Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti: 'A warm, sensitive writer who did not set out to offend'

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The Independent Online

When asked about writing Asian storylines in television soap operas, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was clear that anything was possible, if handled with tact.

When asked about writing Asian storylines in television soap operas, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was clear that anything was possible, if handled with tact.

"I believe if your heart is in the right place, if you ask the right questions, if you make the right choices, anybody can write about anything," she was quoted as saying in an interview last year. "It is just about doing it with sensitivity and care and passion."

It is not a view shared by all members of the Sikh community from which Ms Bhatti hails. Yet those who know her and have worked with her say that she would never have set out to offend. "She's a splendid human being," Braham Murray, the artistic director of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, said. "It wouldn't have occurred to her that the play would cause such controversy."

Described by Mr Murray as "extremely attractive and highly intelligent," Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was born in Watford but now lives in London with her partner, Michael Buffong, an actor turned director.

She studied modern languages at Bristol University, after which she worked as a journalist, refuge worker and actress. But in recent years she has concentrated on writing. She first won attention through a drama writers' course run by the old Carlton television company when it was preparing to make its new version of the soap, Crossroads.

She had already started work on her first play, Behsharam (Shameless) with a writer's attachment scheme at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1998, but was forced to put it on the back burner while she immersed herself in creating the characters for the resurrected soap.

But while the soap was ultimately doomed, Behsharam received some positive reviews when it was eventually premiered at the Soho Theatre in London before transferring to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 2001.

A drama packed with family feuds, prostitution, racial tensions and drug abuse, the critics disliked its soap-like tendencies but applauded the spark of talent they identified within. Michael Billington, writing in The Guardian, said it showed "definite flickers of promise" though he lamented the precedence of situations over ideas. Nicholas de Jongh, of the London Evening Standard, said it "might pass muster as an elaborate trial-run for a Channel 4 soap opera about a working-class Asian family in England."

She persevered with her writing, producing scripts for EastEnders and dozens of episodes of the BBC World Service soap, Westway, and a few plays. She has just written The Cleaner, an hour-long film for BBC1, and her first feature film, Pound Shop Boys, co-commissioned by the Film Council.

Behzti (Dishonour) was her second work for Birmingham and, like its predecessor, has been published by Oberon Books.

The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester is one of several organisations keen to work with her and Murray, the artistic director, had commissioned a piece which she was expecting to start work on once Behzti was running.

"She has enormous warmth and compassion and understanding and she's very funny.

"What is interesting from any playwright from a closed society that we don't know is how she depicts that society with a richness and humanity and makes the connections between that society and our society. She's certainly one of the best young writers I've read."

Murray said he hoped the cancellation would not deter her as a writer. "I'm frightened if this in any sense stunts her development," he said.