You will recall that in December 2004, Gurpreet Bhatti’s play Behzti (Dishonour) – set in a Punjabi context – caused a controversy at The Rep when a group of Sikh men caused disruption at the theatre and threatened the author with violence. They objected to the depiction of a rape scene set in the presence of the holy book, the Guru Granth Shabib. Such was the offence taken that within a couple of days the then artistic director, Jonathan Church, decided to pull the play and announced its closure. The action was then followed by a public debate about secular values – artistic licence, freedom of expression etc. I also wrote a piece (Daily Telegraph) in defence of the author arguing that it’s the role of drama to provoke and challenge our political stance, our cultural values in order to strengthen them or illuminate alternative ways of seeing them and our world.
Bhatti’s latest offering, Elephant (a 90 min. production) is also about an injustice in a Punjabi family. It’s about Deesh (Yasmin Wilde) and Barry (Ezra Faroque Khan), married with a couple of teenage children, Bill (Farshid Rokey) and Amy (Raagni Sharma). They are visited by Deesh’s younger sister Vira (Sukh Ojla) who’s been nicked Elephant. She’s been living in New York and comes for a family celebration which starts with a ceremony at the Sikh temple (gurdwara) which the family have arranged and paid for.
The author uses the filial back-grounding to hint at the communal hypocrisy – drinking and being devoutly religious at the same time. But we also discover there’s tension between Barry and Vira about stuff that went on in the past when Vira was 14 year old. There are references to grooming, paedophilia and rape. Essentially, Vira the elephant, is now both a physical and metaphorical neglect, a figure that has been pushed away by the family. She’s the proverbial elephant in the room, the person no one talks about. As a 14 year old, she is the victim, a loner, the outsider. And she remains so to the final moment of the play.
That said, the play is deeply unsatisfactory.
Firstly, I felt the depiction of family politics was rather simplistic. I found the dialogue weak, stilted and unnatural. The actors’ Punjabi pronunciation was embarrassing and, for the first part of the play at least, the acting was wooden, lacking real engagement. Maybe it was the pace, maybe it was the tempo but I had difficulty trying to feel anything for the characters/plot. I just didn’t get a vibe. The very minimalistic staging added to a vacuous atmosphere. Perhaps I expected something other than the same old (outdated?) themes that Bhatti’s is drawn to. Perhaps I wanted something more comprehensive, a set of ideas presented without the brush of melodrama and overt simplicity.
Secondly, and from a political perspective, I have reservations about Bhatti’s presentation of Sikh/Punjabi cultural values. To be critical of Punjabi culture is fine if that’s how the author feels. However, by not presenting an opposing view is not what I consider to be theatre but lopsided, cheap politics that denigrates a minority group into the side-line. For instance, grooming and paedophilia are not common features in Sikh household and for Bhatti’s to imply otherwise is cultural defamation. It’s an ill-use of an artistic licence that, in this case, gives ‘truth’ to a lie – a misappropriation.
Yet, these taboo subjects are disconcerting features in Muslim families. The news about the institutionalised cover up of the Rochdale Pakistani and Bangladeshi men who had been grooming and using white girls for sex, is an example of this. Moreover, marrying first cousins is also a cultural feature in many Islamic communities where forced marriages are not uncommon. Yet we are rarely offered theatre that presents such subjects. Are they not worth highlighting? Or, as I suspect, are they politically incorrect and likely to cause communal discordance with the Muslim community? Can anyone imagine a playwright producing something like this in the context of a Pakistani community? How long would that playwright last before he/she goes into hiding?
My concern about Bhatti’s Elephant is that she treads on the borders of simplification and controversy whilst nesting safely under the umbrella of freedom of expression. As a Punjabi critic, I did not recognise her depiction of my culture/religion/language. She offers neither a glimpse to the beauty that is Sikh culture nor the philosophical/theological blocks upon which it is built. Yet on so many occasions, the playwright has described herself as Sikh. Sikhs are generally tolerant towards contrarian art. Is that the reason why Bhatti is taking these cheap shots at our (and her) community knowing no one is going to rebut her or retaliate? I – for one – will defend Bhatti’s right to exercise her freedom of expression but in return, I expect more thought and substance to themes/ideas.