'Rafta, Rafta' Offers South Asian And Middle Eastern Actors Complex Roles
The Indian family drama "Rafta, Rafta" offers actors of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent a chance to play complex characters on the stage. We'll talk with three of those actors and learn more about the Old Globe production.
Geeta "Citygirl" Chopra plays the character of Lopa Dutt, the groom's mother.
Rachid Sabitri plays the character of Atul Dutt, the newly married young man at the center of the play.
Nasser Farris plays Laxman Patel, the father of the bride, in the Old Globe's "Rafta, Rafta."
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MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A wedding sets the scene for a bittersweet comedy at the Old Globe that celebrates South Asian culture. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Coming upon These Days, the colors may be from Bollywood and the play is Rafta Rafta, but the story is set in England. A big, traditional, noisy Indian family has gathered to celebrate but the wedding couple just want to be alone. We will speak with three cast members. Then we will meet with three men that say stay-at-home dad parenting may be a little different from moms, but that's not a bad thing. That's all ahead this morning on These Days. First, the news. I am Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The story of two young people in love who want sometimes to himself without interviewing family members is as old as Shakespeare. It also apparently transcends cultural differences. That's why a play adapted from the 1960s British comedy networks to introduce us to the Dutt and Patel clans. Two Indian families who have immigrated to England. The play is called Rafta Rafta and it's now running at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. I'd like to introduce my guests. Geeta Chopra plays the character Lopa Dutt, the groom's mother.
GEETA CHOPRA: Good morning.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Good morning. Rachid Sabitri is the newly married man at the center of the play. Rachid, welcome.
RACHID SABITRI: Thank you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Nasser Faris plays Laxman Patel, the father of the bride. Thank you for being here. Now Geeta, how unusual is a play like Rafta Rafta where there is lots of roles for actors of South Asian heritage?
GEETA CHOPRA: It is a unique experience as a South Asian actor to have the opportunity to be in a play where the characters are specifically South Asian. And to have it here at the Old Globe, such a prestigious theater I think is a great step for all of us actors of color in that community.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now there are many different cultural heritages in the cast of this play is that right?
GEETA CHOPRA: Correct.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Your heritage is from Egypt, Nasser?
NASSER FARIS: Yes.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Rachid?
RACHID SABITRI: I'm Moroccan.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So we have a span. Nasser what is your thought about roles that are now available to Middle Eastern actors?
NASSER FARIS: Generally speaking?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes.
NASSER FARIS: Since I became an actor in the United States I would say they are somewhat limited. The opportunities that are available a lot of times are very stereotypical two-dimensional. Maybe in the past few years there's a glimmer of hope for things to change, but I don't think they are fully realized yet. You know we are moving very slowly toward integrating people of color of all backgrounds into mainstream media.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Geeta, I think one of the things that's so interesting about this play is that the source material was about a white British family, not an Indian family. Tell us a little bit about the source material if you will and kind of the basic plot to Rafta Rafta.
GEETA CHOPRA: As you mention it was based on the 1960s play called All in Good Time, so the idea that it was originally not written for a South Asian or Indian families I think speaks volumes to the nature of the story. It is a universal story and it could be, I think the Indian element of it just had some different flavors, but the story itself is just about family. It is about two different generations. The immigrant generation and the children and it is a slice of life play. I think this is why the audiences are enjoying it. Because you don't have to know an Indian family. You don't have to understand some of the little nuances of it to get the whole story.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now the whole play pivots off the young couple's desire to and inability to consummate their marriage while all of this family stuff is going on in their home. Is this whole idea of consummation, having sex, more of a taboo subject in Indian culture than in American popular culture now?
RACHID SABITRI: Wow. I can't really speak on behalf of Indian culture because I wasn't brought up in that. But in terms of the culture that I'm from, yeah, absolutely. For example I wouldn't even invite my parents to see this play. But just because I come from such a conservative, but there's nothing taboo about this play. You know it's very kind of PG-13, family-friendly do you know what I mean? But nonetheless I think elements within my culture anyway that that's their anti-unjust with reference to my character, he struggles to talk to his family about this particular subject because it is something that you would necessarily title should end. There is a certain shame. One of the things we refer to in the earth the project is the impotence issue in Indian culture. It is a big problem. It's a big issue if you are unable to carry out your manly duties. You know?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's very interesting. So how do you play this character? The character must be more complicated (inaudible).
RACHID SABITRI: Yes absolutely a lot of complications and frustrations are drawn from that and however you have to kind of think about what life was like before the play, even after the play, you know, what is it that, what is the attractive qualities in this character that beautiful girl would fall in love with you now and he has a best friend bear, so there are qualities in him that you kind of need to draw out even though in the particular situation the slice of life that you get when you watch the show he's going to this kind of, in his mind a tragedy.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Nasser, you know on the surface, the plot line sounds a little bit like a sex farce, but there are a lot of complicated things that are exported the play, tell us about a couple.
