One of the best things about well-done comedy is how it handles the serious issues that give rise to it. I’d been hoping to watch A Nice Indian Boy for a while, and I’m so glad I did, because it’s one of those comedies.
Warning: contains spoilers, and one fictional Sujatha.
The play is about an almost-typical Indian American family — mother, father, son, and daughter — with some rather atypical issues. The son is gay, and the daughter is more than a little unhappy with her marriage. One of the many strengths of Indian Boy is how it portrays and handles this plethora of different but interrelated issues.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that Naveen, the son, is dating a white man who’s been raised in an Indian family. Part of the hilarity of the situation when Naveen introduces his boyfriend to his family is Keshav’s devotion to what he views as “proper cultural tradition” –fastidiously taking off his shoes at the door, serving the chai, prostrating at the feet of his possibly-future-in-laws. Here’s where Indian Boy is nicely nuanced, because the resulting argument between Keshav and Naveen throws up a number of issues that are difficult to qualify.
Keshav accuses Naveen of having hidden his race from his family, and for not giving him any support throughout the visit — not even, as he points out, deigning to hold Keshav’s hand. Naveen, in turn, is horrified by not just Keshav’s smoking of a joint in their bathroom, but what he views as Keshav’s ultra-Indian-ness, including his insistence on getting every barista to pronounce his Indian name correctly. Keshav retorts that Naveen’s Starbucks name is “Nick” — and then acidly suggests that Naveen is jealous of how much more Indian Keshav is.
They both have a point, of course. In the attempt to integrate both his American and deeply Indian selves, Naveen has made a number of compromises, including the pronunciation of his name. But then again, Keshav’s adoption of Indian culture would be seen as exotic; brown-skinned Naveen, on the other hand, faces a number of stereotypical asumptions right off the bat. Yet Keshav is wrong when he tells Naveen he’s “more Indian”, because although Keshav understands the rituals, the cultural references, the Ganesha stories and the food, he hasn’t quite grasped the prejudices and insular thinking that make up the darker side of Indian culture.
Arundhati’s story isn’t as central but is just as interesting. Deeply dissatisfied with six years of a passionless marriage to a man who was perfect on paper, she blames her parents for forcing her into an impossible situation where she has to “adjust”*. It’s not explicitly stated anywhere, but as an American she must have grown up with Western ideas of love. “When you see dad, does your heart beat a little faster?” she asks her mother forlornly.
And yet, her mother argues, no one had forced Arundhati into this marriage. She’d listened to her parents when they spoke about marital love, but she hadn’t, her mother tells her, really understood. “Love is something that you choose”, says her mother, reminding Arundhati that every relationship needs to be worked on. There’s a sweet moment later when the mother finally answers her daughter’s question: “When I see your father, my heart doesn’t beat faster, but it does grow a little bigger”. Arundhati’s story is never explicitly resolved in the end — which is a nice touch, because it would’ve been a little too neat otherwise — but she does seem to have broadened her ideas of love.
I also liked the brother-sister interaction, which is almost poisonous in the first scene they’re in together (when Naveen introduces Keshav) but later grows to be much more supportive. When Keshav leaves Naveen and Arundhati finds out, she berates her brother because he isn’t fighting for something he really believes in. And yet we’re aware of the fact that simply being gay in a deeply conservative household is its own sort of bravery.
Although the chemistry between the actors playing Keshav and Naveen was obvious, the first scenes were a little awkward. The play got a huge boost with the introduction of the parents; the actors were brilliant at portraying every desi uncle and aunty we’ve ever encountered. My favorite thing about the parents was not just that they were excellently acted, but also that they had such great material to work with. They had incredibly funny lines and were also really sympathetically portrayed.
In one scene they say something like,”You don’t understand what we’ve sacrificed! Of course we know what’s best for you!” which is a refrain every Indian kid has heard at some point. Here it’s particularly poignant because the parents want to love and accept their children, but don’t know how — and are deeply hurt by what they perceive as a total rejection of all they believe in.
Things have a happy ending, thankfully. Naveen and Keshav are married in a small ceremony with Naveen’s family in attendance.
And just when I was wondering how far the director would go, the two male leads kissed.
The collective gasp from the audience practically sucked all the air out of the room. I’m not sure how many people even suspected this might happen. My friends swore they heard someone say “Oh my god!” in shocked tones.
I should say I had a little moment of internal smugness. Our parents’ generation generally believes that it’s significantly more progressive and liberal compared to our grandparents’ generation, but sometimes it’s really obvious that they are Not Ready For That. I had a little dialogue going on in my head where the mother of one of the leads is telling a friend about her son’s new play. “Oh yes Sujatha my son is acting in this play, it’s called A Nice Indian Boy! Very modern play it seems, very funny, come and see.” I would’ve paid extra to see this fictional Sujatha’s expression during those kisses.
Watching A Nice Indian Boy was at once a vindication of the struggles we face as multi-cultural children and a touching reminder of why we and our families put up with one another.
Side note: I am inordinately proud of being faintly connected with the play, simply because the playwright is the sister of a close friend. In Indian terms, of course, that’s practically family.
*I feel like I should explain this “adjust” word. It means something rather specific in this context, where the wife is almost always expected to be the one “adjusting” to the husband’s follies and foibles, including often giving up her own tastes and preferences in the process. To someone like me, “adjust” is a word rife with negative connotations, not least because it’s almost never the husband who has to adjust.