Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti: ‘Behzti episode made me value power of the pen’

Writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti has worked extensively across screen, radio and theatre in a career spanning more than two decades (Photo credit: Helen Murray)

by LAUREN CODLING

AN AWARD-WINNING writer whose 2004 play led to violent protests in Birmingham has admitted the experience has made her “value the power of the pen”.

Critically acclaimed playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti has worked extensively across screen, radio and theatre. She has received accolades for her work since launching her career in the 1990s.

However, her play Behzti in 2004, with a scene set in a gurdwara (Sikh temple) which depicted rape and murder, angered some members of the community. On the play’s opening night at a Birmingham theatre, a protest escalated to such a degree that organisers cancelled all its upcoming performances.

A publicity poster for Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s A Kind of People

Although many in the creative industry came to her defence, Bhatti’s life was threatened on multiple occasions and she was eventually advised by the police to go into hiding.

Reflecting on the incident, 15 years on, Bhatti told Eastern Eye the episode had not altered her attitude toward approaching provocative topics.

“The experience made me value the power of the pen,” she said. “I am interested in making work that is challenging and that will never change.”

Bhatti’s latest work debuts at the Royal Court Theatre in central London next Thursday (5). Set in east London, A Kind of People focuses on a working-class couple who are part of a multicultural community. As the group gather at a party, an uninvited character arrives, which results in a conflict that means nothing is the same between the community again.

In writing the play, Bhatti said she wanted to explore the lives of multicultural communities living in the capital. She said it was interesting for her to analyse relationships and see what happened when inequalities in society, particularly around race and class, started to impact people’s lives.

“I’m a child of immigrants, as are over half of the characters, so it’s also about how their hopes and dreams have turned out,” she said.

A Kind of People stars (L-R) Claire-Louise Cordwell, Manjinder Virk and Petra Letang

Bhatti, 50, was born and grew up in Watford, just outside London, and remembers attending
football matches and weekly visits to the local gurdwara.

“I loved riding my bike around Cassiobury Park and going to the fair,” she recalled.

Having grown up in the capital, Bhatti has seen first-hand how London has changed through the years. So what does she make of the visible divides between communities, given the current political climate?

“I think the divides have always been there,” she admitted. “But post-referendum, certain people feel they have licence to express their hate and their racism.”

Austerity and inequality have meant it was harder for people to afford to live in London, she noted, so communities were starting to become fractured and also become more homogenised.

Even in theatre, she believed the perspectives of the working-class community was not seen often enough. She also admitted more needed to be done to engage with minority communities.

Some theatre companies have made efforts in this area, she acknowledged, citing organisations such as Tara Arts, Rifco Theatre Company, Kali Theatre and Tamasha.

But mainstream theatres need to do much more, Bhatti said.

“Historically the arts have been the playground of the elite,” she said. “If we participate more, we become part of a bigger conversation about our society and ultimately we begin to shape the future.

Bhatti emphasised a hope that more focus would be put upon the younger generations.

“As well as seeing more artists come up, I would like to see more Asian patrons investing in the arts, especially in our young people.”

Looking back over her 20-year writing career, would she have done anything differently?

“Not a single thing,” Bhatti asserted.

A Kind of People will be showing at the Royal Court Theatre in London from next Thursday (5) until January 19, 2020.