How much are your morals worth?
Actors have never had it easy. You can choose to be an Artist with a capital A, and continue struggling unless you miraculously become a hit. Or you can dive into the nebulous world of film, take on questionable roles and be labelled a hack or sellout.
In HuM Theatre’s newest production, the local company tackles the complications of balancing art and livelihood in Yussef El Guindi’s riotous comedy Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes. Directed by Yogesh Tadwalker, our story follows Ashraf Khan (Gautam Marathe), a small time theatre actor who plays Hamlet to tiny audiences.
Ashraf’s big break comes when his casting agent Berri (Subin Subaiah) offers him a role in renowned director Julie Bannerjee’s (Daisy Irani) new blockbuster – Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes. With a million dollar contract hanging on the line, the role seems to be a no-brainer. The script however, has much to be desired, where he will be playing a villainous Muslim terrorist corrupting an innocent, Christian all-American girl. It’s no wonder the more famous Khans passed over the role – but can Ashraf swallow his pride and betray his morals to take the job?
Over the course of the play, Ashraf continues to dither back and forth over the decision, even as every other character tells him to take it. This conflict naturally leads to plenty of tension between himself and the others, particularly once Julie and his sultry co-star Cassandra Shapely (Daisy Mitchell) arrive at the office to audition him. These result in farcical scenes featuring physical comedy and euphemistic jokes that land the laughs for the audiences, whether it’s Ashraf’s painfully silly method acting and process everyone fawns over, or the various mishaps from Berri as he attempts to coax Ashraf into simpering over Julie.
To achieve all this, the cast does a fantastic job of channeling their energy into giving an over-the-top performance, working well to bounce off each other’s lines and getting the comic timing just right. Subin Subaiah plays the hapless, desperate Berri to a T, a struggling agent who places all his hopes in every opportunity that comes along. It’s no surprise he’s become shameless and willing to give up everything, to the extent he will grovel and prostrate himself to get a leg up, and attempts to impose the same on Ashraf as well.
As Julie, Daisy Irani commands the room with her aura and no-nonsense attitude, knowing exactly what she wants. Underneath her artistic exterior, Julie hides a fearsome manipulative side, swapping between force and coddling to play Ashraf right into her hands, a technique she has no doubt done to plenty of other actors under her charge. It is clear that Ashraf is at the mercy of both Julie and Berri, each employing completely different methods to play him like a pawn to reach their own selfish goals.
The intimate, television sitcom-like set by Insha Subaiah also provides an ideal backdrop for the shenanigans that go on over the course of the play. In a world where we’re so used to social distancing, it was a rare chance to see these actors interact with each other in such close proximity and build on each other’s energies. From his years of experience in theatre and film, director Yogesh Tadwalker knows how to capitalise on his cast’s strengths and bring out their full range and inherent capabilities. With both Daisy and Subin as sitcom veterans, it’s no surprise that they seem completely at home with the set-up, teasing out the inherent comedy they can create as they navigate the space with ease, where even a simple locked door can become a means of comic relief, alongside a couple of surprises that will keep audiences on their toes.
Meanwhile, Daisy Mitchell, more often known as a storyteller, brings out a rarely seen side to her by capturing Cassandra’s diva attitude and sex appeal. But more than just a bimbo starlet, Daisy manages to layer her character with different degrees of complexity, as a rising actress who knows how to use her feminine wiles and play the industry’s game to get what she wants. Even ‘side characters’ like Berri’s assistant Poornima give actress Sajini a chance to shine, where she evokes the manic energy of a deranged fan sidling up to get into Cassandra’s good books. As cheerful as she is, Poornima makes it clear that she is ready to give up her loyalty the moment a better opportunity comes along, reflecting the backstabbing nature of the industry.
Part of the play’s horror lies in the sheer lunacy with which all the characters become obsessed with the promise of Hollywood, doing everything they can to get that much closer to stardom, and forgetting any form of ethics. As the only one who hasn’t been completely sucked into the vortex, Gautam’s exasperation and frustration in his performance provide the perfect contrast to the insanity all around him, the clear outlier who does not fit in with the rest of these delusional people.
For Jihad Jones, the comedy is merely a foil to the sharp satire underneath, passing sharp commentary on the cutthroat film industry where it’s every actor for themselves. Ashraf’s protests on the problematic nature of his character all fall on deaf ears as everyone else is blinded by their own greed and agenda, be it fame or fortune. Morals are worth nothing when materialism wins out, evident when Cassandra launches into an impassioned monologue for Ashraf to wake his idea up if he ever wants to ‘make it’ in the industry. Even Julie, herself a once-believer in such morals and ideals, shows how she’s chosen to turn a blind eye to all this and accept the cycle of prejudice in order to ‘tell a good story’ and achieve the success she enjoys today.
It hits hard because of how true it is, with so many struggling artists just looking for a way to escape their predicament, regardless of how stereotypical or hackneyed the role is, just to get ahead in the industry. And it is on this sombre note that Jihad Jones reaches its denouement. Ashraf knows he can’t convince them of his values, and is left to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. And god knows how many devils there are in the industry, each one offering a better contract than the last if only he’d sell his soul and everything he stands for. Left alone in the room, Ashraf turns from the million dollar figure to the script, and we can only wonder about his ultimate decision, doomed if he does, doomed if he doesn’t.
Jihad Jones And The Kalashnikov Babes plays at the Drama Centre Black Box from 14th May 2021 to 6th June 2021. Tickets available from SISTIC