Gurpreet Kaur Bhati’s new play Dishoom! is a bizzare yet enlightening look at Indian culture, scratching at the surface of the struggles the country faced due to westernisation.
Set in a London suburb in 1978, Bibi (Seema Bowri), Baba (Omar Ibrahim), Simon (Bilal Khan) and Baljit (Gurkiran Kaur) are a functioning family still grieving the loss of Simon’s mum (also played by Kaur). Simon’s inability to walk makes it difficult for the family to adjust in the community. Simon, however, has adapted just fine with the help of his friends in the neighbourhood: Mark (Elijah Baker), another boy who feels like he doesn’t fit in with the predominately white neighbours; Donna (Georgia Burnell), a mature young teenager who has to care for her alcoholic mother; and Keith (James Mace) a young lad who wants to get a job and graduate from the run-down street they all call home.
Simon’s Bibi, adamant that he is at a prime age to marry and eager to have an extra pair of hands around the house, keeps a strict traditional rulebook. Meanwhile, his Baba encourages him to have fun and ‘become a man’ in his own time. Unfortunately, this time runs out when the home front (a white supremacist group) march onto the street, encouraging hate crime and assaulting Mark. Surprising his family and friends, Simon stands up for his heritage by facing the likes of Keith and the home front preaching prejudice, winning his family well-deserved respect.
On the whole, Dishoom! is a compelling and important story warning us of the dangers of hate and ignorance. The innocent Keith is manipulated by his elder brother, who coerces him to hate unnecessarily. This in turn encourages him to sabotage his friendship with Simon by stabbing him with insults such as “paki” and assaulting his Baba in the pub; claiming he has more of a right to be there. Bhati’s text is fast-paced and hard-hitting, unlike the poorly executed combat choreography, which is far from believable. Thanks to Neil Irish’s set design, the transitions between inside the family home and outside in the street, where Simon and his friends meet to hang out, is smooth and engaging, and littered with cultural references to the iconic Hindi film Sholay.
The effect of the storytelling is limited, with Khan finding it hard to differentiate the expression of his feelings from shouting and his use of sporadic hand gestures. Ibrahim on the other hand finds an incredibly engaging and believable range of characters, provoking sympathy one moment and joyous laughter at the next. Similarly, Bowri demonstrates a very entertaining use of movement and vocal range to explore the stereotypes of the older, more traditional family members.
Director Pravesh Kuma captures moments of tension, and then flips those on their head with sympathetic underscoring and gentle reminders of the past and the reason for continuing.
Dishoom! is playing at the Watford Palace Theatre until 22 September. For more information and tickets, click here.