After death threats and protests, the playwright behind Behzti is back with a new play. She speaks to Lorne Jackson.
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti arrives alone and unarmed for our interview in London.
There is no 6ft 6ins slab of sinister security man – pistol-bulge pulsing through tailored jacket – glowering over her.
She doesn’t roll up in an armoured tank, either. Instead, she saunters over to me – not even a tremor of tension – shakes my hand, asks if I don’t mind if she pops to the loo for a min, then says she knows a rather nice place for lunch.
And no, the restaurant in question is not a highly fortified castle, protected by a crocodile infested moat. Just a small unassuming Polish restaurant in Kilburn.
Should Gurpreet really be this relaxed?
It wasn’t that long ago that a faith-fuelled mob was baying for her blood. She also received death threats in the post. All because of a play she wrote that had its premiere in Birmingham.
The work in question, Behzti, performed to full houses at the Rep. Reviews were encouraging and Gurpreet should have had a smash on her hands.
But it was another kind of smash that led to the play being cancelled.
The smash of theatre windows.
Members of the Sikh community took exception to charged incidents in the play, which is set inside a Sikh temple.
They marched on the Rep, and violent scuffles were barely contained by the authorities.
Gurpreet – herself a Sikh, who still goes to temple – then received the threats to her life, and was advised by the police to leave Birmingham, where she had been staying while her play was performed.
The London-based author was moved to a safe house with a security camera outside her door, and had police officers assigned to protect her.
After a period, the communal snarl slumbered into silence.
However, there is a possibility that righteous fury could rise again, because Gurpreet has written a new play – to be performed in the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from the end of this month – about her Behzti experience.
Behud (a Punjabi word meaning without limit) is about a playwright attempting to make sense of the past by visiting the darkest corners of her imagination. It is set amidst the conflicting worlds represented by the theatre establishment, politicians and protesters.
But why did Gurpreet return to these days of rage and riot? Wouldn’t it have been best to let sleeping mobs lie?
“I just had to go back and look at that time in my life, again,” she says. “It felt like such a monumental, extraordinary experience in my existence, that I had to process it as a writer.
“It would have been disingenuous to myself not to have written about that event.”
The reaction to Behzti must have been shocking for a young woman who spends so much of her time in solitude, hidden away with her characters and plots.
What happened outside the Rep in December 2004 was one plot she couldn’t control.
She admits to having some inkling that this particular work would be controversial, as part of the performance was set in a Gurdwara (Sikh temple) and the play, near its end, escalates towards high levels of violence.
“I knew that it would be a provocative piece, but I didn’t expect that level of reaction,” she says. “Writing it was my way of expressing myself, and I stick by everything that I wrote.
“I understood why the Rep decided to cancel it, but I was still so angry. It just seemed to me so wrong. One of the themes of the play was how women are robbed of their voice. I saw an interview on TV with Salman Rushdie, and he was talking about what had happened to me. He said it was ironic that the woman who wrote a play about women losing their voice also lost hers.”
It’s understandable that Gurpreet wanted to defend her work. But didn’t she have any regrets after the death threats? Couldn’t she have made her point in a more palatable way?
“No regrets,” she says. “And strangely enough, it really wasn’t as scary as you might imagine.
“When something really extreme like that happens, there just isn’t much time to feel anything. Even fear.
“Of course it was full on for a while, with the CCTV outside the flat. How I’d describe what I went through, is that it was a bit like when somebody close to you dies. You just have to get on with it. You know how you have to turn up at the funeral and go into that mourning mode?
“Well, that’s what I did, in a manner of speaking.
“When it really hit me like a tonne of bricks was after the event – the day after the funeral.
“For me, that was when I finally went back to my flat and started to get some idea how big this situation really was. How much trouble I was in.
“So there were moments that were painful and difficult, but they tended to come later. There were also moments that were very funny.”
Funny? It’s hard to imagine what humour could have been extracted from the situation.
When Salman Rushdie faced a similar threat, he didn’t turn his experiences into an award winning sitcom starring David Jason.
No ‘Only Fools And Fatwas’ from the author of The Satanic Verses.
Instead, Rushdie sweated out his predicament in misery and isolation.
But Gurpreet is resolutely upbeat. She is no brooder, and never seems to indulge in the kind of fitful paranoia you may imagine would overtake her.
I’d even go so far as to say she was positively bubbly when we met. Much happier talking about her favourite 1970s movies (The Godfather, The Conversation) than debating the limitations of free speech in a democratic society.
But hang around long enough, and there are flickers of concern that even she can’t briskly bubble away.
Gurpreet does not want her photograph published in the Post – understandably.
She is also wary of talking about her family, not wanting to drag them into the orbit of offence that surrounds her. All she will say is that the elder generation stand by her artistic decisions, and are proud of her.
Nothing funny about that.
Yet she repeatedly insists that there were comedy crack-ups during her time in hiding.
“In any extreme human experience, there is both darkness and light,” she says. “The police officers looking after me were quite funny. The kind of things they came out with! For instance, they were tremendously excited because they had never been involved in a faith-rage scenario before. I was their first one.
“Another comic moment came after I issued a statement that came out in the Guardian. One of the guys I was in regular contact with said to me, ‘I’ve done something today that I’ve never done before in my life. You made me buy the Guardian!’
“My way of coping with dark things is to examine them humorously, so it wasn’t all bleak for me.”
Gurpreet says Behud also has its funny moments, and she hopes the audience will enjoy a giggle at her predicament.
Although the play is heavily autobiographical, it isn’t boringly factual.
The action takes place in the playwright’s mind, allowing for a mixture of gritty goings-on and surreal moments.
“It’s really hard to describe,” says Gurpreet. “The best way to describe this new play is to say that it’s a bit like Six Characters In Search Of An Author or the American independent movie, Adaptation.”
Gurpreet has come a long way in a short time. After leaving Bristol University (very snobbish) she worked in a woman’s hostel (not snobbish, of course).
Then she stumbled into the theatrical profession when she was spotted in a club.
“A woman came up to me and said I was what she was looking for, and would I like to be in her play? She must have liked my dancing.”
Gurpreet took to performance, then sent off an idea for a play to the Birmingham Rep.
The Rep emitted positive noises and it became her first performed play, Behsharam.
Since then she has written more plays and also works in film and TV. She was a scriptwriter on EastEnders for a few years, though her strangest assignment was writing the ‘Bible’ for Birmingham-based soap, Crossroads.
This meant devising all the characters and their histories before the show was even broadcast.
“It was good fun,” she laughs. “Though I preferred writing EastEnders, which taught me discipline. It really developed my writer’s muscle.”
But the work she is most proud of is Behzti... probably.
“At first there was such a lot of negativity surrounding it,” she says. “But since the initial anger I’ve had so many positive and enthusiastic letters from readers of the play. Especially from students.
“Behzti is now taught at a lot of colleges and universities, and that makes me really proud. Hopefully people will accept, at last, that I never tried to offend or anger. I just wanted to tell my story, and express myself the way I wanted to.
“As a writer you have to be driven by your imagination, what you want to say, what you want to explore. You have to have the right to do that freely. Part of what is in all our imaginations is dark and difficult. I don’t think the way to deal with that is to shut it down. You have to explore it.”
* Behud (Beyond Belief) is at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry from March 27 until April 10. For more information go to www.belgrade.co.uk.