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Sonali Bhattacharyya: Sharp political writing about young people makes for entertaining drama…

Sonali Bhattacharyya: Sharp political writing about young people makes for entertaining drama…

Award-winning playwright has knack and talent of finding young people stories and giving them centre stage and talks about why young people are political…

By Suman Bhuchar

PLAYWRIGHT Sonali Bhattacharyya is a political writer whose current play, ‘Liberation Squares’ is touring the UK, giving a voice to untold stories.

This show is informed by extensive research and interviews and reunites her with director Milli Bhatia who directed ‘Chasing Hares’ at the Young Vic (July 18 – August 23 2022).

Bhattacharyya told that at a time when new police powers around protest were talked about, she wanted to look at the Prevent Programme which had been around since 2003 and has disproportionately been impacting Muslim communities for all that time.

“Muslim communities have been living with the reality of their contraction of freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom to demonstrate, for all this time without the wider majority really paying much attention to it. It felt important to tell the story from the point of view of three Muslim girls,” she told acv.

Xara (Haleema Hussain); Ruqaya (Vaneeka Dadhria) and Sabi (Asha Hassan) ©AliWright

The Prevent Programme could be described as a surveillance programme aimed at ‘stopping people becoming terrorists’ and it supports early intervention.

Liberation Squares is a comedy that features three Muslim teenagers, Xara, Sabi and Ruqaya, who discover sisterhood, solidarity and activism as they stand up to microaggressions, racism and Islamophobia.

Originally commissioned by Fifth Word Theatre, Derby, the story has been in gestation since pre-pandemic and today the producers are also Nottingham Playhouse and Brixton House.

Bhattacharyya began her research through reading reports and the work of poet performer Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, and then followed this up in interviews and workshops with young women in the East Midlands.

Teenagers were also at the heart of her earlier play, ‘Two Billion Beats’ (which was on at the Orange Tree Theatre twice, on January 20 to February 4 2023 and February 5 to March 5 2022).

Ruqaya (Vaneeka Dadhria)

“I like writing for teenagers because there is no discrepancy for writing for teenagers or writing political work. Teenagers are very political. Young people have a political understanding of the world out of necessity – it’s a real survival thing, we’ve left this generation with a poorer standard of living, with less job prospects, a financialised education system with really vicious racism and imperialist policies going on.”

She continues: “I think there is an honesty to being an adolescent, there is an honesty that you can convey and there is a real moral compass to being an adolescent. As a teenager you are on the cusp of adulthood and the stakes are so high and so that’s really appealing for me as writer, to be able to combine those things. I have written quite a few things for teenagers, I do really enjoy it.”

Liberation Squares’ features a cast of three Vaneeka Dadhria (playing Ruqaya), Asha Hassan (as Sabi) and Halema Hussain (as Xara) and is directed by Milli Bhatia.

The duo collaborated on ‘Chasing Hares’ at the Young Vic and before the show was even produced the play had received the Sonia Friedman Production Award (2019) and Theatre Uncut Political Playwriting Award (2021).

Sonali Bhattacharyya during rehearsals for ‘Chasing Hares
© Helen Murray

Bhattacharyya said she first met Bhatia when she asked her to read an early draft of her play, ‘King Troll: The Fawn’, which she will also direct when the show is performed this autumn at the New Diorama Theatre (see below).

“She really understood the play. The play is quite wild, it’s about the hostile environment. I then gave her ‘Chasing Hares’ to read and said I would love to work with you on this.

“I think it’s a balance of how bold and creative her vision is for a play, but also how rooted that vision is in the writing. She has a real energy and a real joy to her directing that really brings the writing off the page and really brings these worlds into sharp focus.”

She is full of praise for Bhatia’s open, inclusive and collaborative approach.

“The rehearsal room is a very lovely place, which it should be and has been so joyful in ‘Liberation Squares’. We all enjoy working together. I think it’s partly about sensibility and politics as well, we share a world view and we share a hope for the world which is really important.”

Bhattacharyya, born and brought up in Leicester, studied media arts at Royal Holloway, University of London followed by an MA in Screenwriting at London College of Art.

She began working as a screenwriter/director but after spending time in “development hell”, was invited to pitch to radio by producer Naylah Ahmed. Here, she spent time honing her craft for radio plays and soaps, writing for ‘Silver Street’, ‘Eastenders’ and ‘Holby City’ to name just a few. She then moved to writing for theatre, a medium she enjoys.

Her credits include ‘The Jungle Book’ at Chichester Festival Theatre (December 16-31 2023) and ‘The Arabian Nights’, Bristol Old Vic (November 23 2023 to January 6 2024) and for whom she is also doing ‘The Little Mermaid’ this year. She was also one of the writers for ‘Silence’ – the Tara Theatre show about Partition which was on from September 1 to October 1 2022 and then again, April 6 to May 4 2024.

When not writing she enjoys reading and shared her choices with acv.

“I just finished reading a brilliant book by Shabna Begum about the Bangladeshi squatter’s movement, ‘From Sylhet to Spitalfields’, I am reading ‘Minor Detail’ by a Palestinian author, Adania Shibli and a slim novel ‘Down with the Poor’ by a French Bengali writer, Shumona Sinha. They are all really good, I recommend all of them!”

ACV saw ‘Liberation Squares’ (May 2-11);it has been touring across several cities. The following performances are still available to see…

Lead picture (L-R): Ruqaya (Dadhria), Sabi (Hassan) and Xara (Hussain) – all pictures unless stated ©Ali Wright


Sheffield Theatres, Crucible Playhouse Norfolk Street, Sheffield, South Yorkshire S1 2LA (today & tomorrow) – May 28-29 7.15pm | 0114 249 6000

Belgrade Theatre, Belgrave Square, Coventry, West Midlands CV1 1GS – June 5-7 (&.45pm/2.15pm) | 024 7655 3055

Octagon Theatre, Howell Croft South, Bolton BL1 1SB – Saturday, June 8 – 8pm | 01204 520 661

Running Time: 90 mins approximately, with no interval | Suitable for ages 14+

Content warning: contains sensitive subject matter including descriptions of Islamophobic and racist violence and references to racism and Islamophobia

*Prevent is a UK Government programme with the stated aim of stopping people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. Many British Muslims and Muslim organisations have raised serious concerns about Prevent. The Amnesty report on Prevent can be found here:

With Kali Theatre as a co-production with New Diorama Theatre

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture