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Brief Encounter With ... Jatinder Verma

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Fresh from a run at the National Theatre in London, Jatinder Verma arrives in Leeds this week with his latest theatrical offering, The Black Album. The play, adapted from the Hanif Kureishi novel by Kureishi himself, sees an Asian kid from Kent wind up in London for university in 1989, the year of the fatwa and the fall of the Berlin Wall. There, he encounters sex, drugs and, conversely, Muslim fundamentalism.

Jatinder Verma is co-founder and artistic director of TARA Arts, the pioneering cross-cultural theatre company which tours nationally and internationally, and marked its 30th year in 2007 with his production of The Tempest. He has directed Tartuffe, The Little Clay Cart and Cyrano de Bergerac for the National Theatre.

What do you think has changed between the climate in which the novel was originally written and the climate now, that has to be addressed as a director?

Well, the obvious changes are that 9/11 has happened, the bombings in London have happened, so the subject of Islamic radicalism is now in everyone’s mind. I think the big difference between then and now is that now faith has become a political matter.

What sort of a figure is the figure of the young British Asian in the play? If you look at films like ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, there is usually a light-hearted mocking of traditional Asian values involved.

What’s very interesting is that the young boy - and he’s only 17, he’s just come to university, come to a big city – what he is having to grapple with is twin seductions. On the one hand, the seduction of what a city is - sex, drugs, music, another way of living - and on the other hand, the very real seduction of his own community, the fight against racism. And his real turning point is when he realises that faith can also lead to fascism, and that if he is just beginning to think of himself as a writer, then he can’t condone censorship because it materially affects him.

Here of course we’re in the Yorkshire and Humber region which has just voted a member of the BNP into the EU. Did this affect your feelings about bringing the play to Yorkshire?

We were concerned about the rise of the BNP but fascistic thoughts as represented by people like the BNP are quite similar to fascism within faith itself. Both are about intolerance. For Hanif and me, the line between right-wing organisations like the BNP and fundamentalist organisations like certain kinds of religious radicalism was actually a very thin line. They are both a part of the same ill. They are about censoring the possibility that exists as you grow up in a society like this, in the modern world.

So what are you aiming to achieve with regards to the audience?

What is very interesting throughout the tour is the post-show discussions. From the ones that we’ve had in London, what comes through is quite a confusing picture; on the one hand, people have really appreciated having to engage with the subject. But also what has come through is that you realise that we may have gone backwards as a society. In another era – say, 20-25 years ago – the colour of my skin labelled me as an Asian. And that carries certain kind of readings: traditionalist, possibly Indian, backward, doesn’t know English very well, all that sort of stuff. So what we found in the crucial discussions at the National was that 20 years later, people were looking at seeing what is a Muslim, and for them, the only way you identify a Muslim is if someone is wearing a hijab or has a beard. Somehow we’ve gone back to saying, “Oh, that’s a badge. And that badge means that you’re somehow allied to Al-Qaeda.” And that’s a sorry state of affairs.

Do you think the play is more intended for British Asian Muslims, with the hope that they can relate to it, or for the white British public, to allow them to understand the issues at hand?

Because the play is a kind of period play – it’s about ‘89 – what we found very interesting with the audiences at the National was that it attracted both Asians and non-Asians. For us, that’s the real objective. For a lot of people, they were reminded of what society was like in the late ‘80s - things were pretty grim. These sort of audiences are interested in communism, Thatcherism – and also in this particular form of radicalism, Islamic radicalism, how did it arise? At the same time, we had loads of Asians who could identify with all sorts of characters within the play itself. A lot of people with Pakistani backgrounds found the play to be saying things that were so true right now. There’s a character in the play who says at one point to the main character, “Have you stopped thinking, Shahid? Because soon they will start killing us for thinking”. Well that’s the case in Pakistan. And so suddenly, people with any kind of Pakistani background were struck with how contemporary the play was.

Jatinder Verma was speaking to Eleanor Hollington

The Black Album is at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 24 October, before continuing its tour to Liverpool, Oxford, Warwick and Bath.


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