An Interview with Satinder Chohan
THE MUMBLE : Have you been to Scotland before?
SATINDER : When I had just started writing for theatre, I was accepted on a residency at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. It was a beautiful baptism – developing my play ‘Lotus Beauty’, lodging, meeting and chatting with other writers and discovering exciting Edinburgh – perhaps most memorably when I decided to scale Arthur’s Seat and not even a quarter of the way up, got knocked over by the blustery winds and slid right back down the hill on my very muddy backside! I’d love to spend more time in Scotland. As a huge Liverpool fan, Kenny Dalglish is a hero – my sister and I supported Scotland (and Brazil of course) in the 1982 World Cup. We still have Scotland’s World Cup song ‘We Have a Dream’ on 7” vinyl! So Scotland has always been close to my footie and political heart and I’m so proud the play is touring there.
THE MUMBLE : What was the original idea or story that sparked Made in India?
SATINDER : I was applying for the Adopt A Playwright award and was inspired by a shocking article about a white middle class English woman who paid an Indian village surrogate to birth her baby. (My play!) The woman described her surrogate as a ‘vessel’. With my Indian village roots, the surrogate could have been any number of my female relatives or if my parents hadn’t emigrated to the UK, even me. The story was loaded with so much conflicting emotion, culture and politics, I knew I had to write a play around the situation, to explore and understand its fertile terrain. I submitted the idea, won the award, began writing the play. I think the story also chimed because there had been instances of altruistic egg donation in my community. So I had always wondered about the generosity of one woman towards another in those situations, wondered what drove a woman to offer her eggs to another, to have a baby for another, without payment. So commercial surrogacy in which both strangers and payment were involved was fascinating to me.
THE MUMBLE : Why this play now? (Global and local relevance)
SATINDER : Globally and locally, we’re living in a time when there is a serious conflict between rampant financial markets and human morals – more often than not, morals are sacrificed for markets. Through market fundamentalism and the ‘commodification of everything’, everything is for sale in our neoliberal times including education, health, emotions, bodies…and women like these surrogates have to sell themselves to make a living, literally. When I began the play, commercial surrogacy was rife in many countries. During the writing process, India, Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia introduced surrogacy bans. In India, the ban feels like a nationalist reaction against global neoliberalism and a right-wing government trying to realign India with traditional family values – altruistic surrogacy is allowed but only for childless Indian couples – not gay people, singles or foreigners. Yet it is also a nationalism that has raised questions about the reproductive freedoms of women and use of reproductive techniques in these countries. So the play and surrogacy itself is a topical lens through which our changing global and local political landscape is filtered. It’s a compelling story about gender, economics, reproductive technology and ethics that continues unfolding across nations in the real world outside.
THE MUMBLE : The play is set in Gujurat – is that your native state & how did you end up in the UK
SATINDER : My family is actually from Punjab, which neighbours Gujarat in India. But as in Gujarat, commercial surrogacy was big business in Punjab too.
I was born and brought up in Southall, West London, widely known as ‘Little India’ or ‘Little Punjab’, with all its Indian and Pakistani shops and restaurants, gurdwaras, mandirs and mosques. So I consider myself a Punjabi Londoner more than anything else! My grandparents came to the UK from Punjab in the late 1950s and my parents in the late 1960s. We’ve lived in Southall ever since.
THE MUMBLE : Can you tell us how you got involved with Tamasha & the Belgrade Theatre
SATINDER : After my first play ‘Zameen’, I began developing a new play ‘Lotus Beauty’, set in an Asian beauty salon, with Tamasha. Later, Tamasha’s then Artistic Directors Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith nominated me for the Adopt A Playwright Award, which I won with the idea for ‘Made in India’. Fin Kennedy was actually on the interview panel and during my Adopted Year, became my (exceptional) mentor/dramaturg as I began writing the play. In a serendipitous turn of events, he later became the new Artistic Director at Tamasha and took the play with him, where we continued developing the piece. It’s now his first main production as Tamasha’s Artistic Director and it feels so fitting we’ve come full circle back to Tamasha with it. Belgrade Theatre came on board as co-producers later on. We’ve just enjoyed a fantastic run of the play in Coventry with them – such an excellent, supportive place for new writing.
