The Rishta offers a fresh
view of Muslim stories
Q&A highlights the thoughts of the playwright, director, and Silk Road Theatre’s artistic director
By Irwin Rapoport
April 3, 2023
The Rishta (‘suitor’ in Hindi-Urdu) offers a fresh view of Muslim stories that the general public seldom sees. The world premiere of the play, by acclaimed author Uzma Jalaluddin, defines Silk Road Theatre‘s artistic vision by showcasing the depth and breadth of the contemporary Muslim experience.
The play centres on Samah, a young South Asian McGill student who has fallen in love with her Moroccan classmate, Hussain. Convinced that her parents won’t allow an intercultural marriage, Samah devises a scheme and employs a rambunctious and enterprising matchmaker, Badra, to introduce the family to a few terrible suitors for them to eventually be dazzled and charmed by the last one, Hussain.
A family who lies to each other never has to have uncomfortable conversations.
What ensues is a hilarious sequence of events, with each family member exploring evolving traditions and hiding secrets of their own. And all of it commented on by the spirits of the two grandmothers overseeing all. Audiences will relate to the rituals of courtship and the tension between generations when it comes to the concept of marriage.
Silk Road Theatre Artistic Director Mohamed Shaheen, playwright Uzma Jalaluddin, and director Masha Bashmakova responded to some questions for the following Q&A:
WM: Many people are unaware of the Muslim world’s rich and diverse literary heritage. What compelled you to take on the project of writing the play?
Jalaluddin: The Rishta is my debut play, and I came to this form through my experience as a novelist. I’ve learned a lot through this process and one of the best parts of putting a new production together has been the many wonderful theatre professionals I’ve met and interacted with throughout. One of the reasons I accepted this commission from Silk Road Institute, the Muslim-focused arts organization that has sponsored and supported the production of The Rishta, was because I see a lack of diverse representation in the theatre world, particularly from Muslim creatives. Around the world and from a historical perspective, Muslims have actively contributed to the arts through poetry, prose and theatre. I’m pleased to be a small part of that tradition in Montreal.
WM: The Rishta is a comedy. Is writing comedies more difficult compared to dramas with serious themes? When you think of comedies that have been performed on stage and screen, do you have any favourites?
Jalaluddin: Comedy has always called to me more than drama; even my novels have humorous elements to them. While drama tends to get a lot of attention, I think writing a genuinely funny comedy that still manages to tackle serious themes is a much more difficult endeavour. I hope I have succeeded with The Rishta but, of course, I’ll leave that to the audience to decide. Certainly, when I set out to write this play, I knew I wanted to write a comedy about a Muslim immigrant family, which discussed themes that would resonate with people in the audience, regardless of their background. Ultimately I try to keep my writing hopeful. As for favourite comedies I’ve seen on the stage, I loved The Producers, Wicked, Hamilton, and a particularly memorable Stratford production of Noises Off way back in 2004.
‘While drama tends to get a lot of attention, I think writing a genuinely funny comedy that still manages to tackle serious themes is a much more difficult endeavour. I hope I have succeeded with The Rishta but, of course, I’ll leave that to the audience to decide.’
– Uzma Jalaluddin
WM: For those unfamiliar with your previous work, could you tell us about it? Are you working on a new novel?
Jalaluddin: My writing resume is pretty varied. I wrote a culture and parenting column for The Toronto Star for over seven years, between 2015 and 2022. My first novel, Ayesha At Last, was published by HarperCollins Canada in 2018, and around the world in 2019. The novel is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but set in a Toronto Muslim community. It was well received, garnering starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, and even appeared on Good Morning America.
My second novel, Hana Khan Carries On, followed in 2021, inspired by the rom-com classic You’ve Got Mail, except my version takes place between two rival halal restaurants in a close-knit, diverse Toronto neighbourhood. The novel was a Canadian bestseller, long-listed for Canada Reads 2022, and the Washington Post named it a Best Romance. It has also been optioned for film by Amazon Studios and Mindy Kaling.
Next up, I wrote two novels that will both publish in 2023 – Much Ado About Nada, inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, publishes June 13, 2023, and a multi-faith holiday rom-com I co-authored with NYT bestselling author Marissa Stapley, titled Three Holidays and a Wedding, that will be out in September. I’m always working on something new, and hope to start on my next book project soon!
WM: How did you prepare to direct The Rishta, and how does directing a comedy differ from a drama?
Bashmakova: When I first came onto the project, I got busy with a deep dive into the script, asking and answering all sorts of questions about the who, what, when, and especially, the why. Then came a lot of research into the specifics of the script and context. The exciting part of working on a new play is that I got to collaborate with the incredible playwright Uzma Jalaluddin, and parts of that initial preparatory work could be collaborative – I could pick her brain!
For me, the preparation to direct a comedy is very similar to that of the drama – while the characters are larger than life, it is only because they are so full of life, and understanding the core of the narrative and the characters that inhabit it is as important as in any drama. With a comedy in particular, I got to explore and seek out where the humour of the piece lived, and that was incredibly exciting.
WM: When did you know that you wanted to have a career in the theatre, and did that include acting in addition to directing? How have you evolved as a director?
