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'Rafta, Rafta' a classic immigrant's tale with a difference

Ayub Khan-Din aims to keep it real with nuanced characters in his 'Rafta, Rafta.'

March 20, 2011|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Actors rehearse "Rafta Rafta" at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
Actors rehearse "Rafta Rafta" at the Old Globe Theatre in San… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Diego — — Of course there's a big Bollywood-style musical finale (even though it wasn't in the original script). And naturally, there's a boisterous wedding scene, wisecracks about the Kama Sutra, a large dollop of "East-West" conflict and clothes as brilliantly hued as a tropical fruit basket.

What else would you expect from a bittersweet domestic drama about multigenerational Indian migrants coping with family life in a northern England town?

But if Ayub Khan-Din's play "Rafta, Rafta" fulfills certain cultural expectations, it blithely flouts others. And so may the Old Globe theater this spring, simply by the act of hosting an Olivier Award-winning, contemporary immigrant drama in a space best known for its polished Shakespeare productions and the occasional Broadway-bound musical.

At the center of "Rafta, Rafta" is a newly married young couple, Atul Dutt (played by Rachid Sabitri) and his bride Vina Patel (Mahira Kakkar), struggling to consummate their marriage while living under the groom's parents' roof. If that sounds like a premise that wouldn't be out of place in a Neil Simon comedy, "Rafta, Rafta" director Jonathan Silverstein suggests, you may be onto something.

"I think the Globe's main stage season is really geared toward the family this year: 'August: Osage County,' 'Brighton Beach Memoirs,' 'Broadway Bound,'" Silverstein observed during a break at a rehearsal for the play, which opens March 24 and runs through April 24. "They all really do share this intense dysfunction but yet love. I mean, I think that's present in all these plays."

"Dysfunctional but loving" succinctly describes the Dutt and Patel clans. Residents of the one-time industrial hub of Bolton, the two families become united in marriage when their children tie the knot in the play's colorful opening sequence. But they're divided — mostly amiably, at times testily — by differences of class, education, regional background and lifestyle aspirations, which add to the layers of tension surrounding their offspring's extended, in-house "honeymoon."

By turns serious-minded and borderline absurdist, "Rafta, Rafta," whose title in Hindi translates as "slowly, slowly," is based on a 1960s British kitchen-sink comedy called "All in Good Time." Speaking by phone from his home in Spain, the playwright said that "All in Good Time" was so structurally solid, and its themes so universal, that he decided to adapt and update it.

"It's the juxtaposition of incredibly dark and sad moments with this farcical humor," said Khan-Din, who appeared as an actor in two seminal 1980s films about South Asian immigrants in London, "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid."

But if the play's storyline could work in Brooklyn, Berlin or Beijing, its specifics of setting and nuances of character are what make "Rafta, Rafta" stand out from other contemporary plays attempting to dramatize the intimate human effects of the huge demographic shifts sweeping the globe.

"Here in the States, so many of the stories that involve not the major minorities are so simplistic," said Gita Reddy, who plays the bride's mother. "The stories are always like, 'Oh, the immigrant parents who've worked so hard to come to this country are like this, they're very rigid. The kids, who've grown up here, are like this, they're very loose.' Clash! Clash! And this is a so much more sophisticated, complex clash, which means it just feels more real."

As a playwright Khan-Din doesn't judge his characters but he's brutally honest about them, the actors agreed. "And that's very cathartic, by the way, for any community," said Nasser Faris, a native of Egypt who plays the bride's doting father. "Spike Lee did it with the African Americans, the Asian community and Indian community in Britain did it, and I think there are a lot of Egyptians that are trying to do it."

Sabitri favorably compared "Rafta, Rafta" to the work of Hanif Kureishi, the Anglo Pakistani novelist-screenwriter who wrote "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie."

"With Hanif or Ayub's work, or any good playwright's work, everyone has secrets, everyone has a certain way of being in society," Sabitri said. "And then when they've got their back to the wall, true character comes out."

Unlike the critically praised 2008 New Group production of "Rafta, Rafta" in New York, which reportedly used only actors of Indian heritage, the Old Globe's players practically form a mini United Nations. Sabitri is a Brit of Moroccan descent. Geeta Citygirl Chopra (Atul's mother) and Shalin Agarwal (Atul's best friend) are Indian Americans raised in Long Island and Miami, respectively. Faris was born in Cairo, and Ariya Ghahramani (Atul's pesky brother) and Amir Darvish (Atul's boss) are Iranian Americans.

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