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Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal
Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal

Pop CultureJuly 30, 2023

Bold, proud and powerful: Basmati Bitch says we are here and we aren’t looking back

Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal
Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal

In pan-Asian neo-noir action-crime-comedy Basmati Bitch, Natasha Bidesi sees her often confusing identity represented on stage for the first time.

The Dying, the Bitch and the Whore-drobe. 

Was that a not-so-smooth reference to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Yeah… it’ll make sense soon.

I shouldn’t have worn such pointy heels. Late, late, late, stumbling over the obstacle course that is Aotea Square at night. Under the stressy saunter, there’s a tingling happening in my gut. I’ve learnt to squash this feeling over the years, but I recognise it for what it is – an anxiety that creeps up when about to enter a room full of other brown people. PS: my flavour is the South Asian kind. It’s opening night for Basmati Bitch, a production that lured my interest with its bright creative, and brown creatives. And by using the other B-word in its title.

The last production I watched was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (TLTWTW) on the West End. I also watched that solo, and I also was late. Just another brown chick up in London, blasting Stormzy through my headphones as I rush into the theatre. After clambering over the less tardy patrons, I found my seat among a thousand others in the darkened room. My self-dates in London were made to spend time with myself, but it’s always in a sea of people where one feels most alone – that is, until the curtains come up. 

TLTWTW left me astounded. An obvious massive budget, aerial choreography, a huge multi-dimensional set, fascinating use of the stage, and an over-achieving chorus – it didn’t have a choice. I left with a familiar Kiwi feeling: ugh, wish we had shit this cool in Aotearoa. Interesting to have that thought while in England of all countries.

Back in Auckland, Block A Seat G14 finds me perched in my chair, feet throbbing from my earlier acrobatics. Turns out I wasn’t late. We’re on island time, baby! To my left is an empty seat, to my right, three empty seats. Just about every other allocation in the building is taken. Peculiar. The theme continues. There’s an odd paradox here about solitude and community.

Being Fijian-Indian and living in Aotearoa is complex. We’re like, extra multi-displaced. My identity as a member of the diaspora is layered. Farmlands have grown in places my ancestors’ sweat hit soil. These different parts of the Earth that we’ve covered – India – Fiji – Aotearoa – all fighting to be decolonised, have created a hybrid of me. I’m a brown Catholic gal who’s never cooked beef. I wear gold crosses and shuffle Kali Ma oracle cards. Often responding to the typical “where are you from?” with an eye roll and a spiel. 

Basmati Bitch (BB) opens with a simultaneous jolt of sound and lighting. We’re instantly transported into a cleverly written and technicolored exposition. The direction is precise and immersive, as every movement the actors play out shows charming intent. You get an immediate sense about what you’re in for. The play’s attention-grabbing marketing directly translates to the delicious eye-gasm unfolding before you. It’s a neon-lit, sexy saga that zaps you into a buzzing dystopia, full to the brim with tasty personality and witty delivery.

Basmati Bitch brings affinity to the different strands of immigrant identities as we follow the entrepreneurial shenanigans of pan-Asian besties. It’s tailored around actresses Gemma-Jayde Naidoo and Karishma Grebneff’s personal identities, and you can imagine my pleasant surprise at being introduced to two characters with similar complexities to my own in their where-from. Shiva is a cutthroat South African-Indian with a talent for cussing – seriously, this girl can place the perfect “fuck” in any sentence. And the kindred, but super horny, Fijian-Indian Bisma, whose name (which means polite and obedient in Urdu) is discussed by Shiva “…it’s a shame… if she’d been polite and obedient things would have panned out a lot different”. Which is a super-similar sentiment to what my mom says when the aunties ask why I’m not married yet. 

What’s more refreshing than melted choci-choci on a hot day, or paw-paw and garam chai for breakfast? Seeing your often confusing identity represented on stage. And seeing Shiva and Bisma’s relationship only get stronger. It’s a joy to see a friendship blossom between these two starkly opposite brown women. Plus, they only get more badass as the story goes on, which contrasts with what we get from Bollywood heroines. For those who aren’t aware, we often see our divergent, rebellious female leads fall in love and transform into conforming, traditional achi ladkis. Tbh, maybe I’d do the same if I ever got my dupatta stuck on the right person’s sherwani. 

BB is flooded (pun intended, IYKYK) with cheek and humour. The actors nail every quip and original remark without washing out friendly nods to familiar tropes: prying aunties, parental pressures, the “I must keep my pervy sex-thoughts hidden in this novel I’m writing”. And, before anyone asks: No, I don’t have a steamy erotica starring myself and Young Mazino planned. Unless 👀. Did I mention there’s a piece in the soundscape that reminds me of a Drake sample? 

A scene from Basmati Bitch

Underlying its buoyant energy, Basmati Bitch also presents us with existential prompts. Asking us silent questions like: 

  • How are you contributing to capitalism? 
  • Do you benefit from hierarchy? 
  • Are humans doomed to a fate of conflict? 
  • Does inequality have a purpose? 
  • What is our “necessary evil” or “collective destiny”? 