Bashmakova: I grew up surrounded by the arts, primarily visual art and classical music, and then at 17, I impulsively (to my dear parents’ disappointment) decided to drop my trajectory of architecture and instead went to theatre school. Of course, now they are my biggest supporters.
Because I came into theatre from music and visual arts and my training was largely in devised theatre, I find that my philosophy on directing is quite interdisciplinary. I have gotten to work on some wild and wacky projects over the years, and each has been a learning opportunity. With each new project, I get to re-discover what my priorities are as a director. Aside from directing, I work as an actor and theatre educator. They all feed each other!
‘The exciting part of working on a new play is that I got to collaborate with the incredible playwright Uzma Jalaluddin, and parts of that initial preparatory work could be collaborative – I could pick her brain!’
– Masha Bashmakova
WM: What is the key to getting the best performances out of the actors? During rehearsals, is there a moment when you notice that everything is unfolding as it should?
Bashmakova: It’s been said many times, but it’s really about the process. The energy with which a process begins, the way in which an ensemble comes together, the language that is built in the rehearsal room – that is what we eventually see on stage. The best performances come from trust, from playfulness, from clarity. But first and foremost, from the love and dedication everyone has to the work, and with my incredible team – that was all them.
WM: Who are some of the directors, and what are some of the performances that have inspired you?
Bashmakova: A lot of my inspiration comes from the circus actually, and image-theatre companies like Manual Cinema. There is an inherent playfulness, an inherent sense of risk and celebration that feels undoubtedly alive. As for directors, a wonderful teacher of mine, Liz Valdez, has always been an inspiration. Not only is she an incredible instructor who teaches very deeply about the craft, but every show I’ve ever seen that she’s worked on was a lesson in great direction in itself.
WM: I have travelled in several Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia, and it was crystal clear that despite some cultural and religious differences, we all share similar thoughts and feelings, desires, goals, and a lust for life. What can plays like The Rishka and the television series Little Mosque on the Prairie do to help shatter myths and stereotypes of the Muslim world?
Shaheen: Plays like The Rishta help us recognize the common experiences that connect us all and provide opportunities for us to experience greater diversity on the Canadian stage. The Rishta is our third production and, this year, we commissioned a comedy that speaks to experiences we can all relate to and themes we can all find humour in. The themes of love, finding a partner, and generational differences resonate across backgrounds. The power of storytelling is that we can experience those themes from another person’s perspective, and in doing so, challenge our own assumptions about Muslim communities.
WM: What are some of the other plays that Silk Road Theatre has presented, and what were some of the themes they addressed? Have we reached the point in Canada where actors, playwrights and screenwriters, and directors from the Muslim communities are properly represented and, if not, what are some of the hurdles to be overcome?
Shaheen: Our first production, The Domestic Crusaders, addressed some of the conversations around Muslim communities in the United States at a time when there was little authentic Muslim representation in the arts. Our second production, Spun, spoke to the challenges of growing up as a cultural minority, how friends can grow apart, and our own internal biases.
While we’ve made great strides in the past two decades to increase representation for Muslim communities in the arts, there’s still much work to do. There is a need to tell more stories and diversify those stories. To overcome this, we need more Muslim producers and creatives leading those projects, which will not only enable us to tell more stories but will also enable the artists to tell those stories authentically, the way they want to.
This will require further investment from granting bodies, sponsors, and benefactors in emerging arts institutions dedicated to diverse storytelling. We also need to encourage more young Muslims to pursue a career in the arts and to ensure that art spaces remain a welcoming space for them and other cultural and religious minorities, which is not always the case.
‘Our objective has been to create and promote captivating and professional artistic and cultural programming that fosters cross-cultural dialogue and strengthens Muslim representation, visibility, and contributions within the Canadian cultural mosaic.’
– Mohamed Shaheen
WM: Can you tell us more about the Silk Road Institute and its goals? What are some of its successes, and what are some of the benchmarks you would like to achieve?
Shaheen: Our objective has been to create and promote captivating and professional artistic and cultural programming that fosters cross-cultural dialogue and strengthens Muslim representation, visibility, and contributions within the Canadian cultural mosaic. This year we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary with this production of The Rishta by Uzma Jalaluddin, and by launching our new podcast, The Story So Far, hosted by Tendisai Cromwell, which explores the diverse artistic expressions by Muslim artists in Canada through their own eyes.
In the past 10 years, we’ve been able to establish North America’s first and only theatre company dedicated to Muslim storytelling, launch Creative Arts Grants that annually support two emerging Muslim Canadian artists creating ground-breaking artistic projects, and respond to the pandemic with online art classes connecting participants with established artists to explore and refine their artistic talents. We’re hoping that in the next few years, we’ll expand the scope and range of our programming, take more of our productions on the road, commission more original scripts, expand our digital media projects, and provide more resources and support to empower the next generation of Muslim creatives and storytellers.
The Rishta is at the Centaur Theatre from March 30 to April 8.
Feature image: Casey Marie Ecker
Irwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist with Bachelor degrees in History and Political Science from Concordia University.