Sudha Bhuchar as Gulabo in Untouchable

“If this were a fairy story, the narrative would stop there.
Real life is tougher and more confusing, full of rocks that punters do not suspect.”

Stealing the Show

by Naseem Khan
The Guardian | 6 December 1989

With theatre a new word to Asian business people, and competition for funds fierce, it takes guts and tenacity to launch a new ethnic theatre company. Particularly when you’re women…

It must have looked very like heaven. Ten of the capital’s richest businessmen in one room, all agreeing on the amount of money that the first women run Asian theatre company would be able to raise from the business world. £50 000? £60 000? £70 000? No problem?

Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon–Smith stumbled out of the exclusive club into the Belgravia night in, they recall, an advanced state of euphoria. Applications for Arts Council grants are nowadays much influenced by having business sponsorship. In one swoop, it seemed, they have achieved the amazing – had cracked the fabulous Asian business community whose wealth, industry and acumen affords them a special, privileged place in the Thatcher atlas.

If this were a fairy story, the narrative would stop there. Real life is tougher and more confusing, full of rocks that punters do not suspect. “We naively thought we could go to the Asian business community and it would be relatively easy.” Landon – Smith, the company’s director, said wryly.

“The way people used to treat us!” exclaimed its producer, Bhuchar. “We had lunch with this person and that person and they’d give us smoked salmon, the works. ‘You’re two such pretty girls,’ they used to say. And then we couldn’t get through to them on the telephone. The theatre, Riverside, was booked, and we were both on the dole. Knocking on doors, having them slammed in your face the whole time – we got so depressed we nearly gave up.”

The quality that made them carry on is the quality that convinced two Asian businessmen to break ranks and fund the first production of their new company, Tamasha. “Their enthusiasm was overwhelming,” testified Gulam Noon, managing director of Noon Products plc. “Seeing their tenacity and enthusiasm and commitment, we felt they deserved some sort of support.”

But why did the two women find such resistance? It’s only natural they had difficulties, said their other Asian founder, the seriously rich Sir Jay Gohel CBE, founder director of the Meghraj Group, with a genial and worldly – wise tolerance. “This is a fact of life – this world is no Rama Ramja or Shangri-la. We have 15 000 institutions of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in this country and there are so many rival claims.”

Clearly Tamasha had low status for most businessmen among all those claims – a face that should make the Arts Council rethink their optimistic belief that Asian business will readily step into the arts funding fold. Shrewd, close, intensely conservative, Asian business knows exactly what the correct recipients of sponsorship should be and that, by and large, is not theatre.

“Actually,” explained Sir Jay, “they are more interested in straightforward charities because this is the tradition. Indian people have not come to terms with the theatrical side of things. If there is any charity or a temple or a mosque, there is no problem. But theatre is quite a new word to Asian business people. They are not on he same wavelength.”

Bhuchar confirmed that “the Indians are givers. The problem is we are too unfamiliar. We don’t fit into Sunday night at the Bhavan (the Asian establishment’s institute of Indian culture) or a big West End spectacular, where they can have the best box in town, or the Wembley Conference Centre (home of Asian mega pop).”

Even without the cultural mismatches, their task would be hard enough. Their first play, an adaptation of Mulk Raj Anand’s classic novel Untouchable, is not being staged conventionally. Instead they have assembled a bi-lingual cast and are staging alternate English and Hindi versions. After all, points out Landon-Smith, who directed the play in Hindi in Delhi, people go to foreign work at the London International Festival of Theatre. But will Asians come, particularly younger ones whose Indian languages are shaky? “It’s an experiment. Let’s see.”

And then there’s another hurdle – their gender. Untouchable is not a woman’s play – a fact many women will regret. Most of the parts go to men, who are not at all used to being directed or controlled by women. But even though the play has little overt to say about women’s issues, the men in the cast had no doubts about the political implications of the set-up. “For a man like me, who is used to his sisters doing all the work and cleaning up.” Said actor Kaleem Janjua honestly, “seeing Sudha and Kristine in that position is a breath of fresh air. And they’re not using it to show what power they’ve got, but to create something. It feels motherly, in a positive sense – creative and good. There are so many male actors sitting around bitching. By contrast, these two have got the bull by the horns. It’s really exciting.”

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