East Goes West in Rafta, Rafta...Date: 16 April 2007
Another play about a funny Asian family? Why not. Anglo-Asian theatre has lots more going for it than Bollywood & wet saris, as Roger Foss discovers when speaking to the team behind Ayub Khan-Din’s Rafta, Rafta…
Liz Hurley and Arun Nayar aren’t the only couple celebrating their marriage with a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony. Liz and Arun resembled Bollywood royalty when they recently plighted their troth at a spectacular ceremony in the fairytale Umaid Palace in Jodhpur. Closer to home, Vina and Atul Dutt, the young newlyweds at the centre of Ayub Khan-Din’s new National Theatre comedy Rafta, Rafta..., also dance the night away, but to a crossover bhangra-Brit beat in a dingy local church hall.
Working class vs high caste
More working-class Bolton than high-caste Bollywood, and more in the vein of Khan-Din’s down-to-earth stage and screen hit East Is East than romantic Eastern fairy-story, Vina and Atul’s love train soon hits the buffers when the sensitive Atul is unable to perform in the marital bed in his overcrowded parents’ home where the walls are embarrassingly thin.
If this domestic situation sounds vaguely familiar, then it’s probably because Khan-Din has based his plot on All in Good Time, Bill Naughton’s warm-hearted 1963 Northern comedy about a groom who has problems consummating his marriage (subsequently filmed as The Family Way).
“It all began when my brother came round to dinner and we got talking about the Sunday afternoon movies we watched on TV when we were kids,” explains Khan-Din. “The films we remembered most were Hobson’s Choice and Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine and The Family Way, I suppose because they all have strong father figures who reminded us of our own dad. Naughton, who also wrote Alfie, did moving, gentle stuff – sentimental without being overdone. I love seeing that on stage.”
Adapting someone else’s story about a Sixties white working-class family for an Asian family of today, he says, was intimidating at first. “I felt a bit of a con. But then it dawned on me that today is just like the Sixties for people who can’t afford to buy property and have to stay with their in-laws. As soon as I imagined an Asian family living on top of each other like that, it flowed brilliantly. I hope I’ve done something different but kept the heart of the original play.”
With NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner at the helm and a cast headed by Meera Syal as the Dutt family matriarch and veteran Bollywood star Harish Patel, making his UK stage debut as the outspoken father, Rafta, Rafta... (it means ‘Slowly, Slowly’) already shows signs of becoming another popular hit along the lines of East Is East. But it hasn’t escaped Khan-Din that the multicultural landscape has changed radically in the few years since he was writing about a mixed Pakistani-English household in Salford.
His new play arrives on the National stage at a time when some Asian communities, especially in towns like Bolton and Oldham, are under the microscope after headlines about riots, bombings and veiled faces, and official reports revealing a kind of Asian apartheid where the politics of multiculturalism has led to self-exclusion and parallel living. “I was in Madrid recently for the British Council, showing European films to students. Because of the Madrid bombings, the whole climate around East Is East and Asians generally had altered. These young people were asking completely different questions, mostly about integration.
“The way I see it, if you make a choice to live in a country, then there are certain aspects of your life from before that you have to drop. You can’t force your kids to grow up with the same environment that you had.” The Dutts in Rafta, Rafta... are, Khan maintains, typical first generation immigrants who have worked their way up from nothing and want to see something better for their children. “They are totally integrated, but they’ve done it on their own terms. It’s just an ordinary working-class Asian family – you don’t often see their stories on stage.”
In an age of Zee TV and when Bollywood movies and Hindi made-for-TV family dramas and serials are booming in the UK DVD market (many featuring Harish Patel in a variety of character roles), what stories do British Asian audiences want to see on stage? Mainstream musicals like Bombay Dreams or The Far Pavilions? Asian-ised Shakespeare, as seen in Tim Supple’s A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Roundhouse? Then there was Stephen Beresford’s unforgettable Indian production of Twelfth Night at the Albery (2004), featuring Kulvinder Ghir (of Goodness Gracious Me fame) and Raza Jaffrey (who starred in Bombay Dreams and East Is East). Did Asian audiences respond to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s epic adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight's Children?
