Parents and kids don’t often see eye to eye. Moms and dads offer advice and occasionally try to exert control over their children and their offspring either relent or resist in pursuit of independence.
In Why Not Theatre’s "A Brimful of Asha," audiences witness a generational clash first-hand when creators Ravi Jain and his mother, Asha Jain, dig into the idea of an arranged marriage at their dining room table over tea and snacks. Ravi’s parents want him to marry a girl from India so that he’ll have a connection to their homeland after they’re gone. Ravi, who was born and raised in Canada, prefers the more Western way of carving his own path to matrimony.
But what of history or tradition? Questions like these are what “A Brimful of Asha” urges us to contemplate.
The play’s title could be an homage to Cornershop’s Bollywood cinema-centered ‘90s hit of the same name. Well, that and his mom’s name is Asha. Before delving into the story’s tension, Ravi — which means sun — references his love for Bollywood actor and superstar Amitabh Bachchan growing up.
The nearly 90-minute light-hearted tale with deeper implications uses comedy to grapple with the sticky subject. In the true story, presented by ArtsEmerson, streaming from March 9 to March 22, the two recount a 2007 trip to India where Ravi’s parents tried to find him a wife. The only issue was that Ravi wasn’t ready to get married. At least not without getting to know the person and possibly, finding love.
At the start of “A Brimful of Asha,” which was taped in front of a live audience, Ravi spends time giving show-goers a crash course in Indian arranged marriages. For those who haven’t watched the much-debated and criticized “Indian Matchmaking” show on Netflix, you’ll learn a little bit about “biodata” — a binder full of information that covers everything from prospective candidates' jobs to their time and date of birth to how physically attractive they are — and how family and astrology play a role in a possible marriage. As they share their stories, Ravi, who tends to stand or pace, is expressive and talks with his hands, and Asha, who calmly sits at the table while interjecting with her motherly brand of common sense and wit, is just as commanding. This intimate narrative translates well onscreen, but I imagine it would be even better in person, where the actors and the audience can feed off of one another.
The younger Jain is a playwright, director, and actor who launched Why Not in 2007 after “his ambitions came to a standstill when traditional companies wouldn’t welcome his voice,” he writes on the website. The gamble to strike out on his own is paying off. He’s a celebrated producer whose reimagining of 2017’s "Salt Water Moon" got rave reviews, and he was shortlisted for the 2016 and 2019 Siminovitch Prize. The company’s diverse team seeks to “rethink how stories are told and who gets to tell them.” Their hope is “to create the world we want to see.”
Asha isn’t an actor by trade but her personality slices through the work that she helped co-write. She makes the audience — including me — laugh aloud throughout the story. She lets everyone know in the beginning that she sometimes misses her lines, and when that happens, she asks the crowd to “have patience and try to hear my heart crying.” Asha talks about the enormous amount of pressure she and her family are under because Ravi won’t get married. Not to mention that he’s chosen a less than traditional profession, and he doesn’t speak Hindi that well.
When Asha recounts how quickly her marriage happened, it’s eye-opening. She met Ravi’s dad (who lived in Canada but had returned to India to get married) on Jan. 2 and got engaged the next day. By Jan. 28, they were married. On Feb. 8, the two-headed to Europe for 10 days and then on to Toronto, Canada, to start a new life together. Despite how scary that might sound to some, she and Ravi’s dad have been married for many decades. She doesn’t understand why Ravi won’t trust them to make the right choice. On the other side of the coin, Ravi shows an enormous amount of courage standing up to his parents and challenging a system that’s pushing him to conform.
Before the play ends, Ravi and Asha reflect on the massive, three-and-a-half-hour fight they had back then which ended with his mom in tears. But after everyone shared apologies, their core set of beliefs remained intact. What did change was how they worked to understand each other better.
There’s a moment that sums up how difficult it is to change someone’s perspective. At one point, Ravi tells his mom and dad to stop trying to set him up and to “consider me dead.”
Asha replies, “We can’t consider you dead until you get married.”
ArtsEmerson’s "A Brimful of Asha" opens Tuesday, March 9, followed by a conversation with Ravi and Asha Jain. The play will be available for streaming through March 22.