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  • Writer's pictureKaneeka Kapur

Two Billion Beats: In Conversation with Playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya

Anoushka Chadha, Tingying Dong, Lara Mattison in rehearsals for TWO BILLION BEATS. Credit Alex Brenner

Two Billion Beats, opening 5 February, is a captivating play about what it means to grow up as a South Asian teenage girl in a world where you don’t make the rules.

As well as starring two South Asian actors, it’s written by Sonali Bhattacharyya, one of the UK’s leading South Asian playwrights, who’s written for the Kiln and the Almeida, as well as winning the Sonia Friedman production award and the Theatre Uncut award for Chasing Hares, a play that she previously wrote for the Orange Tree. It's directed by Nimmo Ismail, and the majority of the creative team is made up of South Asian, Asian and Black women. In an industry where this is unfortunately still rare, these women are real trailblazers.

We had the chance to chat with Sonali Bhattacharyya ahead of the premiere of Two Billion Beats.

It’s not much of a secret that the arts industry is not a welcoming space for South Asian women. It can be difficult to stay motivated and continue your craft when the industry puts up so many barriers to your success. Against this background, you have still been able to write several successful plays across the UK – what is it that drives and motivates your writing?

“I’ve always felt like an outsider, since I was a kid, and that also means being an observer – noticing the way people carry themselves, what gets left unspoken between us, politics with both a small p and a big one! All sorts of things can spark off an idea, but often I find myself writing about gap between what we’re supposed to do/think/say and what we really want to do. Whether that’s down to social injustice, family expectations, inequality, our own self-belief, the inhumanity of our economic system – or all of those things. Above all I’m fascinated by the ways, both big and small, that we assert ourselves and pursue our dreams despite all of these pressures. People’s coping mechanisms are fascinating to me, as well as a source of great hope and of course, drama.”

Safiyya Ingar in rehearsals for TWO BILLION BEATS. Credit Alex Brenner

Playwriting is such a niche art, and one in which there is especially little representation of South Asian women. What was your story behind pursuing playwriting?

“I loved film and TV from a young age – I don’t come from a theatre-going family. The only thing I’d seen on stage until my 20s was a school trip to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. I loved writing scripts and making short videos on my dad’s camcorder though, and despite my parents’ reservations convinced them I had to study Media Arts at university. That’s where I realised my skills naturally led more to writing than directing, and I specialised in screenwriting in my final year. When I graduated the industry seemed mysterious and impenetrable though, and I sort of bumbled around working teaching jobs and tech jobs until I sent off a spec script to a writer in residence scheme at the Birmingham Rep and, amazingly, was accepted. In the year I spent on attachment I was given time and support to try things out and develop my craft, and I realised I loved writing for the stage. I was mentored by a brilliant writer called Carl Miller, and his encouragement and support was pivotal in building my confidence as a playwright.”

"That dissenting voice and our ability to recognise and hear it is the true test of freedom of speech. And above all I hope people take away the call for us build a lifeline for one another, in the here and now.”

The moment I saw an advertisement for Two Billion Beats, I instantly booked my tickets. I am so excited to watch a play reflecting the experiences of South Asian women written and directed by South Asian women. However, the play does explore specific themes of race, division, and relationships through the lens of the sister protagonists. These themes can be difficult to explore on the stage - why did you decide to write Two Billion Beats now?

“I’ve been connected to the Orange Tree for a few years now – I was on their Writers’ Collective in 2017, and then later Writer in Residence as part of the Channel 4 Playwrights’ Programme. Like a lot of theatre creatives, especially freelancers, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to continue a career in theatre when the pandemic hit. Everything was so uncertain and of course the existing precarity of being a freelancer was only heightened.

I was then offered the chance to be part of the Orange Tree’s first online series – “Inside/Outside”. My starting point was ‘Outside’ as that was the half of the season that ‘Two Billion Beats’ would be part of. I returned to that feeling of being an outsider – specifically for that shorter play, the formative experience everyone from a minority has of realising you’re being judged according to stricter rules and criteria.

I jumped at the chance to develop the short play into a full-length piece when the team at the Orange Tree asked if I’d be interested in doing so. Asha is inspired by iconoclasts – B.R Ambedkar and Sylvia Pankhurst – because she is one herself, and I knew there was so much more to mine in terms of the fallout of her challenging the long-held beliefs of her mum and her teachers. I’ve been interested in writing something that explores the divisions within the South Asian diaspora for some time – of drawing a line between the struggle for caste equality within the Indian independence movement, the impact of 9/11 on dividing the British South Asian community, and the ongoing tremors of this now. As the UK government ramps up state sponsored racism against migrants and Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority people, that disunity is not just unwelcome and tragic, it’s dangerous.”

Anoushka Chadha, Chi-San Howard in rehearsals for TWO BILLION BEATS. Credit Alex Brenner

What message would you like the audience to take away after watching Two Billion Beats?

“I’d love the audience to enjoy seeing someone like them on stage, going through similar dilemmas they’re facing now or have done in the past. I hope people enjoy and recognise the funny, sarcastic, at times mean, at times affectionate, relationship between the sisters. It would be brilliant if people learn more about B.R Ambedkar and Sylvia Pankhurst from the show – not just for their beliefs and politics but for what they stood for, which is so important - that is, speaking up for what you believe in, even when it feels like you’re the lone voice.

That dissenting voice and our ability to recognise and hear it is the true test of freedom of speech. And above all I hope people take away the call for us build a lifeline for one another, in the here and now.”

Two Billion Beats will be running at the Orange Tree Theatre from 5th February – 5th March. Book Tickets.


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