Samir Bhamra: Asian theatre needs ongoing funding to thrive

Phizzical's Bring on the Bollywood
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Last year, I began to search for performers for new musical Bring on the Bollywood. During auditions, it emerged that the kind of formal training taught at drama schools is inadequate to grasp the accents, acting nuances and complex movement vocabulary crucial for this work. The rehearsal period was an intensive learning process for performers.

For this year’s tour, it was by chance Nisha Aaliya, our lead, was discovered. She came to help the choreographer, Leena Patel, during our dance auditions. I mistook her for one of the auditionees and compelled her to give a singing and acting audition with 20 minutes prep. She was a natural. She would never have auditioned had she not been encouraged.

I founded Phizzical in 2003, focusing on unearthing talented Asians and creating avenues to showcase their abilities. More than 500 people auditioned over two days through our BollyIdol search for a chance to star in Precious Bazaar, a Bollywood-style musical. The production created opportunities for 10 talented Asians, some of whom have become part of the global entertainment industry.

In the UK, however, Bollywood performers are perceived as amateurs suitable only for Melas or when you need a bit of diversity. Our male lead, Robby Khela, was discovered in a similar search at grassroots level in 2006. Today, he has secured an agent and gets commercial work. But, despite his talent, he is yet to be cast by another theatre company.

As an arts practitioner making Asian work, it is disheartening to discover there has been a seven percentage points decline in the proportion of Asian people engaging in the arts. That is significant when the Asian/British Asian group is the largest minority group, accounting for 7.8% of the population.

A key reason concerns the relevance of artistic opportunities and content created. As a Bollywood arts practitioner, I have battled with our arts leaders and funders to give the art form the recognition it deserves. Bollywood is possibly the most diverse art form because it borrows ideas and techniques from all over the world, and intensifies the emotional expression. For me, Bollywood evokes the same emotion as Shakespeare, mixing the grace of ballet with the energy of urban music and dance.

In 2015/16, only 12% of Arts Council England strategic funding was awarded to black, Asian and minority ethnic-led organisations, when 15% of the working-age population in England are BAME. We must address this imbalance and make more work relevant to Asian communities, especially those from lower socio-economic groups. Last year, when Bring on the Bollywood had a week’s run at the Belgrade, 37% of its audiences came from Coventry’s most deprived wards – 24% of them were new audiences.

ACE has taken a significant risk to support Phizzical to make Bring on the Bollywood. It has never given a strategic grant of this value to a small, non-national portfolio organisation BAME company. But this cannot be a one-off.