Amit Sharma (Omprakash) Rehan Sheikh (Ishvar) and Sameena Zehr in A Fine Balance

“We try hard to concentrate on individual stories rather than present a homogenised idea of what it means to be Asian.”
Sudha Bhuchar

Bollywood? Pah!

by Claire Allfree
Metro | 10 January 2006

In Rohinton Mistry's novel, A Fine Balance, set in India, a man from a low caste demands to be allowed to vote. As punishment, he is stripped naked, hung upside down and has molten coal stuffed in his mouth. Elsewhere, rampaging Hindus raze the homes of Muslim families, while impoverished children play in ditches full of excrement on Bombay's streets. A sprawling epic set during India's turbulent state of internal emergency in the 1970s, and the story of an unlikely friendship between a Parsi widow and two lower caste tailors, Mistry's Booker-nominated, 600-pager is demanding raw material for a two-hour piece of theatre.

But Tamasha Theatre Company is relishing the challenge. 'People have told us the book is impossible to adapt,' laughs co-founder Kristine Landon-Smith. 'But we think we've found a way that makes sense.'

Established in 1989, Tamasha has long been considered Britain's leading Asian theatre company. They are responsible for such populist hits as East Is East, Ayub Khan-Din's comedy that was later turned into a film; the smash-hit musical Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings And A Funeral; and the Navratri-inspired musical, Strictly Dandia.

Last year, they scored another low-key hit with the comedy The Trouble With Asian Men. This year marks the first time they have announced an entire season of work - rare for a company who do not have a building of their own.

Tamasha are aware that, as an Asian-run company, they are vulnerable to being seen as culturally exclusive. Both Landon-Smith and fellow co-founder, Sudha Bhuchar, resent this form of pigeonholing, yet they are also aware of the dilemma that comes with wanting to tell stories that reflect the Anglo-Asian experience.

'We want to blow the myth that Asian entertainment stops with Bollywood,' says Bhuchar, who has acted in many Tamasha productions. 'That's why we were so proud of The Trouble With Asian Men, because it gave a fantastic window into the double identity that young Asian men experience. We try hard to concentrate on individual stories rather than present a homogenised idea of what it means to be Asian.'

Individual stories are also at the heart of their approach to A Fine Balance, which Bhuchar describes as being about people trying to maintain a fine balance within themselves during a period of intense crisis as they develop friendships across different castes.

Both women maintain that Tamasha resists creating easy social parallels but Bhuchar believes there are comparisons to be made between the catastrophe of India's descent into political and religious persecution and post-9/11 Britain.

'Communities in this country are increasingly conscious of wanting to define themselves in very specific ways,' she says. 'The rise of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism is making people very insular about who they are. Mistry's novel is about that, too, but also about people trying to break through these boundaries.'

Both women are refreshingly candid about the health of Asian theatre, admitting the genre still struggles for mainstream acceptance. They are excited to stage A Fine Balance at Hampstead, which traditionally attracts conventional audiences, but Landon-Smith admits the collaboration is rare and that leading theatres are still unenlightened when it comes to programming.

'People still see Asian theatre as a form of box-ticking,' she says. 'It goes all the way down. For example, the audiences for Strictly Dandia were mostly Gujarati. 'People tell us you can't have it both ways: that you can't define yourself as Asian and then complain when you only get Asian audiences. It's exhausting but it's mainly a marketing problem rather than an integral one.' And if anyone can help change it, Tamasha can.

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