Madhuri Shekar was in Los Angeles pursuing her MFA in dramatic writing at USC when she got the phone call from Chennai, India. It was her parents, calling to broach an uncomfortable topic: “It’s time to start thinking about marriage.”
For 23-year-old Shekar, the question came as a shock.
“My parents are very worldly and they’re very liberal and they’ve traveled so much,” Shekar said. “I honestly didn’t expect them to start saying, like, ‘Well, you have to start meeting boys and start thinking seriously about marriage.’”
Her knee-jerk reaction was to say it was too soon for this conversation. But on the other hand, Shekar understood where her parents were coming from — they had an arranged marriage, and it was a very happy one.
Contemplating whether it could be the right decision for her was what led Shekar to write A Nice Indian Boy, which will be premiering at East West Players today.
“When I started the play, it was almost an exercise in trying to convince myself that if I were to get an arranged marriage, it would be OK,” Shekar said. “It was almost a defense of the Indian system, because I was trying to understand it. Now it’s a celebration of love, but in a way that works for you.”
But the arranged marriage storyline felt overused to Shekar and she was unsure how she could write about it in a new way. A friend’s suggestion sparked the storyline: Why not make this main character, who really wanted to have a traditional Indian marriage, gay?
“Suddenly, it was like the play just opened up to me,” Shekar said. “It would be so amazing to look at marriage, not just in Hindu culture, [or] in Indian culture, but in contemporary American culture. What does marriage mean through the perspective of a gay character who really wants to be married? It just allowed me to turn all these tropes of Indian marriage on its head.”
Shekar, who graduated from the MFA program in 2013, said she never expected to work in theater. Though she’d always felt drawn to it, she hadn’t seriously thought about pursuing it until she came to USC. While she was getting her master’s degree in global communication, Shekar took a graduate playwriting course for fun.
“I was in a room full of students who understood me and understood my passion because they felt it, too,” Shekar said. “At the end of the semester, [Velina Hasu Houston, USC’s director of Dramatic Writing] said, ‘Why don’t you just apply for the MFA? You clearly love this.’ No one had ever validated me like that before.”
Shekar made the decision to pursue the three-year program. She won the Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition in 2014 for her play In Love and Warcraft, which is currently playing at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. A Nice Indian Boy was Shekar’s thesis project.
She said that her experiences living in different cultures gave her a mixed perspective on why people marry. Shekar was born in San Jose, Calif. but moved to Singapore when she was 6 and then to India when she was 9. She then spent her graduate school years in England and California.
“It’s interesting because American culture says that you have to fall in love to get married,” Shekar said. “You have to date, you have to test each other and see if you’re compatible — but you have to fall in love, and the way in which you fall in love has to happen almost serendipitously. The Indian value system is kind of like, if you know you want to get married, then treat it like anything else in your life: plan for it, be smart about it, do it like you would do a job interview, meet a lot of people that your parents approve of.”
Writing A Nice Indian Boy also gave Shekar a better idea of her own parents’ relationship, as she based the parents in the play on her own.
“I kept finding these moments of really sweet love between the parents,” Shekar said. “I didn’t expect that to come out of me and it’s made me understand my parents so much better.”
Shekar said that one of the most meaningful moments that came out of the play was when her parents flew in to see the reading last year.
“They absolutely loved it,” Shekar said. “They cried and my mom goes, ‘Madhuri, we’ll stop looking for boys for you.’”
A Nice Indian Boy will be playing at East West Players from Feb. 20 to March 23.