • Oldham Coliseum Theatre October 7-11, Check times and prices, Oldham Coliseum Theatre, Fairbottom Street, Oldham OL1 3SW www.coliseum.org.uk
  • Watermans, Brentford October 14-18, 7.45pm and matinee, 40 High Street, Brentford, West London, TW8 0DS  www.watermans.org.uk
  • Mercury Theatre, Colchester October 21, 7.30pm, Mercury Theatre, Balkerne Gate, Colchester, CO11PT www.mercurytheatre.co.uk
  • The Woodville, Gravesend October 24-25, 7.30pm and 3.30pm (Sat) Woodville Halls Theatre, Gravesend, Kent, www.woodville.co.uk
  • NCPA, Mumbai (India) December 2-3, National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai www.ncpamumbai.com

www.rifcoarts.com

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture

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