There’s a monologue in the third act that I ask you to keep an ear out for. 

Basmati Bitch is unconcerned about teaching audiences about white supremacy. It doesn’t beg for any attention with a hard-hitting “hey, we’re here too!” nag. It’s bold and proud and powerful. It says of the diaspora: we are here, like it or not. And we aren’t looking back. Basmati Bitch embodies a fearless attitude about taking up space and fighting our way through dystopia towards utopia. It’s reminiscent of the lectures given by first-generation parents. I didn’t come here (barefoot over snowy mountains, fighting churails, etc etc) for you to waste your life. I pray for you. We want better for you. Please. It is a piece by the palwaar, for the palwaar. It demands us to be fearlessly who we are, to own where we come from. And to just live without the barricades of our origins holding us back.

Also, it turns out, there’s a bunch of goras keen on watching it too. Like, a lot. Especially old ones. I get it though, the Gold Card discount must be sick. I can’t help but think while looking at all the glistening grey hair: white people low-key love an ethnic story, yaar. It left me curious about the intention of their viewership. But also what they took from it. Can you relate to this? Is this a fascinating temporary chance to peer into a world that deviates from your norm? Have you seen yourself reflected in the diegesis?

The story refuses to create a sense of white proximity or relevancy to claim its space. It exists because it can. But don’t get me wrong; in the subtext of these sharp characters’ lines hums a condemnation directed at indenture and the imbalance of power. There’s a delicate craft in the way those ladies at your dad’s friend’s cousin’s daughter’s shaadi paint on henna. It reminds me of how Ankita Singh (the playwright) draws a pointed finger at the subjugation and separation of our people in her script. The mehndi-stained hand doesn’t pick up these topics and plonk them centre stage. They’re subtly folded in with the laughs, allowing us to participate the way great art knows how to, by imprinting our own perceptions on it; letting us filter the implications of scenes as we see fit; to personalise. Basmati Bitch is an ode to the independence deserved by our narratives, the individualism of pan-Asian personalities from any hegemony. But mainly, it’s a celebration of who we are and where we’re going. Stories from the diaspora are no longer here to justify our existence. 

Basmati Bitch loves all the many strains of Asianness. It’s diverse, and complete. It promises the fun and effectiveness of collectivism without taking from the characters’ range of separate backgrounds. This is an important take: we are always better together. Which is significant for a community that deals with so much internalised hatred. Our bad communal habits are an affront to the messaging of this play. The longevity of caste systems, colourism, racism, scrutiny, victim-blaming. It’s almost like a right of passage for us – judging each other. Most brown girls who go through the assimilation process have experienced our own internal misogyny: the neverdence- (rather than evidence-) based slut-shaming, the rumour mills running too fast to keep up with, the unprovoked meanness and gossip. Too white, too modern, too western. Not brown enough, not fair enough, not cultured enough.

Years ago I was at a party and a stranger made a loud snarky comment about my Hindi. I’ve been very careful to not (even accidentally) belittle anyone for their mixed accent or pronunciation since. I’m glad that moment didn’t end my attempt to connect with my culture, to keep my mother tongue alive. Was it worth it? Your attempt to reject me from something that’s rightfully mine? Our people have gone through enough. We were sent across seas and we survived. We were bludgeoned, raped, looted. Massacred. Starved. And we survived. History has seen us erased, time and time again. Now we have the power to write a story of unity. We’ve been the butt of the joke for too long, always on the outside looking in. It hurts a little less when it’s not us doing that to one another. You can see why our diaspora has chronic identity issues and bouts of non-belonging. I thought it was always us against the world, until I stepped out into it and had to deal with the fact that it’s us against us.

Here are some key learnings from BB, which I hope makes my horrendous opening sentence worth it:

The Dying: a reminder of mortality. To make good choices. To allow reflection and healing. To realise that nothing matters, therefore everything does. To seize every chance at redemption and love. To change this duniya. To live with purpose in our zindagi. To be.

The Bitch: the reckoning of female rage. To never apologise for our authenticity. To be unchanging, violent, powerful. Unabashedly ourselves. To embody it all, to get shit done. To be the change. To feel the fear and do it anyway. To think

The Whore-drobe: an omen of living passionately. To be sexy without shame. To farewell superficiality and embrace depth. To cherish our minds, souls, bodies. To choose spice over boredom. To laugh. To romanticise our interactions and decorate our memories. To feel.

New Zealanders don’t need a West End. We need more Oriental Maidens and SquareSums&Co (which co-produced BB with Auckland Theatre Company). We need to platform our BIPOC artists. This production is as international as its cast and crew whose work has left me with the same amount of awe as the majestic London display that I assumed was so out of reach. If not more.

Basmati Bitch needs no persu-asian – everyone’s thirsty to watch it, so getting tickets might make your dimaag kharaab. But it never hurts to try. In the words of Stormzy, “if you can’t do 10k first week then I don’t wanna hear no chat about numbers”. And BB is deservedly hitting those digits. 

Basmati Bitch is on at Auckland’s Q Theatre until August 5

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