Nina Chhibber Williams plays herself in Om Shaadi Om — a 30-year-old unmarried woman of mixed cultures, colours and continents. The multiculturalism has played a role in Nina’s unfinished journey to matrimony. While she is waiting for a wedding, and peace in her family, Williams is performing a play on her experience of immigrant families and relationships. Told through the sacred steps of the Hindu wedding ceremony, it is being staged at the Edinburgh Fringe, one of the largest arts festivals in the world, till August 10. “Although my story is personal, the themes of acceptance and wishes to make your parents happy are universal. As my generation continues to intermarry or have other previously unconventional relationships, we are pushing our parents out of their comfort zones while navigating through our own personal demons and emotions,” she says.
Williams, who bounces around various New York City stages performing sketch shows and short-form comedy, among others, has trained at the People’s Improv Theater in NYC. She has performed at the Upright Citizens Brigade and the Magnet Theater, played on the network television game show The $100,000 Pyramid, and even had a brief appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. “But, honestly, the only way I could consistently get cast in anything is if I wrote it myself,” she says. Excerpts from an interview:
What finally led you to create this play?
The Solocom festival in New York is a huge solo-performer festival focused on new works, and many of my artistic peers had submitted shows. I thought to myself, ‘If the rest of my friends and colleagues are submitting, I better get to it too.’ I wanted to represent my unique experiences but also ensure that my show had universal themes. I had just been through a rough breakup with a man that I saw a future with. There was the smallest part of me that was struggling with settling down with a white American man and I was getting cold feet, which was amplified by my mom’s wishes for me to find the perfect Indian match. I was wracked with guilt about ending the relationship and oddly thought that this strongest emotional turmoil may be the best base for a comedy show. I do remember having the ‘lightbulb’ moment when I decided to use the Hindu wedding as the frame for the show. Once I had that, it was much easier to craft the play.
How multicultural is your family and what is the impact on relationships?
My mom is a third-generation Punjabi, who was born and raised in Kenya. She moved to the US when she was 19 and eloped with my dad (a white man from Buffalo, NY). I was raised in a small town in Pennsylvania and, growing up, there was one other family of colour there (not counting my relatives). Even so, my mom made sure my elder sister and I were steeped in Indian culture, food, and languages. We went to the temple often, and spent time with our Indian side of the family. I have felt connected to my Indian side but struggled with not presenting myself as Indian enough. My last name is Williams and my skin is fair like my dad’s. There is nothing worse when someone yells ‘no way, I don’t believe it’ to your face when you tell them your background. As I think about a life partner, I hope there is respect and curiosity about the Indian side of me and that our kids would have a genuine interest in their heritage. For a while, I thought that finding an Indian guy would make this easier and kind of prove to the world that I’m Indian enough. I have learned that finding the right person, no matter the colour or background, is way more important than the image you represent.
One of the things you discuss is your mother putting up a matrimonial profile for you. How did that happen?
My family was not particularly open about discussing relationships. In our house, you had a ‘friend’ and then a ‘fiance’. In my early 20s, I had a serious boyfriend, whom I introduced to my parents, and, when we broke up, my mom took the reigns to make sure I didn’t ‘waste any more time’. During these few years, I was undergoing career changes and thinking about my future and I did not welcome her injecting herself in my personal journey. To her, a mother’s purpose is to ensure their child’s happiness. We struggled because we both wanted the same things — for me to find a partner and the opportunity to raise a family — but I felt like I was worried enough for myself. I didn’t need her taking this monumental task of ‘getting me settled down’ on herself… I felt suffocated, annoyed, then guilty, then furious again, worn down, and then the cycle would start back up. It was very exhausting for both of us.
What are the challenges of putting your own personal, even intimate, experiences out there for the public?
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to include some shaadi horror stories in the show and I slowly realised I would have to be pretty honest in order to have maximum impact. I couldn’t rely completely on funny jokes or gimmicks. For me, I’d much rather jump around and look silly to capture attention than include any intimate details about myself, and this show really forced me to think about my culture and relationship with my mom. I will admit that I left out some personal relationship stories of my own. I think I still struggle to cross that bridge to really let the audience into my heart, which is why the show is always evolving.