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Stardust: South Asian LGBTQ stories on stage

Posted on 24 May 2019

Over the years, there has been a lack of visibility of South Asian LGBTQ stories on UK stages – something that Phizzical are looking to put right. Their forthcoming Bollywood-inspired musical Stardust, premieres at the Belgrade Theatre on 14 September and runs until 21 September.

Telling the story of two British Asian singers, Amor and Amar, and their relationship with music producer Cyrus, Stardust is a reincarnation thriller with a same-sex relationship at its centre – something close to the hearts of its star and songwriter Robby Khela and director Samir Bhamra, who were eager to explore the idea of two souls falling in love, free from traditional gender constraints with writer Shahid Iqbal Khan.

Khan said: “It’s vital and important to show positive same sex relationships within the South Asian community. All too often, it has been hidden away, our history whitewashed or distorted. Visibility helps to reduce the stigma and isolation.”

Birmingham Pride takes place this weekend, and for the first time in its history, the parade will this year be led by LGBTQ Muslims – the majority of whom are from a South Asian background. The decision has been fuelled partly by recent protests outside Birmingham schools against the teaching of LGBTQ issues. Inspired by this movement for change, we decided to take a brief look back at the history of South Asian LGBTQ stories and depictions of LGBTQ South Asians on stage and screen.

Why are there so few stories about South Asian LGBTQ characters? Television is ahead in this respect, with Dr Fred Fonseca, EastEnders’ first gay Asian character, having made his debut in the late 1990s, followed by the introduction of Syed Masood in the noughties. Coronation Street took a little longer to catch up, with its first LGBTQ character of colour, Rana Nazeer, entering the show just two years ago, before being controversially killed off this year.

Hanif Kureishi’s film My Beautiful Laundrette (a stage version of which is coming to the Belgrade later this year) broke new ground with its depiction of a gay, interracial relationship in 1985. Kureishi would go on to include a number of sexually fluid characters in the 1993 TV serialization of The Buddha of Suburbia adapted from his 1990 novel of the same name.

Ayub Khan-Din’s East is East followed soon after, first on stage in 1996, then on the big screen in 1999. Then in 2002, Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham featured a coming out scene – the film was later adapted into a West End musical which premiered in 2015.

Although lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer identities are less prominent, South Asian culture has a long history of recognising third-gender people, comprising of those who might identify as eunuchs, intersex or transgender in Western culture. Hijras (Hindi) or Khwaja Saras (Urdu) as well as Aravanis, Aruvanis, Jagappas, Chhakkas and Khusaraas are part of a long tradition in the subcontinent, and as such, have featured in a lot more stage work, such as 2016’s The House of In Between, 2005’s The Maids, directed by Nadia Fall and Bombay Dreams in 2002. As this group gains more legal recognition and rights within the different countries of South Asia, the hope is to see more stories about their vibrant culture on our stages.

In recent years, representation has started to shift for British South Asians, with companies like Rifco Arts ( Miss Meena and the Masala Queens, 2017) and Phizzical working to shift the balance. Phizzical in particular has never shied away from featuring LGBTQ characters in its work, with a bisexual character in Precious Bazaar (2005), the AIDS storyline in its productions of Terence McNally’s A Perfect Ganesh (2008) and gender-bending in Jean Genet’s The Maids (2009). Stardust is the latest offering in this long history of LGBTQ inclusion.

The lack of South Asian LGBTQ representation in the UK can be seen to be linked to attitudes and legal recognition of LGBTQ relationships within the Indian subcontinent. Article 377 of a colonial era law enacted in 1860 is still in place in both Bangladesh and Pakistan and was only repealed in India last year. This prohibits “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, which criminalises the majority of same-sex relationships, and even some acts of intercourse between opposite sex couples.

However, despite this, Bollywood, India’s film industry, has been pushing for change, dealing with subjects that are still considered taboo by many in the country. Kapoor & Sons, released in 2016, featured a gay relationship, and Veere Di Wedding (2018), had a minor character who was gay. More recently, 2019’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Lagha, had a lesbian character coming out to her family as a major plot point, and although not the first Bollywood film to deal with a lesbian relationship ( Fire in 1996 predates it by over two decades), it received a good reception (in stark contrast to Fire, which was met with riots outside cinemas upon its release).

With Bollywood cinema such a key influence on Stardust, and people of South Asian and Muslim heritage taking their leading place in the Birmingham Pride parade this year, celebrating the theme of Love Out Loud, it feels like the perfect time for Phizzical to add its voice to the chorus. This September, be out and proud with Stardust – an all-singing, all-dancing celebration, Bollywood-style.