June 18 2014
Your upbringing either condemns or liberates you, suggests playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti in her latest work…
FAMILIES are unique constructs and no can ever escape their grip, however hard they might try.
That might seem a grim and negative assessment and a point rammed home by acclaimed playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti in her latest play, “Khandan”.
Down from the Birmingham Repertory Theatre where it first premiered last month, it is now on a run until June 28 at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
Tender, funny, poignant, Bhatti proves herself to be one of the most acute of commentators chronicling the British Asian experience.
And not just that – for there is much here about migrants in general, as well as families and how they are made and in some respects destroyed and resurrected.
It might on a surface level look heavy and bleak, but Bhatti’s greatest strength is to keep the flow of emotions and events in check, managing the characters with skill and brio and dabbing a light touch when things threaten to take a really depressing turn.
All her characters have their light and dark sides and while there may be some notion of stereotyping, it’s often impossible to produce characters who show a degree of consistency and relevance without leaning on popular tropes. But she’s too smart a writer to leave them simply as they are.
There is the matriarch – Jeeto (Sudha Bhuchar), tough, durable, straight-talking – her ‘bastard’ annunciations somewhat reminiscent of comedian Paul Chowdhry’s common term of endearment.
Her son Pal (Rez Kempton) has ideas and ambitions of his own and it is clear that while he must fill the void left by his father and Jeeto’s husband, he wants to carve his own path.
A less obviously Asian one than his Dad’s – no more standing behind a till in a newsagents, and putting in long hours and withstanding the casual abuse that comes with the territory.
His sister Cookie seems to have won her own battles and has it all – two teenage daughters, a loving husband in Major (Neil D’Souza) and a thriving beauty salon business.
Materialistic, hedonistic, and independent, she does represent a sort of new modern Asian woman making her way in the world. Negatively for some, she would be “more gori than the goris themselves” and thinks nothing of engaging in another man’s attentions – but the degree to which she is comprised is one of the less developed subplots in “Khandan”.
Hubbie Major is a decent sort, though somewhat flummoxed by modern fashion, in some way holds the play’s delicate moral compass.
Of all the characters he is probably the most honest and straightforward, but suffers for it.
Equally attractive in some ways is Liz (Lauren Crace), Pal’s wife.
How different she is to Cookie: homely, loyal, and honest. She respects and loves her mother-in-law, is a dutiful wife in an Indian sense and as we learn, broke from her own white racist family to be with Pal.
Into the mix comes Reema (Preeya Kalidas), straight from India, and a broken marriage to the alcoholic nephew of Jeeto.
Smart, ambitious and wily, she seizes a dubious path far from the one Jeeto has intended for her and the whole play turns on this.
Bhatti assembles then a very relatable cast of characters and while the stereotypes might seem just that, they are not racially constructed and it’s what gives Khandan an extra layer of subtlety and sophistication.
It’s Liz that hankers for a child and calls her mother in law ‘Mum’ (‘more Asian than Asians themselves’ is roughly a line from the play itself) and addresses her elders as her Punjabi husband should; while it is Reema who talks about getting an MBA, not being maternal and desiring a place of her own.
Each character represents a noble hope (in their best lights), largely flawed and unrealistic in some ways, and it may well be that few of us accept our limitations and persevere for too long under false expectations, suggests Bhatti perhaps.
Those come crashing down and with it comes an acceptance that we are who we are because of Khandan (our family), for good or ill, whatever our colour or culture, and it is difficult, perhaps stupid, to turn our backs completely on what is handed down from one generation to the another and that most of all, migrant families are survivors.
ACV rating: 3.5 (out of five)
Production Images:©Robert Day
Main pic: Preeya Kalidas as Reema in ‘Khandan’
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“Khandan” – Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, until June 28, limited availability only, Royal Court Theatre, Jerwood Theatre upstairs. Ticket availability: http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/khandan/?tab=1