Since it was established in 1989, Asian touring theatre company Tamasha (co-producers of East Is East) has developed a diverse crossover mainstream audience for a body of work that has ranged from adaptations of classic literature and improvised comedy to vibrant musicals, including The Trouble with Asian Men, Bollywood homage Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings a Funeral, restaurant comedy Balti Kings and an adaptation of Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance, which returned to Hampstead Theatre this month.
The Young Vic’s 2003 staging of Tanika Gupta’s version of another classic English working-class comedy Hobson's Choice, relocated to a modern-day Salford Asian community, signalled the way for Rafta, Rafta.... At the other end of the Asian-fusion scale, there have been controversial contemporary plays, such as recent productions at Birmingham Repertory Theatre: Bells, set in a brothel and written by Anglo-Pakistani Yasmin Whittaker Khan, and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti, which included a riot-inducing rape scene in a Sikh temple that led to the play being pulled, a national debate on censorship and the author receiving death threats from protestors.
“There is an appetite for absolutely everything today,” says Khan-Din. “But then I’ve never written for any particular audience – whether it was East Is East, Notes on Falling Leaves (also at the Royal Court) or this new one. I just write plays.”
Marriage material: Syal & Patel
Bombay-based Harish Patel, a veteran of more than 80 movies, including many Bollywood roles, says he jumped at the chance of playing the father because the character is so true to life. “I can identify with him, and his family. It’s a universal situation, and would work whether it’s in the UK or in India.”
Apart from his many screen roles, Patel has performed extensively on stage, including for the National Theatre of India, but says he was keen to do some “real acting” again after appearing in a succession of bedroom farces and revues (one, apparently, called Bottoms Up). “I’d done King Lear, Sartre, Pinter and Camus but got bored being in broad commercial comedies in Bombay. Every three years I get some kind of itch to get on stage again and do serious work - it’s like recharging your acting batteries. This play appealed because the writing is so good, but also because it is mainstream and accessible, even to the generation who sit glued to Zee TV. We are all interested in the same things now.”
Meera Syal’s work as a novelist, playwright and actress includes writing the script for the Andrew Lloyd Webber-AR Rahman musical Bombay Dreams, Goodness Gracious Me (the first Asian comedy sketch show to be broadcast on the BBC) and The Kumars at No. 42, in which she also played naughty granny Ummi. With her extensive output, Syal has probably done more than anyone else to bring Anglo-Asian arts into the mainstream. She agrees with both Patel and Khan-Din that Asian audiences have moved way beyond the ethnic tag. “These days, tastes are so eclectic and everybody is clued in to everybody else. There is so much cross-cultural stuff going on. I don’t think you can say Asians want to see a particular type of performance anymore.”
Is that why she was keen to return to the stage in a popular comedy like Rafta, Rafta...? “Well, there are lot of heavily political scripts around, so to be in something that isn’t issue-based or is not about suicide bombers and shows us as just people living like everybody else really is quite nice.”
Theatre producers, Syal adds, still haven’t learned the lesson of Bombay Dreams, in which she took over the part of Bollywood gossip queen Kitty de Souza during its run at the Apollo Victoria. “Nothing in the West End had featured Indian music in this way before. It became a day out, especially at weekends when you got coachloads of Indian families bringing their lunch in Tupperware boxes and eating it in the interval, with the kids running up and down the aisles. There is a brown pound out there - an affluent Asian community with lot of disposable income. I just wish theatre producers would understand that.”
Rafta, Rafta... opens on 26 April 2007 (previews from 18 April) at the NT Lyttelton. A version of this article appears in the April issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), out now in participating theatres. To guarantee your copy of future editions - and also get all the benefit of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!