Award-winning actor-playwright Sudha Bhuchar on India-Pakistan peace and her new film ‘Into Dust’

The question of India-Pakistan peace is a very personal one for Sudha Bhuchar. The award-winning British-Indian actor, playwright and founder of the Bhuchar Boulevard theatre company, which focuses on artists of colour and stories of assimilation and cultural diversity, is married to a British-Pakistani and they have mixed-heritage kids.

Born and raised in Tanga, Tanzania, Bhuchar spent her childhood in Africa with long stints in India before her family moved to Norfolk in England. Now based in London, she narrates an incident about an absurd fallout of the political animosity between India and Pakistan.

“When my kids were in their teens, their school had connections with schools in India that they fundraised for. And so, the students got a chance to go to India and spend three weeks there. But, while their White friends got visas online instantly, we had to fight to get visas for our sons. Because their father was born in Rawalpindi, it made them potential enemies of the state, or I don’t know what. Such things are troubling,” says Bhuchar, whose contributions to British theatre go back four decades.

Bhuchar plays one of the lead roles in a new film Into Dust, directed by the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel, which releases worldwide this week on Amazon Prime Video. The film is based on the true-life story of activist Perween Rahman, who was murdered in March 2013 after decades of activism towards ensuring the land and water rights of the residents of Orangi Town in Karachi.

Sudha Bhuchar in Into Dust (2021)

The area is considered Asia’s largest slum, and is one of the world’s five largest slums along with Dharavi in Mumbai. The settlement’s population exploded in the early 1970s, when lakhs of refugees poured in from East Pakistan after the 1971 war in the Subcontinent that led to the creation of Bangladesh.

Rahman had been director of the Orangi Pilot Project’s Research and Training Institute, and had used her background in architecture and urban planning to help the slumdwellers build their own water supply, sanitation and low-cost housing in the face of government apathy. After 28 years of speaking up against the land mafia and their political backers, she was shot dead in her car. The very next day, a Taliban operative in the area was killed by the local police, who claimed he was behind Rahman’s killing, and the case was shut.

However, Rahman’s sister Aquila Ismail, an engineer and educator, took Rahman’s case to Pakistan’s Supreme Court in order to bring the killers to book. The verdict in that case is expected soon. Ismail also joined Orangi Pilot Project to carry forward her younger sister’s activism work.

Bhuchar plays the role of Ismail in Grain Media’s film Into Dust. This is not the first time that she has worked in film projects that required her to play a Pakistani. Last year, she essayed the role of British-Pakistani rap artist Riz Ahmed’s mother in the critically acclaimed film Mogul Mowgli.

“My identity is a hybrid of everything, especially as a Punjabi,” Bhuchar says, explaining how her South Asian identity has affected her theatre. “My identity is the reason I am in the arts. It’s not something I set out to do. I didn’t go to drama school; I studied maths and sociology at university. It was through joining Tara Arts that I got interested in theatre and it was very much connected to who we were and how we found ourselves in UK, the links of colonialism, our literature, our stories, that’s something that has driven my career,” she says.

“So, playing Aquila in a story like this is very important to me, and it’s very important that stories like this come to the fore – especially the legacy of Perween Rahman,” she says, referring to the issue of scarcity of water in the developing world. “The message in this is larger than the personal stories that are (more often) depicted.”

Sudha Bhuchar on the set of Into Dust

Depicting South Asians is something that Bhuchar specialises in. Influenced in the late 1970s by the South Asian cultural entertainment group Tara Arts, she later launched Tamasha Theatre Company with director Kristine Landon-Smith in 1989. With the mission of bringing Asian art into mainstream British culture and encouraging artists from ethnic minorities, the company went on to produce some of the most iconic plays in England.

One of them was the award-winning Bollywood-style musical Fourteen Songs Two Weddings and a Funeral (1999) and East Is East, written by Ayub Khan-Din as a play in 1996, which went onto become a BAFTA Award-winning film of the same name that released in 1999. Bhuchar and Landon-Smith jointly won the Asian Women of Achievement Awards for Arts and Culture in 2005.

Bhuchar went on to write, produce and act in numerous plays in her 26-year role at Tamasha, including the theatre adaptation of Rohinton Mistry’s 1995 classic A Fine Balance. Fluent in Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and “pretty good” in Gujarati, she portrayed the ambitious Kiran Bedi in Family Pride, and the scheming Meena McKenzie in EastEnders in the 1990s.

She also acted in plays such as Gurpreet Bhatti’s Khandan (Royal Court and Birmingham Rep), Tanika Gupta’s Lions and Tigers (Globe theatre) and The Village by April de Angelis (Theatre Royal Stratford East).

Along the way, her quest to make sense of the India-Pakistan conflict and the Subcontinent’s religious divides has continued. “In 2006, I wrote a play called Child of the Divide inspired by Bhisham Sahni’s story Pali about a Hindu boy who gets lost during Partition and is brought up by a Muslim childless couple, and then his real father tries to find him. I am very affected by that; all those themes of belonging and the Subcontinent and its troubled history – and the quest for (India-Pakistan) peace is something I feel very personally,” says Bhuchar. Child of the Divide won an award in the Best Stage Production category at the 2018 Asian Media Awards.

She also wrote a play called My Name Is… (2014) based on the real-life story of a White working-class British girl who falls in love with a Pakistani boy, neither of them realising what they were getting into at a time when 9/11 had changed world politics.

In 2015, Bhuchar left Tamasha and founded Bhuchar Boulevard to continue the mission of promoting diversity in the arts, while also taking on roles in television and film. She won the UK Asian Film Festival’s Tongues on Fire “Flame” Award in 2018, and was a Best Actress finalist for BBC Radio 4’s Audio Drama Awards in 2019 for My Son the Doctor, which she co-wrote. The same year, she won the British newsweekly Eastern Eye’s Arts Culture & Theatre Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Creative Industry.

She currently hosts a monologue Evening Conversations and is under commission to Radio 3 and Revolution Arts/Wellcome Collection for Touchstone Tales, an exploration on the theme of touch – “which, ironically, we have made during the pandemic in the absence of touch,” she says over a Zoom call from London.

Notwithstanding the difficulty in getting a visa to India, Bhuchar says, her elder son managed to spend five weeks visiting all parts of India after his graduation in economics from Durham University. “He’s seen more of India than I have in those five weeks, and he is very comfortable in his multiple identities,” she smiles.

Partition split a people down the middle. Bhuchar in her own way has set out to harmonise the two once again.

First published in Money Control

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