Stage Door Review 2022

Stories of a Dish

Wednesday, January 26, 2022


by Himanshu Sitlani, directed by Neha Poduval

Nautanki Bazaar, Next Stage Theatre Festival, Toronto

January 19-February 13, 2022 online

Julia Child: “People who love to eat are always the best people”

When live theatre performances were paused in Ontario on January 3 this year, the Next Stage Theatre Festival had already planned to offer five of its ten shows in a digital format. One of these is the solo show Stories of a Dish by Himanshu Sitlani. Sitlani’s show is inspired by the series of the same name on the YouTube and Instagram pages of Nautanki Bazaar, the company he runs with director Neha Poduval. As a video play Stories of a Dish has already had its world premiere in digital form in August 2021 at the Mississauga Multilingual Fringe Festival. In November 2021 Sitlani performed the show live at the Little Lion Theatre Festival at the Drayton Arms Theatre, London, UK.

What we see is the digital show from 2021. It is conceived of as Sitlani’s video diary of his life during lockdown from 2020 into 2021 from the point of view of how he has to feed himself. The heavy focus on 2020 already makes the show feel dated since 2020 already seems so long ago and since the show ends before the brief reopening of restaurants.

The central humour of the piece is that it is a cooking show presented by someone who admires Julia Child but does not know how to cook. Sitlani survives the closure of restaurants by living on what he calls “packeted meals” like President’s Choice Butter Chicken, Kraft Dinner or, his special favourite, Maggi Noodles Masala, a treat he remembers fondly from his childhood in India. Otherwise, his culinary abilities are so feeble that he can’t even fry an egg.

As the lockdown progress, however, he finds instructional videos about Indian cooking on YouTube and the 40-minute-long show concludes with Sitlani preparing pao bhaji, his favourite Maharashtran street food, from scratch.

In Stories of a Dish Sitlani presents himself as an easily likeable sad sack character who is all the more amusing because he is so keenly aware of his own failings. The overall humour of the piece is mild and not especially original. We learn that he and his mother are at odds because he is still single and won’t accept any of her marriage suggestions. After a play like A Brimful of Asha (2011), the harassed unmarried Indian male feels like a cliché and Sitlani adds nothing to make it new. He makes a pun about how all the new pasta shapes he found in Canada opened up so many “pastabilities” and then nerdily points out that he made a pun.

This sort of corniness dominates the 40 minutes but is made even less effective by the way the show is filmed. Sitlani pauses after every joke as if waiting for the laughter to subside, but, there being no laugh track, there is no laughter. These pauses not only ruin the show’s pace but also emphasize that the comic on video is simply speaking into the void. Worse, director Neha Poduval has edited Sitlani’s scenes to such an extent that there seems to be an edit after every one of his lines. This gives the impression that Sitlani is unable to perform a scene in one take (unlike Davinder Malhi in the recent rihannaboi95) or that Sitlani needed multiple takes to deliver his lines correctly. Since Sitlani has performed the show in person, neither one of these scenarios can be true, so why the over-editing?

The most effective section of Stories of a Dish is Sitlani’s narrative of encountering racism in Canada. When his family moved into an apartment both a neighbour and the landlord warned them they would be evicted if they smelled them cooking curry. It’s clear that dislike of the smell of curry was simply an excuse for expressing a dislike of Indians in general.

To be complete Sitlani’s narrative needs a conclusion since he clearly lives somewhere with a sympathetic neighbour and landlord where cooking pao bhaji is not a problem.

It’s obvious from the start that Stories of a Dish would be much more successful on stage. Sitlani is talented and if presenting the show in person could easily turn a groan in response to one of his jokes to laughter just by the right improvised remark. The back-and-forth between performer and audience that video prevents is exactly what could help raise this moderately amusing piece to another level. Plus, inviting the audience to taste what he cooks on stage, to which he frequently refers, would simply add to the fun. Besides, his pao bhaji looks so good and easy to make, I’m going to try it as soon as I can.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Himanshu Sitlani. © 2022 Neha Poduval.

For tickets visit