NASSER FARIS: Well you know what is wonderful about the play and I think that was our director Jonathan Silverstein's point of view as well as a common it's almost a self exploration not only for the couple but it affects everyone in the play. So you know my character and my wife's character, we have our own set of problems when we come into the Dutt world after the marriage. I think the Dutt have their own set of issues in a very different way and we have the other characters, the Bhatt who are very out there who are young Indian immigrant who has married a white British woman. You know, so all these couples go through a transformation throughout the play. My character is completely submissive to his wife. You know, I'm dealing with a lot of resentment that goes way back to the childhood of my daughter. And it all comes out in the play at that time
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That deeply dysfunctional element that we all have to see on stage.
NASSER FARIS: Exactly, so these people are all walking wounded and their ones are sort of exposed in a very funny way as tragic as it is the way it happens is just hilarious because, you know, nobody can really get what they are after until this explosion happens.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking about the play of Rafta Rafta which is now running at the Old Globe Theatre at the old ballpark and three of the cast members are my guests. Geeta, there's been a lot written about the look of this play. And how perhaps it's not exactly true to North England but it's very arresting them speaking about the colors.
GEETA CHOPRA: They are outstanding, the set design, the costumes are absolutely breathtaking. When we first got into the theater last week it was just such a delight to see the marigolds, which are so common to mean, when you see the marigolds as the project for the set, you do feel immediately for me as an Indian American there you are at a Hindu wedding. You're attending, it sets the tone and it is so classically Indian like Hindu Indians from the 60s used to have those kinds of marigolds. So I just think it's beautiful, the costumes, the set, the light design.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Visually stunning.
GEETA CHOPRA: Visually really stunning.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Rachid, what does Rafta Rafta mean?
RACHID SABITRI: The translation loosely is Slowly, Slowly which I think is a fantastic reference to all the relationships in the play, not just the predominant one in the center of it where relationships take time, demons come out and you know it is all about kind of slowly getting through, time is the greatest healer, is almost we are open to listening and developing ourselves.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now there is as Nasser pointed out this undercurrent of a lot of issues that have to be resolved in one way or another and a lot of them are resolved in a very comic fashion at least for the audience. There is an element of farce in this play and I'm wondering if you've all been working very hard on her comic timing. How much of an element is that in this play?
RACHID SABITRI: Yeah, it gets a large play of it part of it, but as I say there's a fine line between tragedy and comedy and it's kind of for us just living out those situations it because of the writing and the outcome of course of because of the way we are hers and time certain things it does come across as very comedic to an audience but at the same time I'd like to think that people are able to see the struggles and issues that people are going through and kind of bond with that as well, you know? I'd like to think that this play will make you laugh but also might shed a tear for you at the end as well.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you a couple of personal questions if I may. I'm going to start with Geeta. You have a very unusual middle name, city girl. Where does that come from?
GEETA CHOPRA: What's the story behind that? My parents were born in India and I was the firstborn of all my ancestors off Indian soil in New York so because I was born in New York City was kind of a nickname growing up and I took it on more professionally when I turned 18.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How wonderful, city girl.
GEETA CHOPRA: And I also come it does for me in the Indian community people in the know will see your last name, so for example my birth last name is Chopra. They would immediately say Chopra, she's Punjabi, she's from his village, she's this, this, this. And to me I feel like if anyone had to comment anything about my roots, I'm from New York. I feel like a New Yorker before... so I just added Chopra back recently but I do feel very much
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's very charming and I really have to ask you, Nasser, you're in this play but back home in Egypt there's headlines and news all the time, just wondering if you could give us just briefly some of your thoughts about what's going on in Egypt and perhaps you have family members still there.
NASSER FARIS: Yeah, actually I do, my mother and my sister who is married, and I have twins a nephew and niece that live in Cairo. And I just recently returned from Egypt, January 12. So it was about 10 or 13 days before the revolution started. And I was literally glued all night to Al Jazeera watching what was unfolding. And you know it is a very exciting time. There was a part of me that wanted to be there. I have several friends that were trying to convince me to stay before they knew this would happen. It was just the luck of the draw that ended up coming back when I did. But it is exciting in the sense that I grew up, even though I moved to the states when I was very young, I was eight when I first came here, I went back when I was 14 and spent four years and I relearned Arabic and reintegrated a little bit into the culture. So my attachment to Egypt has always been there.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want, what a strange experiences must be to be involved in this play and yet have your homeland in the headlines so far away. I just really want to conclude our little discussion about Rafta Rafta with talking about how it was for the audience. There is sort of a bittersweet ending, but for the audience, they leave in a very upbeat mood and why is that, Geeta?
GEETA CHOPRA: Our director, Jonathan Silverstein, very smartly realized that Slumdog Millionaire changed the way in which Americans maybe where I did not know about India or Indian culture and Bollywood has sort of picked up some steam in America I would say over the past few years so taking a hint from the ending of Slumdog Millionaire, Jonathan decided he would like to end the show with a Bollywood number where it is a celebration at the end of the day we start off with a wedding and wind up with a song and celebratory number where the audience was clapping and interacting and it is a great way to leave the theater.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And we do have to leave it there. I'm so sorry Rashidi, said BJ thank you for joining us, Quito city girl Chopra and Mouser fares thank you all. Sorry we didn't have more time I could have talked about this for quite some time, thank you. I want to let everyone know that Rafta of gRafta is currently running at the old Globe Theatre at the Balboa Park. Opening night is officially Sunday and runs through April 24. If you would like more information go to KPBS.org/These Days and you've been listening to These Days on KPBS.