Play explores the political legacy of migrant families
Writer Bhattacharyya draws on folk theater tradition in Chasing Hares
By: SARWAR ALAM
Playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya drew inspiration from her own family to tell the story of a political activist who arrived in Leicester from Calcutta in the early 2000s for her play Hunt the haresis currently wowing audiences at the Young Vic in London.
She wanted to tell the story of political engagement – as it rarely appears in stories about migrants, Bhattacharyya said.
“I really wanted to write a story about the legacy of migrant parents in a way that I had never seen before,” she said. eastern eye.
“I wanted to write about political and radical parents, who hold idealistic beliefs about how the world could and should be and the legacy they pass on to the next generation. It’s about political empowerment, which we don’t see very often in British culture, this story of migrant heritage.
Hunt the hares revolves around the character of Prab (Irfan Shamji), who is a factory worker and new father struggling to support his family as a garment factory, the main employer in the area, which has since been shut down months.
“The starting point for writing the play was definitely my family’s experience on my mother’s side in a town called Bandol in Kolkata,” said Bhattacharyya, who based Prab on his uncle.
“The main employer since the 1930s was the Dunlop rubber factory. Many families in the area, including my mother’s family, really depended on the factory for work. But in the 2000s, because it became cheaper for Dunlop to move work elsewhere, the factory was closed more often than it was open.
“I wanted to see what my mum’s family and so many other families across West Bengal had been through and how now the same has become more and more the norm in the UK.”
With whispers that the factory will reopen, Prab suppresses his old political beliefs and union activism in order to make himself more employable.
However, fire awakens in him when he is engaged by the factory owner’s son, Devesh (Scott Karim), to write scenes for a jatra, a type of Bengali folk theatre, traditionally performed outdoors. air at festivals.
The jatra, described in the play as ‘theater for the people’, traditionally depicts stories in the Indian epic, the mahabharata. But after independence the form changed and people used it as a social platform to tell modern stories.
Bhattacharyya said Prab saw jatra as a potential avenue for him to pursue some of his “more radical political ideas in pursuit of cultural resistance”.
Director Milli Bhatia said eastern eye she liked that jatra became the “vehicle of social change”.
“Prab is not interested in jatra. He tells his wife that the jatra is a theater for the people, but there are no people in the Mahabharata. Prab sees an opportunity because he recognizes that many garment factory workers will be in the public eye and he can galvanize them as a collective and stand up to demand better working conditions,” Bhatia said.
“Our central character recognizes the power of storytelling and how storytelling can awaken people and enlighten them to a different perspective. He wants to use theater as a vehicle for social change.
“And I think, fundamentally, Sonali and I strongly believe in theater as a vehicle for social change. That’s why the play really spoke to me when I first read it; because I really recognize that ambition and that need in the central character.
Prab falls into the trap of Devesh who buys his loyalty by giving him a managerial role at the factory and a lavish two-bedroom apartment with “luxuries” like a “power shower”.
Prab wrestles with his conscience – should he ignore the suffering of his fellow factory workers in order to ensure his family is taken care of? His torment spills over into flamboyant rows with his wife Kajol (Zainab Hasan), who wants him to put their baby girl’s well-being above all else.
“The play doesn’t shy away from the fact that it’s hard to be in a workplace and the impact of capitalism is quite corrosive,” Bhattacharyya said.
“Our need to provide for our families, our desires to have a comfortable life, a decent place to live can sometimes prevent us from staying true to our political beliefs.”
When the game switches to Leicester, Prab urges his daughter Amba not to repeat her mistakes. He encourages her to lead an uprising against a food delivery app she works for on a zero hour contract.
“Amba learns from her father that it’s not easy, it’s not simple, but there is a sense of power when you work with your peers, and there is power in collective action, having those conversations with your colleagues, bringing people together and having the mentality that they can actually do something about it,” Bhattacharyya said. She added, “It’s absolutely crucial that we learn from what previous generations have lived.
“It gives us confidence in pursuing cultural resistance through political organizing and in the workplace. The older generation gave us a module on how to do this effectively. It is therefore a question of both remembering and learning from the older generation.
Bhatia noted the timing of the play as the UK sees a strike over working conditions.
“The piece draws parallels between the gig economy here and the gig economy there, even though it’s 20 years earlier.
She (Amba) has a cross-cultural conversation about workers’ rights. And what Prab says to his daughter is: “you have to demand better, you have to unionize and you have to work collectively”. And that’s really the central message of the piece.
Bhattacharrya added that young Britons can learn from their elders the importance of being part of a union.
“It’s fantastic to see this new union activism in this country,” she said. “But it is important to recognize that union membership is historically low in the UK. We must highlight the need for working class people to be properly paid and to have the employment conditions they deserve. We have to lean on a lot of the anger out there right now, which is really justifiable. But we need to channel that anger by working with unions. »
Hunt the hares stands out for its strong female characters. Ayesha Dharkar is brilliant as Prab’s co-star Chellem, who backs him up to follow his desire to stand up against mafia factory owners.
Prab’s wife (Zainab Hasan) has her own mental battles over whether she’s doing the right thing by telling her husband to focus on his own family and bury his militant nature. And her daughter Amba (Saroja Lily Ratnavel) goes from a shy character to one who takes a stand and fights against the system.
“Hunt the hares puts women at the forefront of a lot of political organizing and I was also very interested in that,” Bhatia said.
Bhattacharyya and Bhatia started their activism work at an early age and admitted that over the years their activism and theater work began to merge.
“I come from a family that challenges things through work and politically,” said Bhatia, whose mother is actress Meera Syal. “Since I was young, I have been volunteering for refugees. And actually, the first play I did was to raise money for South Asian women’s refugees. “My work comes from wanting to solve something for which I feel an injustice. I want to start a larger conversation and recognize the tools in the theatrical space to awaken people through the means of storytelling.
Bhattacharyya has described herself as an anti-racist and anti-imperialist. Her work and activism was “quite distinct,” she said, adding that things have gotten worse in society and she uses her plays to address that. “I was very politicized by things like the British invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and now things like racism and Islamophobia. I was involved in a lot of those campaigns (from no -discrimination),” she said.
“My work has probably become more informed because things have gotten worse. Theater is where people physically come together in the same space and engage in work that happens in real time.
“As I got older, I really wanted to make sure I didn’t miss an opportunity to ask some of the tougher questions and point out some of the realities around us.”
Chasing Hares is at the Young Vic until August 1