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Film/Stage

From "Behzti" to "Behud"

by DOMINIC CAVENDISH

 

 

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti refuses to have her photograph taken. She's not being difficult - the reason for her refusal is simple. She's the writer responsible for the play, Behzti (Dishonour) which, famously, caused a riot at the Birmingham Rep in 2004.

Incensed by her decision to set her play in a gurdwara and for presenting it as a den of iniquity, rife with patriarchal sexual abuse, hundreds of Sikh protestors gathered on several consecutive nights to voice their anger before attempting to storm the theatre.

Windows were smashed, arrests were made, Gurpreet - already the subject of violent threats - was forced to go into hiding, and the production's run was abruptly cancelled.

This shocking, unexpected episode, unparalleled in modern British theatre, became a cause celebre and serves as a chilling illustration of how fragile freedom of speech can be.

Five years on, Gurpreet remains understandably wary about being easily identified. And yet the smart, petite Sikh-Briton woman who meets me in a central London cafe couldn't be further from the cowed or chastened figure one might have expected. Revisiting the saga for the first time in a national newspaper, the 41-year-old playwright comes across as quiet, thoughtful and, above all, totally defiant.

"I'd do it again," she says, firmly, almost matter-of-factly. "I wouldn't think twice about it. Behzti was the play I wanted to write. I always believed in what I'd done."

She has steered clear of media interviews until now, she explains, because she wanted to get on with her life and work, developing projects for TV, film and radio. "I had to do that. I'm a human being, not a controversy."

She realised Behzti was provocative - up to a point: "I'm from a Sikh background. I knew it would be controversial, but I don't think there's anything wrong with provoking people."

She saw nothing in her religion that prohibited her from setting the play in a gurdwara. "I didn't anticipate the level of protest - the demonstrations, the riot. I never thought it would get to the point where it would be pulled."

There's no trace of self-pity in all this. "I don't feel like a victim," she says. "I'm not saying I wasn't affected by the experience, or just sailed through it, but I put myself in the firing-line. You have to deal with the consequences."

As a sign of how unbowed she is, Behud, her first play to be staged since Behzti, and a play directly concerning the controversy, receives its premiere next week at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry.

The title Behud - a Punjabi phrase that translates as "without limits", more colloquially "beyond belief" - reflects the surreal nature of the experience. "It often felt like a dream," she recalls. "Some of what happened was even quite funny."

Events have been fictionalised and passed through an experimental filter. She wanted, she says, to probe the implications of one of the slogans on a protester's banner - 'Shame On Sikh Playwright For Her Corrupt Imagination'.

"The play is about that "corrupt" imagination. Do you censor what's in your head, sanitize it?"

Behzti, she fully admits, was a work of imagination, not reportage. Its storyline of abuse was made up. "Some people ask: if it hasn't happened or if it doesn't happen, why would you write it? But where do you stop with that argument? Are we only allowed to write verbatim news reports? Behzti was an allegory for hypocrisy. And I wanted it to be an extreme allegory, so I set it in a gurdwara."

Is she fearful that her follow-up will re-ignite the old fury? "Is it like walking back into the fire? Yes, but I think I have to do that. There's no way round it. I don't want to be foolhardy but my play was pulled. I've got a right to look at that, talk about that."

For those girding themselves to be outraged anew, though, she has this to say: "Being offended by things is part of being human. It's part of life. You can't protect yourself from it. People have got to start getting a bit more robust."

 

[Behud runs at the Belgrade, Coventry (024 76555 30055), U.K., March 27 to April 20, 2010, then at Soho Theatre, London W1 (020 7478 0100), April 13 to May 8, 2010.]

Courtesy: The Telegraph

March 16, 2010

 

Conversation about this article

1: Harinder (Bangalore, India), March 16, 2010, 10:33 AM.

"Religion" and "rationality "have always been at logger head in all cultures and civilizations. In some civilizations, rationality won and in some religion won but the struggle still goes on.

