Behud (Beyond Belief)

Posted in Reviews, Theater by ameliadean on May 2, 2010

In November 2004, British Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was a relatively unknown dramatist with a play in its final stages of production. A month later she had become an international provocateur, attracting both praise and death treats.

The catalyst for Bhatti’s overnight celebrity was her controversial second play Behzti, translated from Punjabi as Dishonor. Crucially, Behzti contains a transgressive scene in which rape, physical abuse, and murder occur in a Gurdwara, or Sikh temple. Although Behzti was set to open at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on December 18th, mass protests eventually turned violent, and the theatre called off all scheduled performances.

From the beginning, the Behzti controversy was rooted in an age-old argument about the freedom of speech. On the one side, members of the local Sikh community asserted that the artist had no right to bring such an offensive and misrepresentative play to the public stage. On the other side, the theatre, playwright, and hundreds of arts figures defended the artist’s right to express and explore through fiction. While the debates aroused by the controversy proved interesting, many were disappointed by the final cancellation. Bhatti, for one, was devastated.

Six years later, Bhatti has returned to the events surrounding Behzti in her new satire Behud (Beyond Belief) at the Soho Theatre. Playful, surreal, and unsettling, Behud sucks us into the imagination of an artist desperate to bring her vision to life. Putting herself on stage as the protagonist playwright Tarlochan, Bhatti shows how the Behzti controversy was as comical as it was traumatic. In the end, however, the amusing absurdity of the situation can do little to alleviate the pain of Bhatti’s silencing. Abandoned by both white liberals and members of her own Sikh community, Tarlochan finds herself betrayed, alone, and unable to come to terms with reality.

While the blurring of reality and art is, in my opinion, overplayed, Bhatti’s new satire contains many valuable points of entry into constructive debate. There is the journalist, Satinder Shergill (Priyanga Burford), who claims she is willing to be used by whites to make them feel multicultural– so long as there is something in it for her. There is the levelheaded Sikh elder Mr. Sidhu (Ravin J Ganatra) who cogently argues that the sanctity of the Gurdwara­ be respected. Thankfully, Bhatti does not gesture towards any easy answers. Instead, she compels us to make our own conclusions, to think through the events, characters, and disparate lines of reasoning in more individual terms.

I have included the Soho Theatre’s trailer for Behud, as well as the Channel 4 news coverage of Behzti’s 2004 cancellation in Birmingham.

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