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SCRUTINY | Strong Acting Creates Appealing Production Of Rahemtulla’s The Wrong Bashir

By Paula Citron on June 10, 2024

A scene from the Crow’s Theatre production of Zahida Rahemtulla’s The Wrong Bashir (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
A scene from the Crow’s Theatre production of Zahida Rahemtulla’s The Wrong Bashir (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Crow’s Theatre/The Wrong Bashir, written by Zahida Rahemtulla, directed by Paolo Santalucia, Guloien Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, closes June 16. Tickets here

The Toronto premiere of The Wrong Bashir, the first play by Zahida Rahemtulla, presents another ethnic community making its way to the stage, in this case, Canadian Ismailis. This play is welcome indeed because it’s important that the theatre scene reflect the diversity that is Canada. Besides, The Wrong Bashir is a very entertaining offering with a lot of laughs.

An important subtext of the play is the fact that the Ladha family was part of the South Asian community that Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled in 1972, giving them just 90 days to quit the country or risk death.

Their lost life in Kampala still weighs on the hearts and minds of father Sultan (Sugith Varughese), mother Najima (Nimet Kanji), grandfather Dadabapa (Salim Rahemtulla), grandmother Dadima (Zeittun Esmail) and family friend Gulzar (Pamela Mala Sinha). Incidentally, Dadabapa is performed by the playwright’s father, who had never before appeared on stage, prior to his debut in the play’s world premiere in Vancouver in 2023.

A scene from the Crow’s Theatre production of Zahida Rahemtulla’s The Wrong Bashir (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
A scene from the Crow’s Theatre production of Zahida Rahemtulla’s The Wrong Bashir (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

The Canadian-born second generation includes son Bashir (Sharjil Rasool) and daughter Nafisa (Bren Eastcott).

Bashir is in his fourth year of university studying philosophy, and has drifted away from Ismaili traditions. At one point in the play he has to recite the Holy Du’a, the Ismaili daily prayer, and he can’t do it.

Instead, he spends his time going around to various cafés to get them to play tapes of his podcast, “The Smiling Nihilist”, which he records on a boombox — old technology being his anti-capitalist protest. Bashir is also enamoured with a group of Zen Buddhist monks which causes his mother no end of concern, thinking they live in a haze of marijuana.
At the beginning of the play, Bashir has run out of money, yet again, and is forced to move back home.

Typical Canadian teenage sister Nafisa is a highschooler who is probably the smartest person on stage, and her job seems to be running interference between the feckless Bashir and their parents. She is also responsible for pointing out home truths.

Taken overall, The Wrong Bashir is a farce in the genre of mistaken identity.

It seems that one of the many committees of the khana or mosque, has chosen Bashir Ladha to be the new Mukhisaheb, (Mukhi for short), which is the very prestigious position of youth leader at the khana. When the astonished parents are informed of this by phone, they immediately accept on their son’s behalf.

A scene from the Crow’s Theatre production of Zahida Rahemtulla’s The Wrong Bashir (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
A scene from the Crow’s Theatre production of Zahida Rahemtulla’s The Wrong Bashir (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Two of the representatives of the selection committee, Al Nashir (Vijay Mehta) and Mansour (Parm Soor), arrive to meet Bashir in person, and so begins the very amusing plot of everyone slowly realizing that the selection committee has chosen the wrong Bashir. With the excited arrival of the grandparents and friend Gulzar, further complications arise.

At this point, I must point out that Sinha, who is usually a very fine actor, absolutely garbles her words while spouting some weird accent. Her secondary role is actually important because she, alone of the family, does not believe the committee has chosen the right Bashir, and tries to uncover the truth. Sadly, she literally could not be understood.

Farces need a fearsome pace, and director Paolo Santalucia as ensured that the play just gallops along. He is blessed with a strong all-Asian cast who are willing to throw themselves into the action full tilt, and no one holds back. On the other hand, the playwright has also included some very poignant moments, such as scenes between father and son, and grandfather and grandson, and Santalucia makes sure that these episodes are given their full due.

Rasool’s Bashir is the lynchpin of the play, and he pulls off his character brilliantly. His arc swings from bewildered, to frantic, to helpless, to hysterical and back again, and his facial expressions are priceless as the conversations beyond his control whirl around him. It is a wonderfully defined performance.

Designer Ken Mackenzie has provided an uber-realistic, split level suburban home, as well as the clever lighting which allows pin-spotting the kitchen, in particular, where private conversations can take place. Ming Wong’s attractive costumes run the gamut from modern to traditional, as does Jacob Lin’s clever score. In short, the production values for The Wrong Bashir are first rate.

The play has certainly found an audience — a sold out run in Vancouver, and an extended run in Toronto — so the comparison to the very popular Kim’s Convenience (2011) by Ins Choi, which gave insights into the Canadian-Korean community, is not far off.

While The Wrong Bashir isn’t perfect — some scenes go on too long, while others seem contrived, not to mention a wobbly ending — nonetheless, playwright Rahemtulla is clearly a talent to watch, and we hope to see more of the Canadian Ismaili community in the future.

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Paula Citron
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