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The Wrong Bashir is a celebration of family both on and off the stage

iPhoto caption: Photo by Dahlia Katz.
/By / May 22, 2024

Zahida Rahemtulla’s The Wrong Bashir, Crow’s Theatre’s final production of its 2023/24 season, is a celebration of family both onstage and off. 

The play, which begins previews May 21 at Streetcar Crowsnest, is a love letter to three generations of the Ismaili Muslim community in Canada. The titular wrong Bashir is Bashir Ladha, a young South Asian Ismaili man in his early 20s who is trying to find his place in his life, and who finds himself chafing against his family’s traditions: he’d much rather work on his “analogue podcast” The Smiling Nihilist than attend khane — a spiritual and social gathering space — with his parents.

When the Ismaili Council contacts Bashir’s family and announces that he’s been chosen as the new Students’ Mukhisaheb — a prestigious religious role in the community — Bashir’s family is overjoyed. Soon, however, members of the council arrive at the Ladhas’ home, and it starts to become apparent that a mistake has been made, laying the groundwork for a laugh-out-loud family comedy of mistaken identity. 

“Before I was attached to this project, [Crow’s] was so excited about how well-observed the play was,” said Paolo Santalucia, Bashir’s director and Crow’s Theatre’s associate artistic director, in an interview at the theatre alongside Rahemtulla. “What we loved about this play was that the family was such a force of love and humour.” He noted that this complex comedy is Rahemtulla’s debut play: Bashir first premiered in 2023 in Vancouver in a production by Touchstone Theatre.

Photo by Dahlia Katz.

“It’s rare for playwrights, especially in their debut, to write a nine-person ensemble comedy about family, in a way that approaches traditional community values un-cynically, with a lot of heart,” Santalucia continued. “You don’t always encounter family comedies that are a celebration of all three perspectives: grandparents, parents, and children. What Zahida has done, in a really sophisticated way, is centre a young person who’s in search of a community — and make a strong case for [that] community to be found in the past.”

“It’s kind of a fair fight for each generation,” agreed Rahemtulla, who is also the associate director on the upcoming run of the show, “and I didn’t actually mean to do that; it naturally happened. Growing up in an intergenerational [Ismaili] community, I really looked up to my parents and my grandparents, not only [the way] they did things but how much community surrounded them, and how much that meant to them.” 

In a separate interview, actors Bren Eastcott, Nimet Kanji, Sharjil Rasool, and Sugith Varughese praised the specificity and generosity of Rahemtulla’s play. 

“I am Ismaili,” said Kanji, who plays Bashir’s mother Najma. “I’ve seen [this generational divide] happen. When I grew up, I didn’t really question anything. We went to khane on Fridays, and I just followed along. Kids today, they have all these questions: ‘Why do we do this? Why is it holy water only in the khane? Why do we drink it only on Fridays?’ And you have to have answers.”

Photo by Dahlia Katz.

“What’s great about this play,” added Varughese, who plays Bashir’s father Sultan, “is that it respects and honours the culture and traditions of [the Ismaili] community, but also it takes them for granted. Non-Ismaili audiences are going to be dropped into the world of this family, this community. It’s a bit ‘inside baseball’ to start, but you’ll figure it out. It’s like a medical show where you just get caught up in the jargon. What Zahida is doing… represents a maturity of cultural expression, which is why I wanted to do the play.” 

“There are so many funny experiences that only [the children of South Asian immigrants] can really talk to each other about, because we see it with our families,” said Rasool, who plays Bashir. “Now everyone gets to see it, and I think it’s going to make everyone laugh.”

“It gets [even funnier] when it’s intergenerational,” said Eastcott, who plays Bashir’s sister Nafisa. “You’re trying to facilitate and manage competing dreams and desires and personalities. When you put them all in the same room together, obviously there’s going to be some chaos.”

Before she started working on The Wrong Bashir, Rahemtulla had intended to write a documentary theatre piece about her community, but she soon realized the potential for comedy. “Within the Ismaili community, there is so much contrast between the generations when they’re speaking to each other,” she shared. “It’s just naturally very funny. In exploring this rehearsal process with Paolo, one thing that has also been interesting is that [this] intergenerational humour crosses many communities.” 

“[Children of immigrant families] all know what it is for a major matriarch of a family to be scolding you about the fact that you don’t speak the mother tongue,” reflected Santalucia, who is Italian-Canadian. “I saw my grandmother on Mother’s Day. The first thing she said to me was in Italian, and she got mad at me for not understanding her; and this has been an ongoing conversation for the past three decades of my life. It’s a performance, a game we play, and I love performing that scene with her every time I see her. My entry point [into The Wrong Bashir] was through humour and commonality with regard to immigrant family experiences.”

Those commonalities are also what bind together the cast of The Wrong Bashir, not all of whom are Ismaili and who come to the project with a range of professional experience. There’s been a “beautiful [process] of onboarding to bring this extraordinary ensemble of actors [together], shared Santalucia, “some of whom have never been in another play before, and some of whom are Canadian film and TV veterans. There’s such a wealth of lived experience in the room. It’s been a really joyous process of storytelling and laughter and family. I leave rehearsal feeling like I’ve spent eight hours with my family every day.”

In one case, that family feeling in rehearsal is literal: Salim Rahemtulla, who plays Dadipapa (Bashir’s grandfather) in Crow’s production and originated the role in Vancouver, is Zahida Rahemtulla’s own father. 

“There’s a gap in [South Asian] actors of that age,” Rahemtulla explained. “In Vancouver [and in Toronto] we really tried to do a search for older South Asian actors.” Her father “became part of [early] readings and the audio [version of the play]. He always auditions, to make sure it’s well done. I remember the director in Vancouver, Daniela Atiencia, was like, ‘How can I possibly not take him? His whole resume is The Wrong Bashir!’” 

Rahemtulla’s father is one of two community actors in the Crow’s production, the other being Zaittun Esmail, who plays Dadima (Bashir’s grandmother). Rahemtulla recently finished a research project with the dramaturgical company Nightswimming in which she explored educational models for training racially diverse community actors over the age of 55 to join professional casts.

Photo by Dahlia Katz.

“We knew early on that especially because [Dadipapa and Dadima] represent the centre of the authentic and community-driven parts of this [play], that it was important to have Ismaili actors in those roles,” explained Santalucia. “It’s so moving to have these two [community actors] in [The Wrong Bashir]: it’s allowed for senior actors in our community to also venerate non-actors in the room. I think it’s contributing to why the room feels like a family because [Esmail] is our grandma, she just is; and [Rahemtulla’s] dad is our grandfather.”

“[Esmail] has so many Kutchi lines,” added Rahemtulla, referring to the language spoken by Bashir’s family in the play. “It’s so beautiful coming out of her because she says those phrases [in everyday life].” To have somebody who’s used those words, who knows what they mean, and in a way knows more than what they mean — who knows the exact calibration of when they would be said — it’s so nice.”

“You can help someone be louder,” Santalucia reflected. “You can help someone be more physically present in the space. What you can’t teach is authenticity. To have elders in the space whose status is achieved through their lived experience, and not their resumes — there’s no clearer distillation of why this play is important than that.”

The Wrong Bashir begins previews on May 21 at Crow’s Theatre. Tickets are available here.

Nathaniel Hanula-James

Nathaniel Hanula-James

Nathaniel Hanula-James is a multidisciplinary theatre artist who has worked across Canada as a dramaturg, playwright, performer, and administrator.



  • Saarah Jun 1, 2024

    Just saw the play… absolutely loved it!! Well done to the entire cast and crew… It would be amazing to see this as a TV show!

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