Himmat: compassionate storytelling — that could go deeper

publicity photo for Himmat

Gavan Cheema and Munish Sharma in Himmat (Photo: Wendy D Photography)

There are significant successes in Gavan Cheema’s Himmat — and there’s room for improvement as this young playwright moves forward. So, yeah, this review is going to be celebratory — and a little teachy. You’ve been warned.

The script’s greatest gift is compassion. The central relationship is between a young woman named Ajit and her dad, Banth, who’s a recovering alcoholic. Banth damaged his family, especially Ajit’s older siblings, but Cheema presents Banth as a whole person, not a demon, and the central subjects that emerge are love and redemption.

As The Georgia Straight’s interview with Cheema reveals, Himmat is a fictionalized autobiography. Like Banth, Cheema’s dad emigrated from the Punjab to the Lower Mainland and worked hard — in lumber mills, as a roofer, and as a truck driver. And, like Banth, he started telling the story of his life to his young adult daughter when he was in the hospital being treated for cancer.

Cheema contextualizes Banth’s addiction as a response to the chronic physical pain that can be the toll of a life of labour, and as a reaction to the stresses of immigration. Banth worked with broken fingers. When he broke his leg, his coworkers left him in the back of a van for the rest of the day and his boss discouraged him from making a claim. When racists verbally assaulted Banth and his new wife Bachani, he cut his hair — a big deal for this Sikh — and then couldn’t sleep.

Cheema balances all of this with marvellously quirky details, which often emerge in the play’s many flashbacks. Banth has an abiding affection for Alvin and the Chipmunks, for instance, because, watching those cartoons, he and his new wife Bachani got their first lessons in English. There’s a running gag about Banth’s obsession with Costco. From his hospital bed, he tells Bachani to buy some batteries there. When she protests that their house is already full of Costco batteries, he insists: “If they’re on sale, just get some.” Especially in his relationship with Ajit, Banth reveals himself as a jovial, loving guy — roughhousing with her and cajoling her to work beside him to repair his truck.

Playing Banth, Munish Sharma delivers a performance of charm and depth. The goofy grin of Sharma’s Banth could not be more endearing and, when Banth is forced to consider the pain he’s caused, you can see that he’s looking into a dark and dangerous well.

Under Paneet Singh’s direction, Cheema herself is persuasively naturalistic as Ajit, even when she’s called upon to play the character as a young child. In the role of Bachani, Veenu Sandhu is also winningly responsive and at ease.

So what didn’t work for me? A lot of the writing is on-the-nose. I think it’s Ajit who says, “Sharing our stories keeps them alive.” This isn’t thematic exploration, it’s a bald thematic statement, didactic rather than conversational. Similarly, Banth’s “I feel lost” strikes me as more of a generalized pronouncement than a persuasive evocation. And Ajit’s sudden interrogation of Banth’s drinking strikes me as overly deliberate.

Because theatre unfolds in passing time, it’s generally a good idea to make that passage thick and interesting by creating narrative tension, but, in its current form, Himmat is so concerned with looking backwards through flashbacks that it almost forgets to deal with the evolving present. There are stakes — Banth may be dying and Ajit wants to understand how she could love so fiercely the man who hurt her siblings so badly — but that crisis never really comes into focus. We hear nothing specific about her siblings’ suffering, the arc of Banth’s health crisis receives scant attention, and, importantly, Cheema never allows us to see what the consequences will be if Ajit fails to make peace with her ambivalence about her dad.

Because of this lack of tension and stakes, the evening goes flat, narratively speaking.

Still, the production values are high. The bold angles of Kimira Reddy’s set are pleasing on their own and make great surfaces for David Mesiha’s projections — grainy images of village life in India, for instance, and the flickering shadow of a tree outside the hospital.

Theatre engages in social processes and it’s important to point out that Himmat is making a significant contribution to South Asian representation in Canadian theatre. That’s exciting. And it’s great to hear Punjabi spoken on The Cultch’s stage in some passages. There are no surtitles, but I don’t speak any Punjabi and I got the gist: families are families.

HIMMAT By Gavan Cheema. Directed by Paneet Singh. A Theatre Conspiracy production at The Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Friday, May 6.  Continues until May 15. Tickets

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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