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‘Life of Pi’ on Broadway is “a dream run” for Mahnaz Damania

Mahnaz Damania

Indian stage actor is in the cast of acclaimed play opening on Broadway in March 2023

Winner of five Olivier Awards in London, Life of Pi is all set to open at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre beginning March 2023. Directed by Max Webster, the play has already wowed the audiences in London.

Based on Man Booker Prize winner, work of fiction by Yann Martel, the movie adaptation was a roaring success in India and in the US. Now as the story comes to Broadway, the American Bazaar catches up with one of its cast members – acclaimed stage artist from India, Mahnaz Damania.

Damania who works and lives in New York now, has been part of ‘Shikhandi’ – a critically awarded theatre presentation in India and has also played the supporting lead part in Bollywood hit, ‘Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya.’

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She talks to us about being part of Life of Pi, a chance meeting with the late actor Irrfan Khan and why Life of Pi is a dream run for her

AB: Tell us about the stage representation of Life of Pi. How did you land this role? How was the audition process?

MD: My manager Sana Hanible, submitted my tape for the casting call for the part of Rani, Pi’s sister in the play but originally written as his brother in the book. The day of the call back, the director Max Webster, playwright Lolita Chakrabarti and casting director Duncan Stewart were in.

After my audition for Rani I was about to leave, but they called me back into the room to read for the character of Mrs BK who plays a family friend and teacher. There was a second call back after this one and about a month or so later I got the offer letter to be in the ensemble and understudy the two characters.

I was over the moon. Of course actors mostly want to book the principal part they test for but being an understudy comes with its own levels of responsibilities and challenges.

Read: A tiger nearly drowned, the one in ‘Life of Pi’ (November 26, 2013)

And it’s been such a great learning experience for me since this is my first regional theatre stint with The American Repertory Theatre which is, oh my god, a great way to start my stage career in the US!

I also have the opportunity with this play to learn puppeteering from the likes of Fred Davis and Scarlet Wilderink under the expert puppetry and movement direction from Finn Caldwell!

Sometimes I wonder to myself when we’re at the theatre “Man! How did I get here?!” And when I look back at a decade of my work I realize I’ve been so fortunate in India too to train under Faezeh Jalali working on her productions — ’07/07/07’ and ‘Shikhand — The Story of the In-betweens’ — and with Rajit Kapur (Rage Productions). I feel ready as an actor because of these chances that I’m very grateful for.

Read: Meet Hamza Haq, the Canadian-Pakistani actor from ‘Transplant’ (July 14, 2022)

AB: As a South Asian actor in the US, how and why do you think it is significant for both audiences and actors of color in the West?

MD: This story tells such a fantastic tale of survival and resilience of the human spirit, how far we can come with what we tell ourselves to cope – to get through hardship in our lives.

Having so many South Asians in the cast is a testament to this survival in a way. Being in the room with so many faces that I identify with, that know what language I’m speaking, that know the struggle of living as an immigrant and more so finding a stage and story that takes you into that world.

Sometimes I’d look around the rehearsal space and I couldn’t believe I was actually there with so many talented people that were all experiencing the same strange but familiar feeling.

I’m so proud to be a part of this unraveling of sorts of the narrative we’ve been fed all our lives (be it stage or TV) and changing it to look like the actual world we live in. The wardrobe department also extended a consulting role for me on the play which I am so happy to be assisting with.

AB: You mentioned your desire to work with Irrfan Khan and how Life of Pi is the closest you will come to it now. Tell us about it

MD: This is one of my most favorite stories to tell: I bumped into Irrfan Khan outside my acting school in NY years ago (2010-2011ish) and I was thrilled! I exclaimed “Oh My God It’s You!” And he goes, “Yes it is!”

I told him that this is the building I study in and he’s like ‘Oh, this is where the Stella Adler acting studio is.’ And then (I don’t know why) but I asked “can I hug you?” And he said “of course!”

We continued to talk about the pros and cons of studying outside of India for the craft and then we said bye. I’ve always loved his work and though i haven’t yet watched all his movies (I know I know… I’m working on it though!) I did, of course watch Life of Pi.

It broke my heart when sitting back in NY I found out about his demise. But what a powerhouse while he lived and he lives on through his work.

That’s the value of what we do. Of the stories we tell. Not only can they be a catalyst for change but also keep the memories of the ones we love and admire accessible to us even after they leave this physical realm.

Working on this play is the closest I’ve come so far in my career to being associated with his splendor. This is a very cherished experience for me.

Read: Stephen Belber’s “Tape” gets an Indian adaptation (April 25, 2022)

AB: Was there any research that went into the role?

MD: In terms of research I’ve tried to read up more about the politics of the 1970s in India. Since the story takes place during that time it’s been helpful to understand the stress that a family may be going through (living through a declaration of an emergency) and how that affects familial ties and relationships.

Also, I’m from Ahmedabad and have lived with Gujarati people my whole life – add to that I was based out of Chennai for three years when I was a flight attendant with Jet and went to Pondicherry so often. I kind of have had the best of both worlds that are in the story so that’s great too!

Read: ‘Life of Pi’ Will Come to Broadway (October 24, 2022)

The show starts with its previews on my birthday! That’s Dec 4 and opening night is Dec 15.

Life of Pi began previews this week at American Repertory Theatre, and opens on Broadway next March.

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