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May 13, 1999


Sakina's Recipe For Success

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A P Kamath in New York

At one moment, he is the wide-eyed young man from the Indian subcontinent who has just arrived in New York with all the usual dreams immigrants have.

At another moment, he plays the lonely housewife who scolds her husband Hakim for not keeping up his promise of quitting smoking.

And a few moments later, he is Azgi, the waiter who is arguing with an American customer who wants his dish made spicy; 5 on a scale of 1 to 5. He tries to tell the customer the heat scale is more of a gimmick, and he won't survive No. 5. "Look, man, I'm from India," he says, the exasperation singing through his voice. "But even in India no one asks for No. 5"

Aasif Mandvi Sakina's Restaurant, Aasif Mandvi's one-man show which received raves from the likes of The New York Times, is now travelling across North America.

For the record, this is the very first time a play about Indian immigrant experience has been offered to mainstream American audiences. For decades American playwrights have created wonderful plays about immigrants from Russia, Eastern Europe and Greece ( Fiddler on the Roof) The current Broadway hit, Ragtime is based on E L Doctorow's best-selling novel about Jewish immigrants, and sets to examine race relations among whites and blacks.

Mandvi remembers a visitor who was watching him rehearse last June, a few days before the show was to open for a three week run in a 74-seat theater in New York's glitziest theater district, the Broadway. The visitor told Mandvi, who also wrote the play, that it should run for 30 weeks. "It is touching, and it should interest anyone who has had to deal with bicultural experiences," the well-wisher had said. "I am sure you have friends and relatives in other parts of America. Make them come to New York to see you. And till all of them have seen the play, keep it going."

In a way his wishes became prophetic.

Fuelled by raves in The New York Times and Village Voice, Sakina's Restaurant extended its run to July 19, then to August 2; there was another extension, till August 16 -- and then finally, the curtains came down in December.

Advertisements in The New York Times and other publications carried the word: Extended, as if to remind the viewers that the play was here to stay for a very long time to come. Calling the play "wonderful," the Times added: 'Mr Mandvi shows what an amazing actor he is... The funny and endearing show works in every tone it assumes: comic, grave, wistful, and angry.' Village Voice called it 'riveting and hilarious.'

What made Sakina's Restaurant special?

"You can move to the other end of the earth but you can't leave your past behind," says Mandvi. It is not about being an Indian or American, he clarifies. "It's about how you search for something out there, and it ends up being inside you all along," he adds.

"In bringing their story to the mainstream, Aasif has enlightened us," director Kim Hughes says. His play is about looking for one's soul in a society far removed from one's own -- and all people should go around looking into themselves and ask themselves what they are doing in this world, she says. "The characters in the play discover the truth about themselves. "

Sakina's Restaurant played in New York at The American Place Theater.

But to get one's show even in a small theater on Broadway was not a small achievement.. And what was more important, it was produced by American Place Theater which has presented shows by such Oscar winners as John Malkovich -- and Mandvi has been trained by Wynn Handman who has trained the likes of Michael Douglas and, Denzel Washington.

"It is amazing the way the show has been embraced by non-Indian audiences," says publicist Susan Chicoine at Springer/Chicoine publicity firm. "A lot of Jewish people are seeing it. The drama in Azgi's life in a way reminds them of the cultural clashes perhaps their parents or their grandparents underwent when they arrived from Europe decades ago."

Now, Mandvi, 32, hopes to take the play to India and the Gulf countries.

But that will pose a few challenges. For Mandvi is not just a stage actor; he has had a busy career in the past two and half years, playing small but significant roles in the mainstream American movies including The Siege and Analyze This.

He has learned a lot from the stars and directors with whom he has worked, even if it were for a day or two, he says.

Woody Allen told him not to expect the same reactions, same laughter, same sighs or same anger from live audiences, Mandvi says.

Just because one night the audiences did not laugh loud does not mean that they were not enjoying the play, Allen told Mandvi. "It does not mean they were not listening," the famed actor and film-maker said. "They are reacting on another level. So don't get discouraged."

His ambition is to write and direct and star in his own movies.

Meanwhile, he says he won't play another Indian or Pakistani cabby, "unless they are paying me an extremely obnoxious amount of money."

Aasif Mandvi Takes Sakina's Restaurant Across America

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