Sudha Bhuchar
Photograph: Charlie Carter

Sudha Bhuchar. Photograph: Charlie Carter

“You have to try to step over your boundaries. We surround ourselves with our little securities, and I’m always conscious of how flimsy the thread is that’s keeping our lives together.”
Sudha Bhuchar

Across the Great Divides

by Lucy Powell
The Times | 7 January 2006

Sudha Bhuchar's theatre company depicts Asian lives, but its message is for everyone.

Sudha Bhuchar is used to treading fine lines. She’s best known as an actress, having once played the steamily adulterous Meena in EastEnders, and appearing in such TV staples as Holby City and Doctors. But Bhuchar is also the co-founder and principal writer for her own theatre company, Tamasha, which she set up 16 years ago to disclose the “untold stories of the Asian diaspora ”.

A Hindu married to a Muslim and a British Asian intimately connected to two, if not three continents, Bhuchar is well practised in cutting her own careful path through difficult cultural terrain. So adapting A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry’s vast, complex and achingly moving novel for the Hampstead Theatre didn’t seem an especially troublesome task: “I love the small person’s story, and that just flew out of the book,” she says, looking serenely beautiful and composed in the Hampstead Theatre bar. “Of course, on one level it is epic, but at its essence is these four people and their personal friendships across the caste divide.”

A Fine Balance tells the story of Dina Dalal, a Parsi widow clutching at the straws of her independence in the Bombay of 1975. Rather than remarry, or rely on her brother’s oppressive protection, she takes two lower-caste Hindu tailors and a student into her house. But, as every British Asian knows, 1975 was the year that India’s democracy nearly died. The then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, declared that discipline was necessary to control the unrest fermenting in her country, announced a state of emergency, and began implementing a series of repressive measures, including the forced sterilisation of thousands of India’s lower-caste men to curb the population explosion. In such a time, Bhuchar explains, “ordinary people’s lives were hanging by a thread. In some ways it feels really depressing, but actually it is about people’s divinity, I think, even until the end; their dignity.”

Bhuchar will star as Dalal, and considers herself as much an actor as a writer. “I found that when I hit my thirties I just wasn’t getting the parts. It was all either what I call the ‘hi hi mothers’ or the ‘namaste girls’.” Hi hi mothers are those ubiquitous TV creations: middle-aged Asian women who hit their foreheads in anguish as they bewail the Western antics of their second-generation kids. “It was pretty boring. So my friend Shaheen Khan and I scavenged our friends’ lives and wrote this radio series called Girlies, about four Asian women in their thirties, and gave ourselves the biggest parts. But the writing has gained its own momentum.”

In the 16 years since Bhuchar and her partner, Kristine Landon-Smith, founded Tamasha, a lot has changed and a lot, sadly, has not. “I mean, take us for example,” chips in a buzzing Landon-Smith, who is directing A Fine Balance, just as she has directed all of Tamasha’s productions. She joins us fleetingly at Bhuchar’s invitation, gulping down her coffee before rushing off for a photo-shoot. “A company like us can be on fire, but we’re still on the periphery, and the only bloody reason is race. Complicité are known for being a physical theatre company, whereas we’re still defined by our ethnicity.”

And yet, ethnicity is everywhere apparent in Tamasha, from its mission statement to its casting. “Yes, sure, it is a fine balance,” says Bhuchar. “Our work springs from our sensitivity and we do think it’s important that these stories get told, but the fact that it is from a community source doesn’t make it less professional, or less part of a theatre scene.”

After the success of East is East, which received its premiere in 1996 and became a film in 1999, Tamasha produced a string of sell-outs, such as Balti Kings in 1999, set in a Birmingham curry house, Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral, a musical based on a Bollywood movie, and last month, a verbatim show, The Trouble with Asian Men, which sold out at the Arts Depot in North London before it opened. That Landon-Smith and Bhuchar were joint winners of this year’s Asian Women of Achievement award is a measure of how they are regarded by their own community. Both women, though, feel that their work is judged unfairly by critics.

“It’s so interesting,” Bhuchar says, “our show Strictly Dandia was very particular to the Gujarati community. Set during this dance festival, it was a Hindu-Muslim love story. We opened at the Edinburgh Festival two years ago, where we barely had any Asian audience, and Scottish people loved it. You come to London and, because the Gujaratis had bought so many tickets in advance, and because they laughed a split second before anyone else, the English people were like: ‘Oh, I’m missing something here. This is something exclusive, this isn’t for me.’

“But I went to see a show at the National, On the Shore of the Wide World, set in a town in northern England, and I didn’t sit there and say, ‘God, those accents, I can’t understand these people.’ I think — well, do I relate to this woman or not?”

Bhuchar is hugely excited about the potential of A Fine Balance to bring Tamasha’s work to a wider audience. “I think it’s about crossing over your boundaries, your little securities. I have done that in my life. I trained to be an accountant, but knew in my heart that I didn’t want to do it. My father died when I was 15 and when I started acting my poor widowed mother had to cope with all these people saying: ‘Look, your children are going astray.’ ”

This was never more apparent than when, aged 17, Bhuchar met and fell in love with her husband, who is Muslim. “My mother was very supportive, though I got it in the neck from other places. But you have to try to step over your boundaries. We surround ourselves with our little securities, and I’m always conscious of how flimsy the thread is that’s keeping our lives together.”

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