Rajeev Varma is a leading Indo-Asian actor and founder of New Zealand’s first South Asian theatre “Untouchables” collective. He’s played prominent roles such as the Hindu lord Krishna in the hit TV show Xena: The Warrior Princess and also stage productions like “From India with Love.” Now he comes to Richmond Hill for a one-man comedy show titled “D’Arranged Marriage” presented by Flat Tire Productions. In this edited interview, Varma gives me the inside scoop on the stage production D’Arranged Marriage, why it resonates with so many Indians, and what it’s like to realize you aren’t white in the acting world.
So tell me why you’ve decided to take this one-man comedy show, D’Arranged Marriage, to Richmond Hill, Queens?
D’Arranged Marriage is a show that resonates with the South Asian diaspora. When we created the show we created it for the South Asian diaspora in New Zealand of which there’s about 100,000 of us there. And then we took it to Australia and it resonated with South Asians there. And then we took it to Malaysia and it resonated with many Malaysian South Asian Tamil speakers. So the show’s humor was seeming to translate along identity lines of the diaspora. Then I took it to Richmond Hill in Canada and Manhattan and it resonated there as well…so for me it’s pretty straightforward to take it out to Richmond Hill, if there’s a West Indian community. From my interactions with Alisha Persaud at Flat Tire Productions it seems to me that you guys are pretty much, you know, Indian. You’re just like me in a way.
How did you create and develop D-Arranged Marriage?
D’Arranged Marriage was written in collaboration between myself and my business partner Tarun Mohanbhai. Tarun is a Gujrati Indian that grew up working in a cornershop in New Zealand. Initially, the play was connecting his comedy experience and me directing it and co-writing it with him. And over the years, it’s evolved and we’ve managed to clone the show so he can do it and I can do it… there’s a U.S. version and a South Pacific version.
Is the reason why so many members of the Indian diaspora relate to D’Arranged Marriage because they are twice-removed or removed from India?
Yes. I’d say that because the central protagonist, Sanjay’s point of view is a child of New Zealand. He has an easily identifiable liberal point of view on things and his parents have a very easily identifiable conservative view of things but then again it’s played for comedy. It’s not like a reverent look at it. It’s irreverent….D’Arranged Marriage is ridiculous comedy, it’s not about making a social statement. But I think many people who come can identify with Sanjay. He works in his family business and sneaks off at night to do stand-up comedy. I think many people from the diaspora can relate to that. They may have dreams that might not be in sync with what their parents want from them.
Has it been challenging as a Indo-Asian actor to break into the film and television industry in New Zealand? If so, how have you dealt?
When I graduated drama school in 1994, I thought I was a white guy when I went to the industry. I didn’t get any auditions for the roles white guys were playing. I got auditions for a taxi driver, a cornershop owner, and later on after 2001, surprise, surprise, the terrorist. The industry just slapped me in my face and said you’re not white, you’re Indian…so live with it [.…] At the time there was very little place for South Asian characters. But when I turned to my identity as a source of power as opposed to a weakness that I needed to hide, that’s when I started to become successful. In 2003, I started creating South Asian based theatre and suddenly so many South Asians in New Zealand that hadn’t had any artists doing that at that time in that form started to come out. And the shows just started selling out…They [South Asians] had their own life.
What’s one of the factors that makes D’Arranged Marriage resonate with so many members of the Indian diaspora?
The intergenerational comedy and the conflict of older generation and the younger generation…And there’s a little drama in it like many of the Indian films like Khabhi Kushi Khabi Gham and Dilwahle Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. It’s all the same…the love for somebody and the parent’s not wanting that love. That generational conflict is the basis of D’Arranged Marriage’s primary comedy.
Are you excited to bring this stage production to the West Indian community in Richmond Hill?
I’m really excited. It’s going to be awesome. It’s kinda like the Malaysian Indian community that I experienced. The exciting thing about it is that I don’t know. I know that the work is strong. I’ve done the show hundreds of time so I know that it works. But it’ll be interesting to see if the audience is more conservative or more generous…like are there gonna be aunties and uncles who are coming. Sometimes those aunties and uncles will silently enjoy the show but they won’t give it up or are there going to be young, urban professionals at the show? I don’t know. They are different audiences to gear for.
D-Arranged Marriage will be shown on May 19th at 7pm and May 20th at 5pm at MoKa Nightclub and Lounge located at 130-35 91 Avenue, Queens NY 11418. Tickets are $20 at the door and $15 at Star Music (104-09 113 Street, Queens). You can also buy tickets online. Contact (347) 777-FLAT for more information. Free Admission to MOKA Nightclub after the show with your ticket stub!