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May 13, 1999


Aasif Mandvi Takes Sakina's Restaurant Across America

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Hema Nair in New York

Aasif Mandvi Five years ago, when playwright and actor Aasif Mandvi first dreamt up the premise of Sakina's Restaurant, he had no idea that it would rise to fame as one of the top off-Broadway hits for 1998.

In addition, the critically acclaimed one-man play has made it to the main selection of The Stage & Screen Book Club pick for Fall 1998, and led to Mandvi being chosen the Best Monologist of 1998 by the New York Press Awards in their Best of Manhattan issue. As if that was not enough, Mandvi is now working on a screenplay based on characters in the play.

All this from one play about Indian immigrants running a restaurant in New York?

"The life of this play has been incredible. Originally, it was booked in June 1998 at the American Place Theatre and was scheduled to run till August," remembers Mandvi, who has just returned from a successful performance of Sakina's Restaurant at Chicago's prestigious Northlight theatre.

"Instead, I ended up performing the show in New York till the beginning of January 1999."

Immediately after the show closed in New York, 32-year-old Mandvi took it for a packed, three-week run in Toronto and is currently finalising plans to perform it in Los Angeles, and later, London.

Sakina's Restaurant is about a family of Indian Muslims who own the restaurant and a new immigrant who arrives from India to work as a waiter. Each of the six characters, played with effortless dexterity by Mandvi, exposes the raw reality of living in a culture that is alien to the one they were born to.

The one-man play's message of an immigrant Indian Muslim family's uneasy assimilation has obviously hit a responsive nerve not only in the mainstream theatre-going American public, but also among Indians, who are often notoriously sensitive about airing the truth about their private lives.

"It is very surprising that Indians have not objected to the show," admits Mandvi. "I would have thought there would have been some criticism because no one has done a show like this. Even when I took the show to Toronto, where the audience is more conservative, the Indians who turned up in large numbers to see the play never said anything negative."

"Maybe they recognised its basic honesty, and the fact that it does not offend anyone, in terms of diminishing a person, but just shows a different side of each of the characters," he adds.

The Bombay-born actor was hardly two when his family moved first to England and then to Florida when he was a teenager. He confesses that while performing all the six characters in the play can become a draining experience, it has also allowed him unlimited control over the manner in which the play is projected.

During the recent performance at the Northlight, for instance, Mandvi was unfazed by the theatre's huge size.

"My play was made for an intimate space," notes Mandvi, recalling the 74-seat American Place theatre in New York City, "and this was an 800-plus seat auditorium. The audience in the back could easily have really missed whole segments of the play. But because I was the only actor on the stage, I could adjust to the new demands of that stage with more flexibility."

Mandvi, who has had many off-Broadway appearances, including Death Defying Acts, subUrbia and Crosscurrents, responded by making sure his face was always kept up where the light could hit it, strode across the stage with louder emphasis and accentuated points that conveyed emotion and depth.

"My performance was like painting with broader strokes, and I don't think ultimately that the play lost anything. Instead it achieved a different flavour, which was definitely enriching," he observes.

Apart from the rave reviews that the play has garnished for Mandvi's acting prowess, it has also embellished his career as a scriptwriter. Currently, Mandvi sits down three times a week with his co-writer John Bires who is part of the comedy sketch group called Associates that Mandvi belongs to, and is putting together a screenplay based on some of the characters from the play.

"It's not at all like Sakina's Restaurant," he says. "This is a fun, irreverent comedy." Though Mandvi is not averse to the idea of having an Indian director for the film, he clearly states that he welcomes Bires's input in the making of the film's characters and theme.

"Hollywood is a very consumer-oriented market, and I want to write a movie for the mainstream market. John, because he comes from a different culture and is learning about Indian culture as he is writing about it, will convey a perspective that will be similar to that of most of the audience. He will inject a sense of universality into the script and prevent me from being too self-indulgent about my Indianness," Mandvi shrewdly points out.

The movie will also have a lot of elements of Indian food, which Mandvi hopes will work the visual magic of other ethnic-food theme films like Water for Chocolate and The Wedding Banquet. "We're going to throw in a drag performance as well, so it's going to have something of Tootsie in it too. Hopefully, it will all mix together and make a success," he says, laughing.

The unprecedented popularity of Sakina's Restaurant has also resulted in opening up more avenues in the way of movie roles offered to Mandvi.

The actor, who can currently be caught playing the role of an Indian doctor in the Billy Crystal-Robert De Niro hit comedy Analyze This, will also be appearing in a Harrison Ford movie called Random Hearts.

"It's a one-scene role where I sell Ford some electronic equipment," reveals Mandvi disarmingly, adding that he is "constantly auditioning for film roles".

Mandvi also has a major role in an independent film made by Krutin Patel called ABCD. A romantic comedy, it follows the love affairs of a second-generation Indian boy and his sister in New Jersey.

While juggling his acting, writing, and stand-up comedy careers, Mandvi is also concentrating on getting Sakina's Restaurant to Los Angeles and London.

"After that, I think I'm ready to let go of the play. Or at least," he adds quickly, "get an understudy. At this point it seems that everywhere there is an Indian community, they want me to bring the show. So it could run for a few years. My life is getting crazily busy at the moment but I'm not complaining."

Hema Nair, a Princeton-based writer, has been published in The New York Times and Ms magazine.

Sakina's Recipe For Success

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