Slowly, Slowly, Rafta, Rafta Grows On You

Rafta Rafta The New Group Through June 21, 2008 Tickets $55 ($41.25 with promo code)

When I was in London last year, there was one West End production that I was determined to see—Ayub Khan-Din’s “Rafta, Rafta” at the National Theatre. Of course, as my luck would have it, the one parents rafta.jpgweekend I was there was when the play was on a hiatus, so I returned stateside without having watched the stage event which was described by the Daily Telegraph as “’an irresistible mixture of bonhomie, bumptiousness and egomania…irresistibly comic.” It goes without saying that when “Rafta, Rafta” made its off-Broadway debut at the Acorn Theatre in NYC earlier this month, I was eager to see how it had survived its journey across the Atlantic.

“Rafta, Rafta” is brought to us by Ayub Khan-Din, he who is best known for the brilliant “East is East,” which shone a spotlight on middle class British-Indian family in the 70s. While “East is East” also addressed themes of race and cultural adjustment—i.e. political issues outside the home, “Rafta Rafta” is much more of a comedy and drama about domestic politics.

Based on Bill Naughton’s 1963 play “All in Good Time,” “Rafta, Rafta” (directed by Scott Elliot who also directed the 1999 production of “East is East” and the original “Avenue Q” production at The New Group) is a comic yet poignant look at the challenges of extended family living in contemporary UK. [read the rest of this review below the fold] The Subjects: The Dutts, a contemporary blue collar family living in Bolton, a suburb of Manchester.

The Situation: After their wedding, Atul (Manish Dayal), the eldest son, and his new bride Vina (Reshma Shetty) move into the home of his parents, the attention-seeking, domineering yet well-intentioned father Eeshwar (Ranjit Chowdhry) and caustic, charming Lopa (Sakina Jaffrey). In cramped quarters which they also share with an intrusive younger brother Jai Dutt (Satya Bhabha) and which is regularly frequented by Atul’s boss Jivaj Bhatt (Sean T. Krishnan) and his British wife Molly (Alison Wright), as well as Vina’s parents Lata Patel (Sarita Choudhry of Mississippi Masala fame) and Laxman (Alok Tewari), Atul and Vina struggle with their inability to consummate their marriage. Atul has a further bone to contend with: his troubled relationship with his father. In no time, what started out as Atul and Vina’s personal issue becomes everybody’s problem to solve.

The Timeframe: The play begins on Autl and Vina’s wedding night and ends six weeks later.

The Result: An entertaining, intergenerational sitcom (parts of it reminded me of the show “Married with Children”) that touches on deeper issues without always going deep enough.

Anyone who has grown up in the intricate network of a large Indian family has experienced the feeling of realizing that it doesn’t take much for a secret to unravel and for “news” to spread. No topic is off-limits when it comes to preserving the family, Ayub-Din contends.

One of my favorite scenes is the one where the two parents have a living room conference where they try to come up with a solution for the young couple’s bedroom issues—Lata explains to the rest of the group, “IT (tilts her head up towards the couple’s bedroom), IT (additional emphasis) hasn’t happened yet.” (Sarita Choudhry’s performance as an “aunty” versus as the young protagonist took a bit getting used to — I have always so identified her with her MM days, but she really pulled it off and after a while, I stopped thinking about her as anything else but Lata, the mother with many regrets.) ladies rafta.jpg

What Ayub-Din alludes to but never fully explores are other questions of intimacy and relationships. For example, when Lopa and Eeshwar went on their honeymoon 30+ years ago, we discover that his best friend went along with them. That—and the subsequent departure of his friend because of Lopa’s innocent mischievous behavior—remains a big sore point in their marriage. There’s the Freudian subplot as well. Vina and her father’s relationship has always been so close that her mother Lata has long felt like an outsider in her own family. The Electra complex? Then there’s the brother-in-law whose constant flirting with Vina seems innocent enough, but can’t help but make you wonder whether he has a crush on her. And, of course, there’s the close friendship Atul has with his friend Etash (Utkarsh Ambudkar) and especially the scene where the two of them enact a song from (I think) Pakeezah. There’s a question that comes up about their relationship as well. And, of course, Atul and Eeshwar’s relationship is rooted in the Oedipal complex.

All these themes largely go unanswered, but maybe that’s the point—that relationships are not so flat-faceted and that years of misgivings and misunderstandings can accumulate. Juxtaposing the marital problems of two older couples alongside the ones of a newly married takes this drama to a striking new level.

I have not read Bill Naughton’s “All in Good Time,” (which was later made into a film “The Family Way”) but from the various archival reviews that exist online, it seems like this was a pretty close adaptation.

