Hanif Kureishi’s play revives Southall racism history in the age of Brexit
Much has changed since the 1976 murder of teenager Gurdip Singh Chaggar and the 1979 riots in Southall that form the backdrop of acclaimed writer Hanif Kureishi’s political play Borderline, but its continuing relevance in the age of Brexit was highlighted in London on Thursday.
A two-hour engaging reading of the 1981 play at the Royal Court Theatre revived memories of the time when Indians and Asians faced much racism and worse. Those attending the event included Kureishi and many who were involved or affected by the disturbances.
Shot through with powerful themes of identity, integration, cultural conflict, fascism and feminism, Borderline laid bare the many levels at which the diaspora has engaged with everyday life, including the divide between the values of parents and their UK-born children.
Weaving the themes together through dialogue and situations still familiar to an Indian-Asian audience, Kureishi’s perspectives expounded through the characters brought non-white and non-English experiences into mainstream British theatre for the first time when Borderline was staged in the early 1980s.
Kureishi recalled the process of writing his first play and its difficult context, but regretted the demise of political theatre over the years. He agreed with columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown that its themes remained relevant, as reflected in the many racist and anti-immigration overtones of the Brexit discourse.
Southall, the play’s setting, has been the destination of many migrants from Punjab and South Asia since the early 1950s, witnessing several racist incidents, riots and anti-fascism protests, first by the Indian Workers Association and later by the Southall Youth Movement.
In April 1979, an anti-fascism protest against the far right National Front, which was allowed to hold a rally in Southall, degenerated into strong police action against the protestors. The action was one of the major triggers for a review of Britain's policies on race and police procedures.
Southall has long been called Little Punjab, but the population of Punjabis has dwindled as many migrants and successive generations prospered and moved out to upscale areas, and others such as Afghans, Somalis and Sri Lankans moved in. It has had a Punjabi MP since 2007 - Labour’s Virendra Sharma.
Directed by Kully Thiarai, Borderline’s characters — including Ravi just arrived from India — were brought to life by Sudha Bhuchar, Vincent Ebrahim, Peter Hobday, Halema Hussain, Devesh Kishore, Georgina Lamb and Peter Singh.
Curated by Bhuchar Boulevard, Borderline is one of three Retracing Our Footsteps retrospective at the Royal Court Theatre. The other two are Partap Sharma’s A Touch Of Brightness (1967) and Harwant Bains’ Blood (1989).
Curator Suman Bhuchar said: “This is a seminal work in the performance history of British/ South Asian theatre that I am trying to present though this retrospective, but in terms of the ideas presented we are still dealing with them today”.
“One obvious example post Brexit is racism has resurfaced in an obvious way; another theme is about the aspirations of immigrants - wanting to fit in and progress”, she added.