In the past couple of decades, British Indian films like Bend It Like Beckham and Slumdog Millionaire have not only created a lot of buzz in the South Asian diaspora but have also swept up top awards in the international arena. And yet, the British Asian community in performing arts remains thoroughly underrepresented, even more so behind the camera and on the stage.
But Pravesh Kumar MBE, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Rifco Theatre Company, has used his creative magic to bring in thousands of viewers with interests in South Asia to the theatre which is mostly white, middle-class, and high-brow. Speaking about his particular feat, he told Asian Voice, “You feel represented and valued if you tell authentic stories from our lens. I think this has been the key to really resonating with audiences. When I was an actor, everyone in the audience was also predominately white. I started to think, why do we not go to the theatre? This changed very quickly when we made theatre based on stories that felt like our own. Now at Rifco Theatre Company, we have a large British South Asian audience who come to theatres in their thousands across the country. Also, I’m from a working-class background and tell stories about us from inside the community, working with brilliant creatives and actors. I make musicals and plays (and now films too) that are often entertaining, but also talk about serious issues without alienating us, so that what we are watching feels like it belongs to us. And I love music. It’s a natural part of my storytelling. I think Desis like musicals too, so this is a big win! Growing up, I watched so many Bollywood musicals that I find it hard to tell a story without music driving the narrative.”
His contribution to theatre not only earned him an MBE in 2022 but also continues to make Rifco Theatre Company one of the most successful touring theatre companies in the UK. The British Asian romantic comedy film Little English, directed by Kumar, is set to hit the screens across the UK on 17 March. Featuring a full Asian cast, it is based on the Rifco Theatre Company’s 2007 hit play There’s Something About Simmy and is Kumar’s first feature film. His short film Gods on Mountains was nominated for the Satyajit Ray Short Film Award in 2008. According to Kumar, the transition from short film to feature film was so difficult that it felt impossible. “In Britain, we South Asians are doctors, lawyers and accountants - we can even become Prime Minister, but very few of us are in the media. Even though we may represent more than 14 per cent of the population, we have little or no representation or voice in the arts even after all this time. We, as a community, access art, music, films, books, spoken word, and theatre - but don’t back it. I wish we could value art and artists as much as we value religion. Also, British media is run by mostly white people, and they choose what is commissioned, and very little gets through that net. How often have you seen a film with a British South Asian cast in the cinema? Maybe once every decade? How is this allowed to happen? Why are we not shouting out about this? I want everyone to go to the cinema and support Little English so that we can prove that films like this work, and pave the way for more films and theatre productions about diverse communities in the future.”
Considering that Bollywood is a top draw even for white actors and models, as a person of South Asian origin, Pravesh did venture into Bollywood in his early years. “I went to live in Mumbai with wide eyes. I learnt a lot, especially how not to tell stories. I worked with many great people and some brilliant filmmakers, but I didn’t feel represented or that I belonged. Bollywood is a family business, and especially when I was there in early 2000, you could not get in without a family connection. I came back to England and started to write and make my plays, immediately this felt like home, and there was no looking back.”
Little English is about a young woman (played by Rameet Rauli) without much English imported from Punjab whose husband decamps on the wedding night. With his family unwilling to let her be for appearances’ sake, a secret romance blossoms between her and her brother-in-law (played by Viraj Juneja) who has his struggles. This is the big-screen debut for both Rauli and Juneja and is a testament to Kumar’s commitment to promoting young South Asian talent in the performing arts in Britain. Regarding the Rifco Associates program, Kumar said, “Rifco Associates is a vital scheme that we run, to give a real opportunity to British South Asians with bespoke mentorship and genuine support for their natural next step in their chosen art form. We already have so many success stories, Ameet Chana (also in the film!) is now our Associate Director and will lead this scheme. We produced Sukh Ojla’s first play, and she is now a force in the stand-up scene. Yasmin Wilde wrote and performed Glitterball, which we toured last year and was nominated for ‘Most Promising New Playwright’ at the Off West End Awards, and Karim Khan recently rocked the Edinburgh Festival with his new play Brown Boys Swim. These artists are just the tip of the iceberg; we are excited about so many others.”
And so are we! Kumar promises Little English to be an authentic British South Asian story that will resonate deeply, especially with Desi audiences. “It's funny and heart-warming and also asks serious questions about our society,” he says.