A birthday party that jolts relations

The Johal family has gathered to celebrate Sunita's 40th birthday. Everything is set, but Sunita is nowhere to be seen.

It isn’t difficult to paint a picture of a Punjabi household in the United Kingdom. Neither is it painstaking to make a play popular by including a popular face in the cast from the Hindi film industry. Director Pravesh Kumar therefore treads a safe path to ensure a balanced, if not worse, response from the theatre audience, through his play Happy Birthday Sunita.

Staged recently at The Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, the play enjoyed a houseful audience. And why not, since veteran Shabana Azmi was to reclaim the Delhi stage after a long time! Though she doesn’t portray the main character of Sunita, but is central to the plot while enacting Sunita’s mother Tejpal Johal – a woman who realises that she has spent a  major portion of her life dedicating herself to her family and a husband who would not come back to her now.

Torn between the desires of her children to live a life like their mother and her own dreams to experience her remaining life like a living being, Azmi depicts the dilemma quite sensitively.

What assists her in doing so is the taut script and varied characters imagined and created by Harvey Virdi (the writer). From showing the angst of Sunita (played by Clara Indrani) to culture shock-affected Sunita’s brother Nav (Ameet Chana) and fashion-struck Harleen (Goldy Notay), the playwright manages to say a lot through a sleek sketching of characters. To a certain extent, reality seeps in the play too and works to the benefit of the play.

Unfortnately, the director doesn’t excel in either approaching the sensitivity in the narrative or exploiting the potential of the ace actor in Azmi. The addition of a portrait of Guru Nanak Dev decked in lights in the house and a huge working refrigerator doesn’t really enhance the well-written script apart from a few laughs.

These too are garnered by the funny accent of Chana (who plays Sunita’s brother) as he teases his diet-conscious wife when he catches her gobbling fatty snacks with the phrase:
“Mai nai khandi!”
The plot builds up well after the builder Maurice’s entry. But it suddenly falls flat when the time comes to show the emotional bond between the brother and sister (Nav and Sunita), after their mother leaves them for a vacation in Spain with Maurice.

The other man makes his presence felt in the house but the original characters are hardly left with much to do by the time it is the end.

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