Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti: 'I'm Not Scared'


Jun 1, 2004
In December 2004, the young Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti found a card among her Christmas mail that read: "Seasons Greetings. This will be your last Christmas. You are a disgrace to the race. Sending you lots of hate."

The card was among the many vicious responses Bhatti received when her second play, Behzti (Dishonor), had its run at the Birmingham Rep, controversially canceled due to concerns about public safety. The play contained scenes of rape and violence in a Gurdwara – a Sikh place of worship – and incensed members of the Sikh community. It had been running for more than a week when Bhatti was advised by the police to leave the West Midlands; the following Saturday, the protests became violent and the theater had to be evacuated. On the Monday, the Rep announced it was canceling the show; Bhatti was informed that there had been death threats issued against her, and was given police protection.

The play's cancellation caused outrage in theatre-land: a letter deploring the capitulation of a work of art to mob censorship attracted more than 700 signatures, including those of Southbank director, Jude Kelly and Richard Eyre. Bhatti limited her own response to a statement in this newspaper, in which she said she had not intended to cause offense, adding that "the threats and hate mail have stirred only tolerance and courage within me".

Behzti has since received further productions in France and Belgium, both of which passed without incident – but many had begun to wonder whether Bhatti would ever produce another play. Now we have her first new piece since the furor. Called Behud (Beyond Belief), the play is a fictional re-creation of the Behzti affair.

In person, Bhatti doesn't come across as a firebrand. She is composed, quietly spoken, and prefers not to be photographed because she and her family are still considered at risk. She dismisses the suggestion that the death threats frightened her into silence. "I wouldn't have written that play if I was scared," she says. "In the weeks after the premiere, I was probably the safest person in Britain. The hard part came afterwards, like returning home after a funeral. But I spent the time working on other commissions. I also had my first child."

In Behud, a writer struggles to come up with a suitable ending for her play, while trying to meet the demands of incensed community leaders, troubled councilors and an excitable director. The characters mutiny and inform the dramatist that her services are no longer required. Is this a metaphor for the way Behzti got out of hand? "I don't agree with everything my fictional playwright says," Bhatti replies. "But I think every dramatist would recognize the point when the director and cast all look at you as if they'd rather you left the room."

In 2004, Bhatti's decision to set the play in a Gurdwara became the main point of contention. The Rep had taken the unusual step of inviting Sikh community leaders to a private preview to air their concerns, after which they agreed not to oppose the play if the setting was moved to a community center. Bhatti refused. "I wanted to write a play about religious hypocrisy," she explains, "for which the setting in a Gurdwara was non-negotiable. The attempt to establish a dialogue with the Sikh community was well intentioned, but ultimately misinterpreted as an invitation to rewrite my play."

In Behud, the writer pours scorn on what she terms "Enid Blyton Asian plays where everyone loves each other in the end". Is that how Bhatti feels? "I would say it is, yes. Part of me is glad that I had the chance to make [religious leaders] listen to what I had to say."

What if Bhatti's return to the public eye re-ignites the hostility? "At least this time I'll be better prepared. I remember coming face-to-face with one of the demonstrators in the foyer, an elderly gentleman, who said to me, 'When I see your name up there on the posters, it makes me so proud.' I'm part of the community, and they're part of me. But I put myself in the firing line, and it looks as if that's where I'm staying."

• Behud is at the Belgrade, Coventry (0247 655 3055), 27 March–10 April; then at the Soho theater, London (0207 478 0100), 13 April–8 May.

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