Merchant on Venice
/ by R. Sheth

October 10, 2007
By Mary Shen Barnidge

Shakespeare's observations on the inhumane practices of a Jewish moneylender in 1596 nowadays reveal likewise unprofessional attitudes in his Christian colleagues, for isn't it the nature of business, itself, to bring out the dog-eat-dog side of human beings? Shishir Kurup's take on the controversial classic sets us down in the coastal resort town of Venice, Calif., where South Asian merchants ply their successful trades despite an underlying enmity between Hindu and Islamic communities. Also contributing to divisive tensions are the conflicts between long-established families and newer immigrants, fueled by old-country regional prejudices.

Our story begins with Bombay movie star Jitendra vowing to make Pushpa, the beautiful daughter of the director who gave him his Big Break, the leading lady in his next film and in his life. To this end, he asks his rich-kid buddy, Devendra, for traveling funds. In order to raise the capital quickly, however, the latter must secure a loan from Sharuk, whom he has repeatedly and publicly reviled. The rash Devendra promises that he will permit himself to be castrated if he cannot repay his debt (and thanks to modern technology, that old "take flesh, but no blood" loophole isn't going to save him).

Side-by-side with this grim premise, however, is a love story precipitated by Pushpa's "dear dead Daddy's dementia," the terms of her late sire's will mandating all suitors to engage in a game-show riddle involving three DVDs. Additional topical intrigue is provided by Sharuk's own rebellious daughter, who longs to abandon her burqa for a rock-and-roll lifestyle with a Latino musician. Oh, did I mention the trial before the South Asian Businessmen's Union—acronym "SABU"—where Pushpa is allowed to participate only if she dresses in women's garb? The iambic pentameter? The multiple contemporary pop-references? The Bollywood-musical revels?

One would expect the action of so volatile-themed a fable to quickly disintegrate into desperate time-stepping. But despite a few forced end-rhymes, Kurup's concept paints an accurate picture of its social and theological milieu. That we, too, recognize the justice and logic of his arguments is predominantly due to the intelligent, intensely-wrought performance of Anish Jethmalani, cast against type as the embittered Sharuk, with Kamal Hans' Devendra proving an able sparring partner. And if many of the cultural nuances elude ethnographically-challenged American playgoers (like me), there are no boundaries on cheerful dancers gamboling to catchy rhythms.