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Playwrights reimagine tragic Punjabi folktale at the Monsoon festival

In Dooja Ghar (the second house), Vancouver-Burnaby-based playwrights explore the themes of love, family, and betrayal as they retell the tragic Punjabi folktake, Mirza Sahiban.

Think a decolonized Romeo and Juliet in the streets of Punjab, India. This is the story of Mirza Sahiban, the 17th century Punjabi folktale of love, families, tragedy and betrayal.

In the original story, the bow-and-arrow-wielding Mirza rescues Sahiban from forced marriage. They fall in love, and the families’ disapproval causes Sahiban to commit the ultimate betrayal -- break the arrows, leading to Mirza’s ultimate death.

Vancouver-based playwright Andy Kalira, along with Burnaby-raised Paneet Singh, explore the themes of love, romance, family and betrayal in a contemporary reimagination of Mirza Sahiban, bringing the essence of folk theater from the streets of Punjab together with a touch of Blackbox Theatre from East Vancouver.

In Dooja Ghar (the second house), set in the 1990s and early 2000s, the playwrights envision the events which led to the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers, giving an unexplored voice to Sahiban.

Featuring a South Asian cast, Dooja Ghar is directed by Iranian-origin New Westminster resident Panthea Vantandoost and is playing in the upcoming Monsoon festival of Performing Arts from Aug. 5 to Aug. 31.

The Punjabi tale of star-crossed lovers is centuries old, but the themes of love, community, betrayal, carry significant relevance in the society even today.

“If you look at our community now, it still happens that people are not allowed to love who they want to love," said Kalirai. "They're not free to love. And this story, in my opinion, is a perfect example of what those kind of restrictions can cause people to do, and the sort of negative outcomes that can come out of that.”

What is love? This is the age-old question many writers and playwrights have hoped to answer through their stories, and the South Asian playwright duo are no exceptions.

According to Kalirai, the play explores the two sides of love -- conditional and unconditional.

“The characters Mirza and Sahiban are so heroic, right?” Said Kalirai, speaking of Mary Sues and Gary Stus in literature.

“Mirza, the tough, heroic warrior. Sahiban is the beautiful girl that everybody wants, and is so smart. I thought, strip away all the mythological characteristics, like being so strong, being so good with his bow and arrow, and just really ground these characters in reality, how would they really be? How would they really interact? And then I think from that, I think the lesson of the story hits harder because they don't seem so far away from you and me.”

For Singh, pondering life’s deeper meanings is a regular pastime. He believes that questions of love are the most challenging to answer, and the play seeks to delve into the nature of pure love.

“Growing up as like a Sikh myself, a question that lives in my mind a lot is, what are pure forms of love?” Said Singh. “It's something that really I think about a great deal. So for Andy to pitch the show to me was really meaningful because I love poking and prodding at that question because it makes people uncomfortable because we think there isn't a question about our love being unconditional for the ones we hold dearest.”


BIPOC representation takes a front seat

The monsoon festival of Performing Arts is an annual extravaganza for artists from the South Asian community.

Not only is Dooja Ghar based on Punjabi folklore, it is bilingual, bringing a heavy influence of South Asian arts to British Columbia.

BIPOC representation has been a major talking point in the arts community, especially in the larger film and TV community. The cast and crew of Dooja Ghar hope to be the catalyst for representation in the smaller communities of Burnaby, Surrey and Langley.

Avoiding the traditional casting pitfall of using non-South Asian actors for South Asian roles, Dooja Ghar hopes to bring authenticity to its presentation.

“Well, on the stage you will see a diversity of experiences as far as I've gotten to know,” said Vatandoost.

“Andy and Rami and our crew, the key to each of them is they have very similar experiences, but they also have led their own individual lives within separate communities and and behind the scenes on the crew. It is actually my pleasure to say that it is a heavily South Asian crew, which I think is really wonderful and that's actually absolutely needed to tell the story.”

According to Vatandoost, it is important to give voices to people from different cultures, and have their influences and stories on stage.

“Not only does it make these characters and these people seem more human and more three dimensional, and actually people that you would interact with, but also it gives us the opportunity to tell different stories,” she said.


The ultimate question

Having grown up as South Asians on the West Coast, the playwrights Kalirai and Singh hope that Dooja Ghar will have resonance with audiences.

“I would hope that what people take away from it is that they really look at themselves in the way that they live their life,” Kalirai said.

“And when it comes to relationships and love that they take a moment to consider if they're really acting from a place of love or from a place of possessiveness and control. Hopefully this will show them why. Like what does anybody gain from stopping somebody from loving and and it really just leads to more pain. So I would hope that they gave a sense of clarity, a sense of understanding about what is okay, what are we doing to each other? You know, how to live your life, how to love someone.”

Dooja Ghar-a story of Mirza Sahiban is playing in Campbell Valley Red Barn, 1065 224 Street in Langley on Aug. 5 & 7 and Aug.12, 13 and 14.

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