2: Gurpal (United Kingdom), March 16, 2010, 2:08 PM.

Harinder, you do have a habit of writing some rather eccentric things! In the name of freedom of expression in Europe, we have licence to publish all sorts of derogatory comments, e.g., picture of the head of Prophet Mohammed on the body of a dog, as published in a Swedish newspaper - something no religious person can agree with. What next? Pictures of Jesus, Buddha, Hindu gods ... and Gurus ... in a similar vein?

3: Kam Singh (London, England), March 16, 2010, 2:33 PM.

I agree with Harinder. I also think that how this play is received, whether Sikhs protest against it like they did the last time, with violence and death threats, will be not just interesting, but will help to define how Sikhism and the community is viewed by many people. Making threats, using mob violence, are the way of the taliban, not ours.

4: Tara Kaur (Canada), March 16, 2010, 3:03 PM.

Gurpal ji: I agree with you. Just a few weeks ago, there were riots in Batala, India after a picture of Jesus was published holding a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I believe mischievous forces were at work in an attempt to 'divide and rule'. Although I am in favor of freedom of expression, I believe there should be limits to these rights and abuse of any right needs to be prevented. Deliberate provocation of religious sentiment in order to gain publicity or for other agendas need to be checked.

5: N. Singh (Canada), March 16, 2010, 3:19 PM.

I must say I am disappointed in people like Gurpreet Kaur, the playwright! I too grew up and was educated in Britain. I still think of myself as a Sikh-Briton. Whilst growing up there, I too heard of an incident at the local gurdwara whereby a granthi was accused of molesting a young girl. I remember at the time how upset my father was since he was part of the gurdwara committee! However, it was dealt with accordingly but I did not feel it was a burning issue within the Sikh community, and I didn't make my name by writing plays about it! I understand the need and the relevance of freedom of expression, I understand that there are many things which need to be corrected within the Sikh community and, like other communities, our issues too get swept under the carpet. However I also understand the psychological trauma that the community has had to endure these last 25 years and I am disappointed that Gurpreet didn't choose to address those issues! Why inflict pain on a community already reeling from ethnic cleansing, why not expose those guilty of human rights violations? Are these not worthy subjects to write plays about, or is it perhaps that these subjects are not sensational enough to get Gurpreet the fame she seems to be seeking! I don't have sympathy for her, only disdain for her lack of maturity and extreme selfishness.

6: Just Kaur (U.S.A.), March 16, 2010, 4:46 PM.

I am disappointed with Sikhs protesting against a woman raising issues such as sexual abuse, gurdwara or no gurdwara. How close minded are we? Can we not talk about these taboos and have a healthy dicussion? Thank you, Gurpreet Kaur, for raising an important issue in our community, especially because we choose not to. One out of three women are sexually abused, there are statistics that show that it is more than that in the Asian communities, close to 1 in 2. Look around you, how many women are silenced? Is this not a traumatic enough event to talk about? Guru Sahibs talked about important issues during their times, sati, widows remarrying, women are not impure ('even kings are born out of the womb'), etc. Why can't Gurpreet, you or me feel free to discuss our issues like adults and not have to fear a taliban-like mentality and people going after us?

7: Bobby Singh Sirah (Sutton Coldfield, England), March 16, 2010, 5:18 PM.

This new play is not set in a gurdwara nor is it about anything offensive. It is a reflection on the events surrounding her last play in which a writer has dream-like sequences over the controversy surrounding her work. Sikhs should be mature enough to ignore it, or accept it and move on. Sikhism is not threatened by a play, and we are not talibans.

8: SSN (United States), March 16, 2010, 6:10 PM.

It's a rather interesting argument you make there, N Singh. I often feel that the amount of literature on issues like Sikhs during the two World Wars, the Partition of Punjab and thereafter the challenges faced by the Sikh diaspora in the Western hemisphere, in Africa and of course in India, is not enough ... these and many other areas like these need exposure. I may be wrong but this is my view from the limited exposure I've had to Sikh literature.