In Aseem Chabra’s profile of Ayub Khan-Din at rediff, he writes:

Khan-Din discovered The Family Way at a Bafta screening and later realised that its original source was the Naughton play. He immediately sensed that it could be adapted into an Asian play. “It translated so easily, it was amazing,” he says. Rafta, Rafta is set in present day England and it reflects the economic plight of all working class families. “Everyone is on the same boat now, given the economic situation. Most young people and couples in England feel that they can’t afford to buy property because you have to line-up 25 to 30 percent of the mortgage for down payment. So it’s becoming normal that they carry on living in the family house, with all the problems — the frustrations and the anxiety of still living in the house with their parents.” [article]

The cultural transplantation works, especially when it weaves in themes of immigration, a make-you-bop-in-your-seat soundtrack by DJ Rekha, and clever quips such as:

Atul: I don’t think whiskey agrees with me. Eeshwar: I’m not asking you to have a conversation with it.

Though the first half of the play drags a bit, the tempo picks up after intermission as tempers flare, passions ignite, and emotions come to a head. Slowly, slowly, “Rafta, Rafta” grew on me.

At the end of the day, though the British accents were pretty authentic (thanks to dialect coach Stephen Gabis), I couldn’t help but wonder how different the NY production is from the original National Theatre version. While the parents leave the strongest impression in the New Group’s production, the young couple comes off as whiny and somewhat weak—I’m still trying to figure out whether that’s because they’re so overpowered by stage presence of the actors who played their parents or whether they just have some way to travel in terms of their own execution of their roles.

I also was intrigued at the difference in the synopsis provided by the UK and US productions.

National Theatre synopsis:

The wedding feast is over and his father’s dancing the bhangra, but the groom himself is busy on the net. and when it’s time for bed, he’s so woefully inhibited by the proximity of his parents, let alone his brother’s childish pranks, that his beautiful virgin bride remains just that. Six weeks later, the whole family start to panic.

New Group synopsis:

After their wedding feast, two nervous newlyweds are ready for some privacy, but the groom’s father doesn’t want the party to end and his brother won’t let them be. Before long, the groom and his new bride begin to realize that having a honeymoon in his parents’ house is not the ideal recipe for romance. Rafta, Rafta… is Ayub Khan-Din’s comic look at the generational divide on sex and marriage.

And, here are the posters of the two productions. Night and day, if you ask me. One emphasizes the family drama element. The other straightforwardly pitches the play as a riff on sex and marriage.

raftaUK.jpg rafta US.jpg

Regardless of the variations and the ways in which the NY production could have been improved, I have to agree with ultrabrown’s manish who says “quickly, quickly: see ‘Rafta, Rafta …” and TheaterMania’s Dan Bacalzo who says, “book your tickets, quickly, quickly.” After all, it’s not often enough that a play about desi family life comes to a theatre near you.

17 thoughts on “Slowly, Slowly, Rafta, Rafta Grows On You

  1. Saw this last year, excellent play. Plus the national theatre one had the talented Niraj Chag doing the music!

  2. I’m so glad you wrote about this as i saw it on the preview weekend and it was so great. There were many laughs and the audience seemed to really enjoy it. The theatre is not so bi so it was a nice cosy feel.

    i did feel there was a little too much focus on the father than needed and hence the first part also dragged on a bit for me but as mentioned it picked up in the second half

    I was defienetly impressed by the UK northern accents displayed by the main characters and the fact the play was kept authentic.

  3. Thanks Sepiamutiny! You keep us all, especially from the smaller towns, upto date on what is going on in NYC!! I will try and make it to a show during the long weekend. Thanks again!

  4. “quickly, quickly: see ‘Rafta, Rafta …”

    shouldn’t that be “jaldi, jaldi?”

  5. The whole play is based on something completely unrealistic.

    that his beautiful virgin bride remains just that. Six weeks later, the whole family start to panic.

    A British-Indian pair of lovers today wouldn’t be virgins on their wedding night.

    I found the premise twee, and I’m pretty bored of the whole aesthetic of this kind of British Asian drama, kitchen-sink northern comedy / broad Carry On style humour. It’s become a formula. Some chuckles to be had, but that’s all.

  6. I was lucky enough to see the production at the National last year – a good production, excellent performances, not too controversial or cutting edge, something I could easily take my mum or any aunty along to and know they’d have a good time.

    Yup, the play is for the most part a straight adaptation of the original with a few updates or Asian bits added here and there as colour, rather than as a starting point to delve any deeper into the life of the Asian community in the UK (which is what East is East does).

    What was more interesting to me at the time was the fact that I was one of the very few South Asians in the audience. I was surrounded by a sea of middle aged, middle class, European faces all loving the show and giggling the whole way – although there were points where I was the only person laughing.

  7. What was more interesting to me at the time was the fact that I was one of the very few South Asians in the audience. I was surrounded by a sea of middle aged, middle class, European faces all loving the show and giggling the whole way – although there were points where I was the only person laughing.

