Theatre review: The Marriage Agency

A celebration of South Asian culture that’s smart and nuanced enough to balance light comedy and subvert the male gaze.

ye chaman-zār ye jamunā kā kināra ye mahal 
ye munaqqash dar o dīvār ye mehrāb ye taaq 
ik shahanshāh ne daulat kā sahārā le kar 
ham ġharīboñ kī mohabbat kā uḌāyā hai mazāq 
merī mahbūb kahīñ aur milā kar mujh se 

These gardens, the banks of the river Jamuna, this palace
These wonderfully carved walls, doors, awnings
Are but an emperor’s display of wealth
That mocks the love of the poor
My love, meet me elsewhere

(Excerpt and English translation from A Celebration of Progressive Urdu Poetry: Anthems of Resistance by Raza Mir and Ali Husain Mir, Roli Books, 2006).

And thus ends Sahir Ludhianvi’s landmark Urdu poem ‘Taj Mahal’. Throughout the poem, Sahir deconstructs the image of the Taj Mahal as an object of beauty and reverence, forcing the reader to see it differently: as a vulgar advertisement of love professed by an extravagant king and a shameful example of the exhibitionism of the elite and wealthy. 

The Marriage Agency written by Saman Shad, also asks us to revisit our traditional understanding of the monument – to not envision it as an incomparable  example of professing undying love – but rather, as a structure of white marble that’s robbed agency from the very person to whom this tomb of love was dedicated to, Mumtaz Mahal.

While Sahir’s poem is revisionist because it’s about class consciousness and an indictment on the wealthy, Shad’s revisionism has a more personal focus: in rememberng the Taj Mahal, we’ve erased the story of Mumtaz, and perhaps, that erasure is a signifier of how the stories of countless South Asian women keep getting erased when the status quo is the male gaze, even today. 

This through-line that Shad draws between the past and the present becomes a clever connective tissue to introspect the impact of patriarchy in South Asian households today. Nasir (he has shortened his name to ‘Nas’ to fit in) is an Indian-born Muslim who moved to Australia after an arranged marriage with Tasnim (who has grown up in Australia).

They have a teenage daughter named Salima. Nas is so convinced of his picture-perfect family that he decides to open a marriage agency in Australia – to help more people find love like he did through an arranged marriage. But is his own marriage as rock solid as he thinks it is?

The play is a genuine and heartfelt celebration of South Asian culture. Tasnim is a massive Shah Rukh Khan fan, hence some of Khan’s iconic songs such as ‘It’s the time to disco’ and ‘Tujhe dekhaa to ye jaanaa sanam’ pop up, but their appearance feels organic and authentic to the lived experience of these characters.

One of my favourite scenes involved a hilarious and unexpected segue from Shah Rukh Khan to Guru Dutt. The way Atharv Kolhatkar (playing Nas) pulls that off is worth the price of admission alone. 

Performances overall are top-notch, with the cast doubling up to play multiple characters. Kolhatkar plays Nas like a love-bombing teddy bear, oblivious to the fact that his over-the-top gestures might lead to disastrous outcomes. Ashi Singh as Salima is a refreshing breakaway from from how young teens are often represented in mainstream popular culture.

She’s often the voice of reason, helping calm down her overdramatic father. And yet, Shad reminds us that Salima is still finding herself, even if she has to play the adult in the family from time to time. Caroline L. George as Tasnim does a commendable job in conveying her character’s inner conflict and turmoil. Kavin Batliwala as multiple recurring characters gives each of the characters a distinct identity. The only outlier was Lex Marinos’s character. His arc as Bill doesn’t quite fit the narrative and the story would’ve been stronger without it. 

The Kings Cross Theatre is a small performance space. It’s a challenge to put up a production of scale – especially when you’re trying to show South Asian weddings that are known for their opulence – in a confined space. Credit to Rita Naidu (Production Designer) and Kenneth Moraleda (Director) for creatively utilising the space in a way that you quickly forget the limitations of the space the cast must work with. 

Read: Theatre review: Ghost Stories

The Marriage Agency is a step forward for authentic South Asian representation on stage, and it does in a way that simultaneously celebrates South Asian culture while holding aspects of it accountable. 

The Marriage Agency
Presented by kwento in partnership with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company
Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), Kings Cross, NSW
Playwright: Saman Shad
Director: Kenneth Moraleda
Assistant Director: Suz Mawer
Producer: kwento (Kenneth Moraleda and Jordan Shea)
Production Designer: Rita Naidu
Composer/Sound Designer: Samantha Cheng
Lighting Designer: Saint Clair
Stage Manager: Sophie Jones
Production Manager: Natalie Low
Intimacy Coordinator: Shy Magsalin
Cast: Atharv Kolhatkar, Caroline L. George, Ashi Singh, Lex Marinos, Kevin Batliwala

The Marriage Agency recently finished its stage run on 1 October 2022. 

Virat is an Indian-Australian writer and literary critic. He was a Young Journalist of the Year finalist at the 2018 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Communication Awards. As the resident film critic at 2SER 107.3FM, he is the co-host of the station’s weekly film-based radio program. He’s also the co-host of a podcast that discusses Hindustani film music and lyrics and is the founding member of the Sydney Science Fiction Film Festival.