July 12 2016
A new play charts the emergence of a very distinctive type of British Asian (Punjabi) man…do you recognise him?
MEN ARE MONSTERS. Traditional Punjabi men more so – that might be a very extreme way of looking at things but a new drama explores themes of British Asian masculinity in what appears to be a fresh and stimulating way.
“Punjabi Boy”, written by former Royal Court Theatre writing group protégé and University of East Anglia creative writing MA, Amman Paul Singh Brar, is about two very different British Punjabi men, living in London.
Meet ‘Bob’ (‘Balvinder’ – Amit Dhut) – who likes his tandoori chicken, whisky, and is loud and proud of his ‘Punjaban’ roots.
His best friend is ‘Gary’ (‘Gurinder’ – Diljohn Sidhu ) who can speak French, reads famous 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in the original, and likes to pontificate about the meaning of life.
“It’s about growing up, love, how it feels going from one culture to another, especially from an immigrant community within English culture,” explained Brar, whose play was first conceived while at the Royal Court a few years back and was then further developed with the BBC and its inaugural Writers Room initiative (which is a competitive scheme and supports around a dozen writers every year develop new work).
Brar spent three years studying European Economics at the University of Nantes in France, for a degree, is a fluent French speaker and well-acquainted with the works of Sartre and other intellectual giants from across The Channel.
He has Punjabi roots too and grew up in Hounslow, both where the play is set and where enjoys its current run, and his play is of course, very loosely constructed around his own experiences.
“It’s very much a coming of age story – deep down it’s about a boy going out into the world, which I think we all have to do.
“When we’re young, we leave home and we have to find ourselves and then we have to come back (to the place where we grew up).
This play explores what happens when you come back,” Brar told www.asianculturevulture.com
What transpires, in the play, is that Gary returns from his university days in France and has fallen in love with a French girl. Bob doesn’t recognise him but still feels connected and remains fiercely loyal to his best friend.
“If you can reconcile yourself to the world you’ve come back to, you can grow,” argued Brar.
“There’s a sense of things happening to him (Gary) in the play and he does not really understand and he finds it hard to reconcile himself. He tries to get on with life but he’s bit ill-equipped to deal with the world he’s come back to.”
Brar is 43 now, and has had a chance to reflect on his life and is a little coy on how much of himself is represented in ‘Gary’ but maybe with good reason.
He dodged the question about whether the experience of ‘not fitting back in’ was his own – more, perhaps a case of keeping the play’s precise trajectory under wraps than any real personal reticence.
“A lot of what happens in the play didn’t happen to me,” he projected. “I’ve looked at good drama and what makes a good story.”
That there is some form of conflict between Gary and Bob seems inevitable (www.asianculturevulture.com has not seen “Punjabi Boy”) but that tension is more on one side of the equation than the other.
“Bob is a lot happier than Gary. He’s stayed in Hounslow and he doesn’t question too much. To Bob, Gary is still his best mate and while he might drive a BMW and play loud music, he will defend Gary to the bitter end and has got his back.
“But Gary feels he is better than Bob, is more questioning and doesn’t think that way…”
Indeed, does learning and wide reading make you a better person? Does it allow you to look at others (not so educated or learned) in a way that becomes condescending and arrogant?
These are interesting questions and does the friendship between Gary and Bob survive their different interests and outlooks?
Gary has in a sense become another minority within a minority. When Punjabi culture is so dominant of Asian culture in Britain generally, there’s a sense that others can be downgraded, downplayed and even in extreme situations, obliterated altogether – and “Punjabi Boy” hints at the former.
“I wanted to get away from writing about (the common Asian tropes) a terrorist, taxi driver or shopkeeper.
“I have used some of my own experiences living and studying in France – where some had never met an Indian person before. I was a revelation to them.
“I’ve got my own experiences of living in a different language and culture,” explained Brar, who worked in the City for a couple of years after Nantes and then went on what ended up as an 18-month break to India, where he first began to write seriously. He developed further as Artist in Residence with Tamasha Theatre company.
“When I went to university in France, I really wanted to get out of England. At the time I felt very constrained in terms of my identity and France gave me an opening and the opportunity of feeling European actually.”
Identity can be a shifting characteristic and its nuances can often get overlooked and/or ignored and it’s another question that appears to spring from Brar’s current work.
The play is directed by Mukul Ahmed, whom Brar met some 10 years ago. Ahmed’s theatre company, Ghetto Tigers has joined forces with Brar’s Ekpunjaban Theatre to produce this show.
Its current run in Hounslow ends on Sunday, July 24. Last year, it had a very short run at the Rich Mix in Shoreditch, alongside a companion piece by Brar, called “Punjabi Girl”. He hopes one day to be able to present both as a double bill.
All pictures (unless specified Tarun Jasani)
‘Punjabi Boy‘ by Amman Paul Singh Brar, plays at The Hounslow Arts Centre, The Treaty Centre, High Street, Middlesex TW3 1ES.
Box office: 020 3743 2329
Booking/more info: http://www.hounslowartscentre.co.uk/