    It ticks all the multicultural boxes for the National Theatre. A little slice of working class Indian life, look at the saris in the middle of industrial northern England, etc etc etc

    Ayub Khan Din’s appeal is easy to see. Take the bawdy humour and comedy of Hanif Kureishi’s early work, add insights into family, race, love, and everything else, shake it around in a bucket, and you get “Bend it Like East is Rafta”.

    What I found interesting about the play was the choice Khan-Din made in making the family Hindu-Punjabi Indian, rather than Muslim Pakistani. The town in which the play is set, Bolton, has very few Indians, and is overwhelmingly Pakistani, in terms of the make up of the South Asian community. Khan-Din himself comes from a mixed-race Pakistani Muslim background.

    I think it could be something to do with not having to deal with all of the baggage and expectations that a play about Pakistani Muslims set in the north of England would have to deal with, all the questions about the growth of religious extremism, the place of “Islam in the modern world”, a long drawn out disquisition on the position of Muslim women.

    Making the protagonists Hindu takes away those expectations, allows him to focus on the family and romantic dynamics and comedy, the cultural playfulness, the witty observations about South Asian family life without the suffocating expectation of ‘BEING A COMMENT ON ISLAM’ and ‘ABOUT BEING A MUSLIM TODAY’

    Khan-Din has no responsibility to address those subjects if he doesn’t want to. And it is sad that he may have felt the need to make a decision on the background of the family depicted in order to follow his muse and by-pass those expectations. I have a sense that the outside burdens that come with being a Muslim writer in the UK can be asphyxiating at times. And I find that a little sad.

    Either way, the affection, curiosity, affinity and tenderness that a writer of Pakistani Muslim background feels for Indian culture and characters is an underlying and very sweet subtext that I took from this play.

  8. “Making the protagonists Hindu takes away those expectations, allows him to focus on the family and romantic dynamics and comedy, the cultural playfulness, the witty observations about South Asian family life without the suffocating expectation of ‘BEING A COMMENT ON ISLAM’ and ‘ABOUT BEING A MUSLIM TODAY’”

    There was a uk TV drama called http://www.channel4.com/culture/microsites/B/britz/text

    Last year that got allot of media attention. From the reaction from Muslim friends was why is every image with Islam on the telly, has a link to terrorism. It is indeed sad because here was an opportunity to show the faith in another light. UK politicians keep harping on about how Muslim leaders should do more to unite communities, but television and media are the most powerful tool at the moment. Would it have been revolutionary or a break through? No, but it would have been something.

  9. Yeah I watched that programme rudie_c. I thought it was tendentious, and at its heart it told lies about the subject, but that’s a separate debate.

  10. Funny I should see this today. I saw it last night! I took my husband and inlaws along and cringing a little at the prospect of this embarrassing me based on the subject matter (interfering inlaws in the life of a newly wed umm) However it was pretty funny. Sakina Jaffrey was simply brilliant and endearing, and Ranjit Chowdhary for all his incredible acting, wow he’s fantastic, was overbearing as a character. He got on my nerves, much as a lot of desi uncles tend to.

    But there are all these non desi folks in the audience (who were laughing their heads off) and I was a little overwhelmed at the reinforcing of all the stereotypes that exist about Indian culture. Oye. I know it’s supposed to be entertainment but it grated from time to time. The whiskey, the clueless interfering but oh well meaning parents. And the living at home after marriage business.

    I’d like to address this however…

    The whole play is based on something completely unrealistic.
    that his beautiful virgin bride remains just that.
    Six weeks later, the whole family start to panic. A British-Indian pair of lovers today wouldn’t be virgins on their wedding night.

    This is very real for a lot of young early 20s kids married in India and quite likely in this scenario. I have cousins who didn’t consumate their marriages till weeks later who either had physical or mental difficulties they had to get over and get to know a stranger before having sex with him nevermind do it with a house full of people sleeping around them.

    And I also know plenty of friends here in the US, born and raised, who married early, after college, who were still virgins. Sure they fooled around but they were virgins when they married. I find nothing unrealistic about that notion.

  11. Sorry my quotes above didn’t work out too well :-(

    The whole play is based on something completely unrealistic. that his beautiful virgin bride remains just that. Six weeks later, the whole family start to panic. A British-Indian pair of lovers today wouldn’t be virgins on their wedding night.
  12. @JOAT: Yeah, but he is referring to British-Indians and I think he is right.

    The United States has an entirely different set of values in that respect from the UK.

  13. 15 · Meena said

    @JOAT: Yeah, but he is referring to British-Indians and I think he is right. The United States has an entirely different set of values in that respect from the UK.

    what values are they?? that all british asians are sluts?

  14. I went with six female “in-law” relatives, including my new mother in law. It was hilarious!The laughter and quit with was refreshing.. “Atul” is very easy on the eyes too but a lovely performance. I fortunately got pics of the entire crew as keep sakes after. Every young couple, Indian or not can relate to the content at some level:) Loved it!