The romance of Mirza and Sahiban is a familiar folk tale for Punjabi speakers around the world. Written by Pilu in the 17th century, it has been portrayed in many films as a tragedy of betrayal and honor killing. Sahiban breaks his warrior lover’s arrows when Mirza sleeps to prevent him from parrying an attack from his brothers.
Vancouver actor Andy Kalirai grew up with this story and wondered what might have happened if the two lovers had a conversation about why she did this.
So he decided to talk the idea over with playwright Paneet Singh, and they wrote a screenplay bringing this folk tale into modern times.
“What was his thought process? Why did she do this?” Kalirai asks during a Right Zoom call with him and Singh. “We thought we were going to explore that aspect, and then it all went from there.”
Kalirai starred in The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinsonwhich was written by Singh and performed at the 2018 Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts.
It was a landmark event in British Columbia’s burgeoning South Asian theater scene, offering a new socio-political view of historical persecution from the perspective of a Sikh man – Mewa Singh – who went to the gallows for the murder of a highly controversial immigration inspector.
Singh tells the Right that the new part, Dooja Ghar (The Other House) – A Story by Mirza Sahiban, feels equally important through an interpersonal and philosophical lens. He says that Sahiban was always portrayed as Mirza’s traitor as they fell headlong into romantic love, but he adds that there really was no exploration of the circumstances surrounding his decision.
“What are his desires, desires and obligations? Singh asks. “Those are the things that really drew me into the story when Andy was talking about it. So I jumped on it to kind of adapt a story into a local narrative.
Singh and Kalirai credit the Monsoon Festival with not only choosing to present the play at this year’s festival, but also helping to develop it. In 2018, Kalirai’s first stage performance was at the Monsoon Festival, so he feels like he’s come full circle by co-writing Dooja Gharof which he is also one of the actors.
“We’re going to get to see the type of Indians we grew up with, and don’t often see on stage,” he says. “Not all Indians are the same, but I feel like most of the time we are portrayed the same.”
Singh describes the play as a “love letter to the festival”.
“We really have a strong lived experience of what it means to be a brown person in the Lower Mainland,” says Singh. “Because we have this shortcut, I don’t think we’ve ever had to struggle in world-building because we both understand the world very well.
“As for the actual narrative part, Andy brought a lot of conceptual and really meaty stuff and I brought a little more structural and pragmatic stuff,” Singh adds. “It went well.”
Kalirai says that Dooja Ghar will be performed at Campbell Valley’s Red Barn in Langley because it reflects the way theater is produced in Punjab. “It’s a bit like a big party,” he says.
Singh echoes this point, noting that this is truly an example of the Naqal style of interactive, spontaneous and often comedic performances often presented outdoors in India.
“We both have a deep admiration and love for this style of theater,” adds Singh. “But we are also both trained in the west for a lot of our training. So putting those sensibilities in the same space and then allowing the agrarian-folk feel to take over the whole environment does a lot of storytelling for us. Then we place our little plot in this frame which already does so much.