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A Scholar Examining Her Own Culture

Playwright-director Sujata Bhatt abandoned an academic career to bring her insights about Indian values to the stage

September 08, 2002|JAN BRESLAUER

There was a time in playwright-director Sujata Bhatt's life when the past wasn't merely prologue; it was threatening to become her permanent gig. A scholar of medieval studies, she was on track for a life in academia, but she abandoned those plans to become a writer.

"I was a historian for a long time, facing the possibility of actually doing that for the rest of my life," recalls the soft-spoken Bhatt, seated in the second-floor lobby of a downtown theater on a recent afternoon. "It would have meant another 40 years of dusty manuscripts and researching in the bowels of libraries, which is wonderful, but it's not the only thing I wanted to do."

Fascinated as she was with the past, it wasn't enough. "There's always been a large part of me that's also been very interested in the present, and I didn't really know how to reconcile those two things in academia," says Bhatt, who was born in India and grew up in the U.S. "I found it was much more fun to use this incredible critical apparatus that I had built up to create works of art. What I love about theater is how collaborative it is. I learn from other people, where scholarship is much more isolating."

After trying her hand at various forms of creative writing, she's about to launch a new career. The 37-year-old Bhatt has found success with her very first attempt at playwriting. "Queen of the Remote Control" premieres at East West Players on Wednesday, co-directed by the playwright and the company's producing artistic director, Tim Dang. Told from the point of view of a teenage girl yearning to escape her Calabasas home, it's a black comedy about upward mobility and Indian immigrant family values.

According to Dang, " 'Queen of the Remote Control' delves into many issues that the Asian Pacific community experiences: immigrant parents versus their Americanized children; identity and isolation--being a part of the Indian community and part of the American community and not really being a part of either, and the striving for success and status--the model minority."

It's the first time East West Players has presented a work by a writer of South Asian descent, and the first to feature a South Asian cast.

"The Asian Pacific community is an expansive community, and it is America's perception that it includes only the more populated communities--Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino--and doesn't readily recognize its many other communities--Thai, Cambodian, Hmong, Indian, etc.," Dang says. The company "wants to broaden America's perception by opening this door and in the process enlighten everyone, including ourselves."

The Sept. 11 timing of the opening of "Queen of the Remote Control" was discussed at length. "Our opening nights are always on Wednesday," Dang says. "This opening night happened to fall on Sept. 11. Our staff and board of directors had extensive dialogue regarding the opening date and decided to proceed. As we are children of immigrant families, we know the endurance, hardships and pain that we have encountered in the past, and it is our strength to move on that we celebrate.

"It is very poignant that EWP premieres its first Indian play on Sept. 11," he continues. "The Indian community has been unjustly discriminated against in many ways because of the events of Sept. 11, due to the lack of awareness and rush to judge people with certain appearances. The Asian Pacific community faced this discrimination when Japanese Americans were unjustly discriminated against during WWII. This is EWP's way of opening our eyes to cultures we know little about so that we do not live in fear."

Set in 1999, before the bubble of dot-com glory burst and the Nasdaq went south, "Queen of the Remote Control" satirizes one week in the life of an upper-middle-class Indian American family. The titular protagonist, 17-year-old Shilpa Shah, provides ironic commentary on her parents as they happily anticipate the impending marriage of her brother to the sister of an Internet billionaire. Meanwhile, the young couple also relish the economic wisdom of their union.

Bhatt, who lives in Venice, describes Shilpa as "a terribly smart misfit who doesn't quite know where she fits in. She's like a lot of kids who are going through American culture, who don't really want to fit into any of the particular cliques that dominate the high school landscape."

Although the play isn't autobiographical, there's a good deal of Bhatt's experience in Shilpa's emotional life.

Bhatt came to America at age 3. Her doctor parents moved the young family around a great deal--to various cities in the U.S., back to India, to Iran and back again to the States--giving the young Sujata an appreciation of various cultures, but also a certain sense of alienation.

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