Behzti (Dishonour) by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti - birmingham repertory theatre, 20/12/2004simon gray - 2004-12-20, 01:34:09
I was hoping to be able to write a review of the young Sikh writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's playBehzti (Dishonour) playing at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, but unfortunately I was unable to because it was cancelled before I had chance to see it. So this article is unfortunately going to be on the basis of 'what I've heard about it' rather than what I know to be the facts about it.
The play is a black comedy set around a Sikh community, focussing on the relationship between Min, an unmarried woman ('past her prime') & Balbir, her sick mother. It was their first trip out together for some time. Min was hoping to meet up with a friend whose birthday it was, but Balbir had other ideas - a trip to their nearby temple. When Balbir meets old friends there a past shocking event is revealed...
The shocking event in question is an act of murder & of sexual abuse which took place within the confines of the temple - & it was this aspect of the play which provoked such controversy.
Members of the Sikh community in Birmingham felt this mocked Sikhism, & had been campaigning to have the play cancelled since before it started - in fact, the Rep, together with co-promoter of the play Sampad (the nationally respected South Asian arts agency based in Birmingham) & the writer had been in dialogue with the community since before it went into production. However, accomodations were not reached, especially the crucial request to change the setting from inside the temple to place it instead within a community hall, & since the play opened a peaceful protest had been taking place outside the theatre.
This protest erupted into violence & rioting a few days into the run when over 400 protesters gathered in the currently cramped Centenary Square, & attempted to storm the theatre, also currently showing in the other house Roald Dahl's The Witches, a play for children. Over 800 people had to be evacuated, windows were smashed, security guards were attacked, & some demonstrators entered the backstage area & smashed equipment. As a result of this, the Rep has reluctantly cancelled the play on the grounds that it cannot guarantee the safety of members of staff & the general public.
I have always been a passionate advocate of the principles of freedom of speech, & as a principle actually go as far as having the opinion that speech should in an ideal world be absolutely free. As a realist however, I accept that there do have to be some boundaries to that freedom - my free speech ends at the end of your nose, & I accept that speech which actively incites real violence has no place in a civilised society. I fully support the right of the people who were offended by this play to peacefully protest about it - but I also fully support the right of the theatre to perform the play & for the audience to see the play. I cannot support a situation where a mob is able to use violence to silence the voice of another, on any grounds whatsoever, & will always support the voice over the fist.
Parallels have been drawn with Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses. I read that book (it is a very gripping science fiction-esque story, with a slant of black humour in it itself), & with the very basic knowledge of Islam I have was able to see just what caused offence - but cannot see what might warrant the removal of it from the library shelves or the publisher's catalogue, let alone the removal of the author from the earth. I'm also reminded of the similar controversy which surrounded Martin Scorsese's 1988 production of The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Jesus during his torture contemplates whether he really is following God's plan for himself & has a vision of what his life might be if he gives up his mission & settles down to a quiet life with Mary Magdalene (notwithstanding the claims made in the book The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail that he did just that). That film provoked similar violent scenes this time by Christian protesters, most of them having never seen it & unaware that it emphasised the humanity of Jesus in a way entirely keeping with Christian orthodoxy.
The government is currently pushing through a controversial bill to criminalise religious hatred along similar lines to the existing laws against racial hatred, & some members of Birmingham's Sikh community felt this play (written by a Sikh herself) was an example of the kind of religious hatred this bill is intended to prohibit, though Sikhs as it happens are already protected under existing race relations legislation. Ostensibly to protect minority ethnic cultures, the bill, together with recent events in Birmingham, may well actually provoke far more hatred than it seeks to prevent, as reductio ad absurdam 'political correctness gone mad' arguments are brought up by the political right & as some members of some religions feel the law will feel they will be criminalised by expressing their own faiths - most holy books have passages in them which decry those who don't believe in them in terms which are far from loving, including the Bible & the Qu'ran - & as people who might normally be of a moderate opinion are driven further to the right on the basis of 'what they've heard' & not been able to hear the true facts. The government is right to legislate against acts of hatred, but it must do so very carefully - it should not do so in a way which risks provoking the very kind of hatred it claims to be wishing to prevent, & it should always allow room for people to criticise aspects of any religion which they feel are unwholesome.
The test for the recent case in Birmingham might be, 'how might people feel if the play was set in a mosque, a Quaker meeting house, a synagogue, or a church' ? The play did not accuse all Sikh religious leaders of committing murder or sexual abuse as part of their faith, it highlighted the conspiracy of silence which can occur in close-knit communities. I think such highlighting is as valid & even essential whatever the colour of that community, & whatever it's faith.