radio review

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The Independent Culture
The problem with "Pankhiraj" is that it's difficult to describe it without sounding vaguely like a rabble-rouser at a Conservative Party conference, getting a cheap laugh out of extremist Labour councils: this is a comedy-drama in which the action is seen mostly from the point of view of Malati, an Asian lesbian stand-up comic. Tanika Gupta's mission is, according to the press release, "debunking stereotypes with comedy"; but really, can you think of a more cringeworthy stereotype than that?

There were, it has to be admitted other cringeworthy things in yesterday's opening episode (originally broadcast as a self-contained play a couple of years ago) - snatches of over-informative dialogue, moments of preachiness, the "incredibly with-it grandmother" routine. But with all those flaws, "Pankhiraj" manages the trick of being a comedy with an agenda which is also charming.

The first episode moved around the nuptial arrangements of Malati's mother, the apparently staid Sripurna, now engaged to a gentle Englishman, Geoffrey. Their traditional English wedding is threatened by the arrival of Sripurna's dragonish mother, Dida, who embarrasses her daughter by yelling "Honky white shit" at an abusive driver and, it seems, brings some sort of magical influence to bear (the driver's car catches fire; a shopping expedition in Richmond suddenly ends up in a market in southern India). Dida is, in fact, a kind of sub-continental Mary Poppins; but instead of blowing in on an umbrella, she rides a "pankhiraj", a winged horse.

The casual way in which this magical element slips into the story is the most unusual element of the programme, which is on its way to being the first magic realist soap opera. The other thing that lends it its appeal is the thoughtfulness Gupta shows towards all her characters. Geoffrey, for instance, seems to be getting set up as the villain, a bland bourgeois who is dragging Sripurna away from her Indian identity. At one point, he passes a tactless remark about his father's experiences as a civil servant in the Raj; but he apologises with grace. And later, he shows an enthusiasm for Indian colour and verve that suggests Gupta does want to debunk stereotypes.

Radio 4 has broadcast, over the last few years, any number of polemical dramas about the plight of Indian women, as put-upon labourers, as abused wives, as every sort of victim. To hear a drama about Indian women that overturns those images, and does it with unobtrusive wit and style is, to say the least, a pleasant surprise.