Imran Ali as Sajit, East is East

“Our audiences are growing where, historically, theatre audiences are dwindling. My opinion is that our work appeals across the board...”
Kristine Landon-Smith

Artists first, Asians second

by Patrick Marmion
Evening Standard | 3 October 2001

As little as 10 years ago, Indo-Asian culture in Britain was largely restricted to cricket grounds, curry houses, temples and mosques. It's a measure of how much that has changed when the Indian theatre company Tamasha is undertaking a sevenweek residency on both stages of Hammersmith's Lyric Theatre. Before it, the principal standard bearer of Asian drama was Jatinder Verma's Tara Arts. It was here that Tamasha cofounders Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith met, and that Ayub Khan-Din started out before writing Tamasha's first big hit, East Is East, in 1996.

Tamasha translates from Hindi as "commotion", and that is exactly what it has caused within British-Indian theatre. The women who run the enterprise also write, act and direct, in between being mothers to each of their two young children.

Thirty-nine-year-old Bhuchar was born in Tanzania, East Africa, toing and froing to the Punjab before moving to Britain aged 11. Landon-Smith, the 43-year-old daughter of an Australian father and an Indian mother, moved from Sydney to Glasgow to study drama, aged 20. Tamasha was founded in 1989 to stage their adaptation of Mulk Raj Anand's classic Indian novel, Untouchable.

From 1996, East Is East played to packed houses at the Royal Court, the Theatre Royal Stratford East and in the West End before being made into a hit film. Tamasha's biggest success since then has been Fourteen Songs Two Weddings and a Funeral - a musical adaptation of the Bollywood blockbuster Hum Aapke Hain Koun. Its appearance at the Lyric Hammersmith's 500-seater main stage marks its third outing and the tickets are still selling like hot potato bhajis.

The revival is being paired with an adaptation of Emile Zola's Therese Raquin. Written by EastEnders star Deepak Verma, it has been transposed from France to the Punjab and tells the melodramatic story of a loveless marriage blown apart by a torrid, tragic affair.

The irresistible rise of the Tamasha theatre company during the Nineties has been a remarkable phenomenon fuelled by its simple policy of producing "work of Asian influence for the British stage". Clearly there has long been a dormant audience for its work waiting to be awoken from its slumbers. But how has Tamasha raced ahead where Tara Arts has stood still over a similar time?

"We evolved and didn't set out with an agenda," says Bhuchar. "We were artists first, not Asians first. In our early days at Tara the discussions were as important as the shows themselves. Questioning the status quo and linking the 1919 massacre in Amritsar to what British Asians are facing today. The political agenda was to the forefront and we were all trying to define ourselves in this country.

"Now, it's a different era and we're not political beings in that sense. What we like in theatre is a personal voice. We look for the feeling of something and don't necessarily think of the worldwide repercussions of doing a play in a Balti house." When it comes to bums on seats, Tamasha is very much top of the Asian theatre league - if not the only credible team in that league. Part of its success has been based on the fact that, in the company's own words, it is "very good with money". It prides itself on doing all its own foot-soldiering on the marketing front, holding fund-raising gala nights and never relying on reviews.

Nor does it pay the staff unless it is doing a show. For years it has operated out of Landon-Smith's Crouch End home, when other companies would have rented costly offices. So, isn't it time it had a theatre of its own?

"We don't want the hassle of thinking about lighting and heating," says Bhuchar. "We'd rather be working on something or be at home with the kids." Landon-Smith pitches in: "I would not like to have a black arts building. There's a lot of discussion about this and Jatinder Verma thinks exactly the opposite. I would prefer to be at the Lyric, the Young Vic or the National Theatre - part of the whole."
"Why should we have one space where people say 'that's where the black work happens'?" demands Bhuchar. "It's time big theatres took note that culturally diverse audiences are the audiences of the future."

Landon-Smith also points out that "our audiences are growing where, historically, theatre audiences are dwindling. My opinion is that our work appeals across the board and we're looking at the brown pound, the pink pound, the white pound, whatever." With their hard-won box-office supremacy, is there still space for another Asian theatre company? "Yes!", they cry in unison. "And I am really surprised there isn't another in the generation below us," says Landon-Smith.

"A lot of young Asians are doing more film, TV and media, so they haven't set up theatre companies." Bhuchar adds that young Asian artists seem to be "getting successful quicker" and therefore have no need of their own theatre companies. Amusingly, she even goes on to proffer the classic old folks' grouch that the younger generation have "had it easy".

Not that Bhuchar or Landon-Smith look down on the "yoof" of today. In fact, they are desperately trying to commission them to write plays. "We're going to make sure Deepak does something for us again before he disappears," warns Landon-Smith. "And Ayub," says Bhuchar cautiously. "If he buys a table at the gala night that will be all right." It's a brave man who would scorn such formidable women.

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