9: M. Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), March 16, 2010, 7:09 PM.

N Singh, I don't think the topic of the play was chosen to deliberately be 'sensational' or driven by selfish interests. Gurpreet Kaur probably felt the need to introspect in the context of the above mentioned molestation intending perhaps to reform the selection process. Discussing religion and hypocrisy in the backdrop of Sikhism in the UK, with many new immigrants, is a bold step. She likely anticipated the negative response but chose to go ahead with the play regardless because of the importance of the issue.

10: Kartar Singh Bhalla (New Delhi, India), March 16, 2010, 10:02 PM.

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti or, for that matter, any other writer, artist or painter, should have the right of freedom of expression. They gain nothing by ridiculing or lampooning heads of religions and should avoid blasphemy against them. This is what is prevalent in civilized countries like UK, USA, France and others. In my view, Gurpreet's insistence on placing the play 'Behzti' in a gurdwara is where she is wrong.

11: Bhupinder Singh Ghai (New Delhi, India), March 17, 2010, 12:14 AM.

I totally disagree with Mr. M. Singh from Canada. Freedom of expression cannot be at the expense of religious, ethnic and gender sentiments. It is not acceptable. Regarding that particular incident, it is just an aberration and not an "issue" per se. Moreover, I am not aware of her other body of work before "Behzti", so I feel she deliberately chose the topic to gain cheap publicity. I also feel that the response of the local Sikh community was not mature enough. If the protests were peaceful in a civilized manner, the play would have died a natural death. Remember, the play has to run on box office collections.

12: Bobby Singh Sirah (Sutton Coldfield, England), March 17, 2010, 5:52 AM.

Kartar Singh ji, since when is it 'blasphemy' to ridicule or lampoon 'heads of religion'? You know, the Pope is being accused today of complicity in the abuse of children in Catholic seminaries by covering up the abuse. Are you saying that he shouldn't be ridiculed for it?

13: Kartar Singh Bhalla (New Delhi, India), March 17, 2010, 7:10 AM.

Bobby Singh ji: When I said "Heads of Religions", I meant Guru Nanak and other Gurus, Jesus Christ, Mohammed. The Pope is not such a head of religion.

14: Bobby Singh Sirah (Sutton Coldfield, England), March 17, 2010, 8:43 AM.

Kartar Singh ji, I disagree with some of what you say, but I agree with much that you say too. But I must point out that nowhere in her play did Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti offend any of the Gurus or anything to do with any of the founders of our religion. The trouble with accusations of 'blasphemy' is that they are too often made to censor and destroy free speech. Just like the Catholic church has swept child abuse under its carpet for decades, saying that to highlight it is to 'betray' the Church, so do Sikhs often do the same with abuse and other issues in our community. This is not an attack on Sikhism. It is addressing a universal problem in a local context. It is trying to make sure that the Sikh religion stays open and loving and is not abused by those with their own agendas. I speak in general terms now as well. We need to be mature and open enough to deal with all problems in our community and be able to confront those in power in our Sikh institutions who might abuse their power or privilege.

15: Gurpal (United Kingdom), March 17, 2010, 1:39 PM.

