MARCH 2022 | Volume 225
Neha Devi Singh, Hussein Janmohamed, Leena Manro, (in back) Parm Soor, Seth Ranaweera, Sabrina Vellani, Aman Mann, Shera Haji, Salim Rahemtulla.
The Wrong Bashir
by Zahida Rahemtulla
Touchstone Theatre in assoc. with Firehall Arts Centre and
Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre
Firehall Arts Centre
www.firehallartscentre.ca or 604-689-0926
Zahida Rahemtulla’s The Wrong Bashir, getting its premiere from Touchstone Theatre at the Firehall, with the help of Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, is one big wacky romp. With a cast of ten South Asian-Canadian actors playing a cross-section of Vancouver’s Ismaili community, this broad comedy of mistaken identity also touches on family issues, generational differences, spiritual beliefs, cultural nostalgia and much more.
Director Daniela Atiencia’s Touchstone production goes for crowd-pleasing big laughs.But non-Ismaili audience members are made to work at understanding the internal dynamics of a community whose structures, language and terminology many of us will be exposed to for the first time.
The plot is pretty straightforward. We’re in the home of Najma (Neha Devi Singh) and Sultan Ladha (Seth Ranaweera), their philosophy student son Bashir (Aman Mann), and daughter Nafisa (Sabrina Vellani). When the parents get a call telling them that the local Ismaili Council has chosen Bashir to be the chief Ismaili student religious figure at UBC—the Mukhisaheb—they’re over the moon. What an enormous honour for the family.
The trouble is Bashir has no interest in the position. He never attends the khane, or temple, and in fact is a passionate nihilist. He has developed a podcast called The Smiling Nihilist which he’s trying to peddle to local coffee shops and microbreweries.
When two representatives of the Council, Al-Nashir Manji (Hussein Janmohamed) and Mansour (Parm Soor) arrive to ensure that he has the proper attitude and credentials, it quickly becomes clear that the opposite is the case. But then Bashir’s grandparents, Nana (Salim Rahemtulla) and Nani (Shera Haji), and Nani’s friend Gulzar (Leena Manro) also come piling in.The entire community has heard of Bashir’s great good fortune. And the pressure on Bashir and the counsellors grows accordingly.
A series of Instagram gags at the beginning sets up the generation gap theme, but it’s most evident in the acting styles. The kids, Bashir and Nafisa, present themselves more or less naturalistically, while the older characters are often over the top. This is especially the case with Soor’s Mansour, who is very funny but sometimes acting in another dimension. An exception is Nana, the grandfather, quietly suffering from dementia and often thinking he’s back in Uganda (from where these Ismailis have emigrated during the Idi Amin expulsion). Bashir relates most intimately to his Nana, who gets him thinking about reconnecting with his Ismaili culture.
I enjoyed this play a lot. It’s genuinely funny, though repetitious and too long. It offers a fascinating look into a vital community I knew almost nothing about until recently when I saw 90 Days, Salim Rahemtulla’s play about the Ugandan expulsion, which played at PAL not long ago. I’m just glad I read the playwright’s program note first, which sort of explains the key terms that are spoken in the play without explanations—Mukhisaheb and khane.
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