Film - Theatre - Music/Dance - Books - TV - Gallery - Art - Fashion/Lifestyle - Video

‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ – A great British novel by Hanif Kureishi adapted for the stage…

‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ – A great British novel by Hanif Kureishi adapted for the stage…

Whitbread Award winning book comes to life on stage and opens tomorrow in Stratford Upon Avon…

IT IS ONE OF THE BEST novels of contemporary times – first published in 1990, Hanif Kureishi’s ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ is a rich, funny, hugely entertaining and stimulating novel about growing up as an Asian in Britain in the late 1970s.

This immortal title, which starts so memorably with the line… “My Name is Karim Anwar and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost”, has now been turned into a stage play for the first time by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and is directed by Emma Rice, one of the country’s most innovative and exciting theatre directors.

Lead actors Dee Ahluwalia and Ankur Bahl sat down with to discuss their characters – Ahluwalia plays the young opportunitistic, hedonistic teen, Karim, who is the main narrator of the novel, while Bahl reprises the role of Karim’s Indian (Muslim) born father, Haroon.

Dee Ahluwalia (Karim)

Both actors have read the seminal novel, but Ahluwalia has not ever seen the BBC TV series (1993) which caused controversy for its sex scenes at the time.

“I think you’ll see a lot of the elements that you loved in the book on the stage.
“A lot of the book is directly extracted from the novel – the whole essence of the book is on the stage,” Ahluwalia told acv.

Kureishi, for his part, has been an integral part of the process of adapting the work from the page to the stage. And it is clear that the stage version can be enjoyed without any prior relationship to the novel.

Ankur Bahl (Dad – Haroon)

A playwright of some distinction in his own right and where Kureishi started out as writer in residence at The Royal Court Theatre in London, he and Rice have collaborated to produce this stage version.

What stands out for both actors is how much their respective characters go against norms, break stereotypes and enable a space for a different sort of narrative to emerge from the South Asian British experience of the 1970s.

Karim is a cocksure boy, turning into a man, going from 17 to 19, in the duration of the play (and book) – not afraid to go against the grain, experiment and finds himself as the phrase goes – but the experience is also deeper, more searching and troubling than it may look at first. Ahluwalia says the humour shouldn’t obscure us from the more troubling aspects contained on stage.

“Some of the stuff that happens is dark and very sensitive but it’s so beautifully written. You’ve got these two beautiful things going on.

Foreground: Bahl and Bettrys Jones (Margaret/Eleanor)

“You’ve got the fun and the excitement and then it just pierces in its stillness and the vulnerability and sensitivity of the character.”

What is interesting too, is the way people who were born after the novel’s publication can now react to a collective shared experience on the stage.

It’s easy to forget the late 1970s were a sharp experience for many – there was a lot of open racism and some of it was very violent.

Karim mentions ‘p**i-bashing’ in the novel and it was a very real thing – you could not take your personal safety for granted in some parts of London or the UK.

Bahl grew up in the North America and said his family experienced racism too there.
“Perhaps less National Front (right wing fascist group that operated mobs and a political party of the same name) violence and not so much overt confrontation, but there was name calling in streets, that existed,” he reflected.

Apart from the racism, which is unavoidable as a negative force at the time, there is also the desire of Karim to escape Bromley, a corner of the south east tucked beneath London and actually in the county of Kent.

Natasha Jayetileke (Jamila) and Simon Rivers (Anwar/Uncle Ted)

Ahluwalia responded: “The suburbs are something by nature that you want to escape. It’s neither here nor there.

“He feels a mundaneness – a sense of let’s move, let’s get on, I need to find myself. I grew up in the suburbs not far from London and so I can identify a lot with that.”

While it is Karim’s coming of age and his transitioning from naïve boy into a much more knowing and expansive manhood, his Dad in the play, also undergoes something of a transformation.

Bahl’s character trajectory is not unsimilar in one sense – both men are seeking something that does not seem possible or available to them – given their circumstances or ethnicity – but both find a way to live the lives they want.

Bahl sets out Haroon’s situation to make his point.

“So here’s a Muslim man coming from a posh family on Juhu Beach (one of Bombay/Mumbai’s plushest parts) immediately after he Independence and he’s coming to be a barrister – a bit like Mohammad Ali Jinnah and (MK) Gandhi (both British trained lawyers before leading the anti-colonial movement in undivided India) and he falls out of law school, marries a white woman, has a kid and gets disowned by his family, becomes a Buddhist and works in a boring job in the Civil Service.”

Raj Bajaj (Changez)

Haroon parades his new found spirituality and finds that it is very attractive to some (white) women and takes a lover called Eva on.

The way Dad and son will react to the other is one of the strong aspects of the novel and it is a dynamic that serves the play too, said Bahl.

“I think Haroon sees this light skinned, beautiful boy and he is doing everything he wanted to do – and he is exploring his passions, his sexuality – there’s a little bit of jealousy there – but at the same time, it’s sort of like your cool best mate who elevates your life by you being with them.

“He feels he has enabled Karim’s life.”

It’s hard to sum up what a beautiful and powerful story this is – and why it means a lot to so many, but Ahluwalia encapsulates its essence as well as anyone.

“Kureishi just turns these kinds of stereotypes and tropes upside down or puts them in a tumble dyer and mixes them all up – and it’s just great fun.”

Main picture: Emma Rice (director) and Dee Ahluwalia – all pictures ©RSC – Steve Tanner


The Buddha of Suburbia’, based on the novel by Hanif Kureishi, adapted for the stage by Emma Rice, with Hanif Kureishi April 18 – June 1
Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Stratford Upon Avon CV37 6BB

Running time 2 hours and 50 minutes (including a 20 minute interval)
Age guidance: 13+

Share Button
Written by Asian Culture Vulture