I don't know about the other people in on this discussion, but I was actually involved in the Behzti issue; primarily responding to the media who sought my views: local newspapers (The Express & Star, Birmingham Mail) and national newspapers (The Times, Guardian and Independent). The evening I got caught up with the Media - I got the news that my father had died whilst walking to visit me, from which point I had to step back and watch the whole controversy as it unfolded. Kam Singh: it's very easy to make sweeping generalizations and label a whole community as 'trouble' the way the media did, with references to riots and death threats. For those of us who were there and many witnesses (Sikh and non-Sikh), there were no riots. It was a peaceful protest of Sikh men and women with lots of girls and grandmas who were offended by the rape scene taking place amidst Sikh religious chants in the presence of a mock Guru Granth Sahib. This was after a week of non-violent protest outside the theatre. Three young men were arrested for damage to the building. No one was arrested for 'rioting' and no charges were subsequently laid by the police. Dr Indarjit Singh and others wrote in with the Sikh viewpoint of balanced freedom of expression to the media - he was ignored inspite of his status on BBC Radio 4. A random, stray death threat was made to the writer by an anonymous, unknown person and this was flashed on news headlines as if the whole Sikh community had made the threat. Reminded me of newspaper headlines screaming of anonymous and questionable Sikh threats to blow up mandirs in 1980's Punjab, something the Sikh community would never give backing to. It was later disclosed to me by a white friend into Birmingham politics and with contacts in the media that the media wanted to fix the Sikh community just as they had done with the Muslim community with the Salman Rushdie affair, portraying it as fundamentalist and in complete contrast to western values. Can I also add the Birmingham Council of Churches and organizations of other religions supported the Sikh viewpoint. Sikhs didn't mind the abuse being portrayed in the Sikh community, they were concerned about the gurdwara issue. I wonder why it wasn't done in a mosque? Birmingham's Muslims would have something to say! So please tell me what plan of action we should chalk out if a newspaper draws the head of a revered Guru on the body of a dog. Non-violent protest is very much desirable but if the cartoonist got an anonymous death threat, will the whole Sikh community be blamed? Do we really believe everything the media would have us believe? The female University students, little schoolgirls and grandmas - are they really to be equated with taliban?

16: Dr. Harpal Kaur (London, United Kindom), March 17, 2010, 2:10 PM.

If I may add to Gurpal's post - the Indian 'diplomatic' corps have an active component in each of their offices abroad where Sikhs are in significant numbers, which monitors these situations and jumps into the fray to light fires by making anonymous calls, threats and allegations. The goal is to help shed the local Sikhs in a bad light. This is not conjecture but confirmed by Indian insiders themselves. The problem is that the media has no interest in checking out these wild allegations or calls, if the community being tarnished is a minority - as Gurpal has so deftly explained. How do we counter this: by walking the straight line, always!

17: N. Singh (Ms) (Canada), March 17, 2010, 5:09 PM.

Gurpal ji's comments confirm my concerns that Gurpreet Kaur is doing nothing but publicity seeking and playing into the hands of anti-Sikh elements who want to distract attention away from the human rights violations that have occurred in the Punjab. Her agenda is to look after only herself!

18: Gurteg Singh (New York, U.S.A.), March 17, 2010, 5:40 PM.

While nobody condones violence, the English and Indian media has deliberately defamed the Sikh community and tarred this protest with so-called violence. There was no violence and nobody was attacked or hurt. I don't see the same media calling the annual much nastier protests against the World Trade Organization or other World bodies where store windows are smashed and garbage cans are put on fire by mostly white Christians as violent. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti - an unknown little play-writer has been converted by the media as some kind of heroine against the so called "violent, regressive, orthodox and backward looking Sikhs" who want to stop her holier-than-thou "freedom of expression" In fact she is enjoying her notoriety and possibly financial rewards for this incident. [EDITOR: The local Sikhs fell into her trap. People like her will always appear - like hiccups - and be gone before long - unless others magnify their importance through over-reaction. Hope the community has learned from its experience and will not repeat its knee-jerk pattern of behaviour.]

19: Harpreet (U.S.A.), March 17, 2010, 8:02 PM.

We have in our panth, i.e. Sikhism, a number of hypocrites, I am afraid. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti is one of them.

20: Robert (London, United Kingdom), March 19, 2010, 9:02 AM.

A fascinating comment thread. The breadth of opinion shows up the lie that any 'community' can be a monolith of people who all think the same. The best response to free speech is more free speech. I would like to see those who are offended by Behzti (or even the new play, Behud) respond *creatively*. With new digital technology, it is very easy to create a play or a film or a podcast, and there is no shortage of theatres and community spaces where a response could be shown.

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