Curry Kings of Parramatta

Venue: Riverside Theatre, Parramatta
Written By: Sudar Bhuchar & Shaheen Khan
Directed By: Kristine Landon-Smith

Set in the very realistic kitchen of a Harris Park restaurant, Curry Kings of Parramatta gives its audiences a comical and often heart-wrenching insight into the lives of migrants from South East Asia. While many of the characters’ problems are not culturally specific, the challenges of survival in a new land are often exacerbated by the self-isolation of cultural groups, which while understandable as initially supportive may also undermine their ability to benefit individually from their new country.

The major problem for the small family restaurant, built up by the on-the-verge-of-retirement Yahsin Anwar (a convincing Dinsha Palkiwala), is a threatened takeover by the ambitious and competitive Jalfrezi Junction, “already on Ubereats and Deliveroo”. However, it is not only the family whose livelihood and standing is menaced, but also the employment of their workers, whose life-style is already precarious. Now that the time has come for them to pull together, many internal conflicts are revealed.

A multi-layered intergenerational conflict between father and sons highlights economic changes in the wider society as well showing the need for a broadening of migrant outlook. Both sons, in their different ways, want to move on from Yashin’s adherence to keeping “our own Muslims” as “the backbone of our clientele”, but he rejects their attempts at change. Shahab (a not so confident Firdaws Adelpour), the second eldest son, has planned a “Curryoke Grand Buffet” with Bollywood stars and 35 separate dishes to increase their exposure and put “Shakeel’s”, as it is called, on the restaurant map. The eldest son, Shakeel, (a likable Gregory Dias) has a different idea about promoting the business, having set up a website, which with “search engine optimization” will become the “go to” place for authentic Jhelum cuisine.

While all three Anwars expect loyalty from their staff who work long hours for low pay, the staff has legitimate grievances. Khalida (a very endearing Abida Malik), for instance, feels that she has been ethically and financially cheated and when she broaches the topic with Yashin, his rationalisation reveals a meanness that is disappointing. Further, the likelihood of Billa (an assured Aviral Mohan), the gifted and lonely chef, losing his upstairs flat to what is essentially the same kind of ambition as JJ’s, illustrates the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”. Relocation, it seems, may have changed who has the power, but not the use of power to exploit.

Some hope for a less mercenary future is perhaps offered by Shakeel’s affection for Mariam (a charming Yolanda Torres), and in Mariam herself, a refuge from Afghanistan who carries a painful story of persecution, flight and loss. Looking to foster understanding, she is working on an exhibition of photos inspired by her community’s experiences however her life is complicated as she has allowed herself to be seduced by the narcissistic Nadim (a persuasive Atharv Kolhatkar). She unsuccessfully tries to borrow money for a test but in a neat twist at the close, Shakeel gives her charity tin, supposed stolen, saying “charity begins at home”.

Filling out the picture of the migrant experience, Mariam’s brother, Issac (a suitably unsettled Zabi Mohammadi), blames himself for his mother’s death and is alienated by the perception of Muslims as “refugees and terrorists”. He begins to hang around with louts and after pretending to go to the mosque returns to work smelling of weed. Eventually, his unexpressed anger is released through a violent attack upon the irresponsible and callous Nadim. While the incident comes to an end without injury, Mariam’s simple statement, “This country can’t change our past”, gives us food for future thought.

Perhaps Yacoub (a touching Nitin Venguriekar) is the most moving all the characters in this story. An ordinary man, he initiates the narrative as opens the restaurant early in morning on the eventful day of “Curryoke Grand Buffet” and is last to leave late in the evening, concluding the play. His ambition is small and he would take any job if it meant he could support his family and although he has only one eye, having lost the other in a work factory, he sees the world clearly enough.

To Khalida’s claim that she knows “the inside story” of the “Grand Buffet” which is to raise money for Shakeel’s wedding, he says, “What inside story? Look outside. Lakshmi printers gone … Bechara now selling gosht out of his van … Restaurant is in trouble … Soon owner chewed up too.” Again at the close when Billa questions whether Coles will be open so late, Yacoub says that if the chef ever left the place, “he would know that there is a big world out there”. And above all, he has the energy after an exhausting day to buy a “milk tray” for his daughter, suspecting she may have met disappointment.

It was a challenge for this speaker of Australian English with her ear attuned over a lifetime to flat vowels, unaccented words and monotone sentences, to always capture the dialogue, but attend and learn. There are many different ways of speaking English as is evidenced by a trip to the UK – and by this performance – and no way should be privileged over another.

We must applaud the Nautanki Theatre Company (Neel Bangeree, creative director) for having made a consistent effort for several years now to provide the community with opportunities for cross-cultural story telling. In this way, Nautanki is making a valuable contribution to truthfully representing a culturally diverse contemporary Australia on stage. In view of this, the choice of Kristine Langdon-Smith as a director was inspired given her well-known expertise in intracultural theatre practice.

April 18-20, 2019.

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