THE MUMBLE : Tamasha is unusual in having a playwright as Artistic Director, what does this bring to the creative process?
SATINDER : It brings a highly talented individual to the creative process – an Artistic Director, playwright and dramaturg rolled into one! It’s a supremely skilled all-rounder who can focus on the smallest detail in the text, while keeping an eye on the bigger picture of a possible production. It helped the process hugely that Fin is a writer too. He easily understood my creative objectives, obstacles and was always quick to suggest a wealth of dramatic solutions. As a writer, he could help me shape the drama much more effectively than I could alone as he could easily understand the play I was trying to write and help me work out the best possible way of writing it.
THE MUMBLE : How have you worked together, as two writers, to develop the play?
SATINDER : From the beginning of our 15 plus drafts (!), I would write a draft and then we would have the most brilliant, searching, synergistic dialogues about the play that went on for hours! From talking about the play itself, to character details, surrounding issues, transactions, politics, neoliberalism, reproductive technologies, infertility and so on…It would take a couple of days to all process but was massively helpful in moving onto the next draft. We did this intermittently for about three years – discussion, draft, feedback, discussion, draft, feedback etc. During my Adopt A Playwright Award year, we also had three rehearsed readings and another reading and intensive workshop later, so other vital feedback from directors and actors also pushed the play on dramatically. About a year and a half ago, when I thought I was finally finished with the play, the Indian government decided to ban surrogacy. That decision upended a lot of the play and so we had to reshape the story, which took a few more discussions and drafts, expanding and contracting til the final distilled version of the play! After director Katie Posner came on board, Fin took a step back. For the last few drafts of the play, Katie and I have been drafting and discussing together, although thankfully, Fin continues to feedback into that process too. I’ve just learnt so much from my work and all those creative discussions with him – it’s been an intensive, invaluable process and an incredible experience working with him.
THE MUMBLE : What do you hope the audience will leave the theatre thinking, feeling, wanting to do?
SATINDER : I hope the audience will be emotionally affected by the play because while it’s about surrogacy, it’s also about the bigger interconnected neoliberal world we live in. In the UK, we’re all privileged Westerners and consumers who rely on marginalised workers all over the world to provide the material stuff of our lives. In that power dynamic, we are the ones who can afford to blank out who those people/workers are and what their lives are actually like. I hope this play is a small reminder of the people who inhabit those worlds, their lives and struggles, who create and build our worlds from afar. Even though commercial surrogacy is a very complicated issue, I don’t think it’s right that we live in a world where a village woman delivers a baby for a more affluent woman for money. The surrogate should not be so financially disadvantaged and socially neglected that she is driven to deliver babies for money. So I hope the audience thinks about the inequitable world we live in, the way that our consumer and materialistic, ‘everything is for sale’ lives and attitudes impact on less fortunate others in other parts of the world. I really hope some audience members might feel compelled to do something about those inequities in their own lives or the lives of less fortunate others.
THE MUMBLE : What advice do you have to aspiring young playwrights?
SATINDER : Choose another profession! Haha, I jest. For all its endless challenges, I’m glad I ended up here. It’s incredibly tough to survive as a writer, so I’d say, be patient, work hard, keep developing your voice and honing your work, keeping it true and honest. Also, find a paid job on the side that complements the writing because playwriting sure doesn’t pay. I’ve had to rely hugely on the generosity of family and friends to write – I don’t own a house, a car, material possessions, have kids – I’ve tried to streamline my life so that I live to write – but I’m an extreme example. If you simply have to write, you will find a way to make it work for you. Also, don’t compare yourself to other writers – everyone grows and develops as a writer at their own pace, in their own way, telling their own stories – you have to stay firmly on your own path, voice it and write it as strongly and uniquely as only you can.
MADE IN INDIA