‘Lotus Beauty’: Female gaze spins a poignant tale set in the vibrant salons of Southall

‘Lotus Beauty’: Female gaze spins a poignant tale set in the vibrant salons of Southall
Satinder Chohan (left) with Pooja Ghai; Image Courtesy: Chiara Wakely

A new play on stage at Hampstead Theatre in London has a strong women-centric theme, interwoven across generations by British Indian writer Satinder Chohan and directed on stage by Pooja Ghai.

The play, which opened last month, invites us into Reita’s salon where clients can wax lyrical about their day’s tiny successes or have their struggles massaged, plucked or tweezed away. But with honest truths and sharp-witted barbs high among the treatments on offer, will the power of community be enough to raise the spirits of everyone who passes through the salon doors?

Here, iGlobal catches up with the creative force behind this funny and poignant tale set in Southall – the hometown of the writer.

Writer Satinder Chohan in conversation...
Writer Satinder Chohan in conversation...
Q

Does this play resonate with the Southall female experience today?

A

Yes, I think this play does resonate with the Southall female experience today. Set in a beauty salon about the conflicts and struggles between five multigenerational women, it’s very much a play about being Asian and female in Britain today. I have also drawn upon the lives of many incredible Southall women I know, so I hope the characters feel authentic.

It’s also a play that tries to honour the lives of those women too quickly forgotten or shoved aside – women who have carried the weight of our communities, silently bearing the colonial/immigrant traumas passed down through generations – trying to make their stories and voices visible and heard. At the very least, it’s a very rare representation of five Southall women on a British stage and I deeply hope audiences will come to see and support this story.

Q

Please share your journey as an immigrant keen to tell our stories.

A

Born in Britain, I am the child of immigrants from Punjab. My grandfather, who fought for the British Indian Army in World War 2, came to the UK in the 1950s and moved from Birmingham to Southall, before other members of my extended and immediate family followed.

Our family has been in Southall for over 60 years now and while I have only been to Punjab a handful of memorable, inspiring times, living in Southall very much feels like being in Punjab at times! Southall is also a strongly immigrant, working class community – its spirit and values strongly infuse my work and inspire my stories.

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Satinder Chohan (left) with Pooja Ghai; Image Courtesy: Chiara Wakely
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Q

Would you like to see this play tour abroad, perhaps to India?

A

I would absolutely love to see this play tour abroad – in fact, I would love to see any of my plays tour abroad, especially to India. All my previous plays have been wholly or partially set in India – ‘Zameen’ in Punjab, ‘KabbaddiKabaddiKabaddi’ between 1930s Punjab and London Olympics 2012 and ‘Made in India’, set in Gujarat.

‘Lotus Beauty’ is the first of my plays wholly set in my hometown of Southall but India is a shaping influence and ever-present location in the play. I would love to see this story about five Indian women travel there.

Director Pooja Ghai in conversation...
Director Pooja Ghai in conversation...
Q

What are the different strands of the story that you have tried to bring alive on stage?

A

I have tried to stay true to these beautifully complex women that Satinder has written. They are full of wit, honesty, pain and ambition.

I hope we have brought the relationships and characters of these women to life, and through their experiences and perceptions get a glimpse into what our communities are going through. I hope we have brought to life their joy, strength, love, loyalty and spirituality, and a celebration of our communities.

Q

How do you convey your vision to the artists?

A

We talk extensively about the play and go through the text in detail with the writer; exploring the depth and backstories of all of the characters. We share ideas and draw on our own experiences to delve deeper into the characters.

That way we can fully understand and honour the voices Satinder has given them. It is a collaborative, shared process and the space is supportive, respectful and playful. We have created a vision that becomes all of ours to convey, guided by myself and the creative team.

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Satinder Chohan (left) with Pooja Ghai; Image Courtesy: Chiara Wakely
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Q

What does a play like 'Lotus Beauty' celebrate about the migrant experience in today's Britain?

A

The play celebrates women and particularly women in the Sikh Punjabi community of London. It is a brave story that tackles the masks we wear to drive our ambitions through or deny the internal struggles we will eventually have to face.

It is about how a group of intergenerational women, some born in the Punjab, some in the UK define themselves as British Asian, against a backdrop of western defined attitudes of beauty. It is poignant, heartfelt and full of joy.

I hope we have managed to give voice to these pioneering women, so many of whom have been erased or forgotten. This is their story, of how women and communities can come together in the most adverse of times to break cycles and heal.

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