My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak – Q Theatre – 22nd November 2019

There is something to be said for theatre that one feels completely immersed in from the moment they take their seat; in multi-award-winning actor, writer and director Ahi Karunaharan’s first production with Silo Theatre, My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak the audience immediately find themselves whisked back in time to 1975 Bombay, India.

Greeted by a member of staff with a colourful basket of flowers, audience members are asked to take one each, the play itself having already begun without them even realising it. Standing before the stage Mustaq Missouri who plays Manjit is too handing out flowers as he enthusiastically greets people, the genial host making small talk along the way of how said floral pieces will later be used in a short prayer to bless the set.

Slipping into the shadows he soon reappears on the stage, the sweet sound of a Mexican trumpet courtesy of the amusingly talented multi-instrumentalists Leon Radojkovic and Finn Scholes (musicians Manjit will later proudly tell everyone, have come all the way to India from New Zealand) fills the room, the lights dimming on a stage decked out like a spaghetti western, the swing doors of the saloon flying open as Manjit makes his dramatic entrance, declaring that the world is all ‘an illusion’, before swiftly breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience – “Silence is only frightening to those who are constantly talking”. Yes, Manjit is the associate producer of Dust of the Delhi Plains, and the audience extras on his Bollywood film set.

It is a unique way of beginning the play that not only immediately draws the viewer in but invites them to invest within its intricacies. The actors often referring to the attendees, pointing out certain members while delivering a light-hearted line or to relay an instruction; ensuring that the connection is never broken throughout.

The extras soon come to learn that the film is in trouble, Manjit’s best efforts to hold it together falling apart at the seams, his promise to its recently deceased director Rakesh Ramsey (rather amusingly represented by a smoke machine who likes to make his presence known from time to time) in danger of not being fulfilled as actors become no shows and investors pull out. His one and only assistant Shankar – who secretly wishes for a part in the film – is willing, but not particularly able, while Ranikumari (Rashmi Pilapitiya) the only actor to actually arrive on set is a diva of the highest degree, her exorbitant demands a mere cover-up for growing fears that as an aging actress she is quickly becoming irrelevant to the world around her.

The arrival of the late Ramsey’s children Kamala and Roshan does little to ease Manjit’s nerves, their constant squabbling over who should hold the directors chair and in what vein the film should be played out in only adding to the stress that sees Manjit confess all. That he has been using his retirement fund to purchase the set pieces and costumes, and that now the money is gone. There isn’t even enough to pay the extras, let alone feed them with the tea and chapatis they deserve.

On the surface My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak is a wonderfully light-hearted comedy that moves with ease, its performers each bringing something to the table that compliments the other, from Shaan Kesha (Shankar) physicality and expressive features conveying his emotions with accuracy to Rashmi Pilapituya’s portrayal of a star in decline, her sometimes demanding demeanour and mordant humour her shield against her ever growing anxiety of being forgotten before she has one last chance to shine.

The set itself designed by Daniel Williams, at first appearance looks haphazard, a collection of items littering the space; almost magically however it begins to transform – thanks in part to Jennifer Lal’s lighting design – into a functioning Bollywood film set, details such as the toothpicks in the cardboard cactus cut-outs and balls of tumbleweed only adding to its undeniable charm.

But while My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak is on its surface a comedy, laughter guaranteed throughout, it is also a vehicle for Ali Karunaharan to not only pay homage to Bollywood cinema, an artform that for many South Asians brought both great pride and joy despite how the rest of the world may have dismissed it as cheap and outdated, but to also intertwine social commentary on everything from the barriers faced by minority artists – Ranikumari at one point pointing out to Manjit that ‘oriental is in’, her thrill at European actors taping their eyes to look more authentic only dismaying Manjit further – through to ageism of female artists, brought about by the Hollywood machine that only celebrates youth and beauty.

This particular theme of Bollywood vs Hollywood is explored at length through the relationship of siblings Kamala (Sanaya Doctor) and Roshan; Roshan very much on the side of Manjit and Ranikumari in wanting to honour the old ways of doing things, Kamala rallying against them as she tries to wield her New York theatre school knowledge like a sword. The references to famous films and the actors that littered them sure to please any cinephile with a passion for the classics.

Throughout the intermission and into the second half, the audience as Dust of the Dehli Plains extras are pulled deeper into the storyline, to the point that when ‘filming’ begins (the siblings finally setting aside their bickering in honour of their father) it is so believable that one almost expects to be given a copy at the end of the night.

With an exceptionally skillful cast and set design that embodies the charm of a Bollywood film set, right down to a makeshift shrine to Rakesh Ramsey and Bollywood style posters on the wall, My Heart goes Thadak Thadak brings forth an authenticity that lifts the production from a simple comedy into something far more comprehensive that speaks from the very soul; to be at one with the present, to look toward the future while always acknowledging one’s past.

Karunaharan has gifted New Zealand with a theatre piece that is both comedic and heart-warming, its story one that is not often told on the stages of Aotearoa, but one that will no doubt be embraced wholeheartedly.

 ~Sarah Kidd

My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak is playing at Q Theatre until 14 December.

Tickets and showtimes are HERE