Basmati B*tch, an intriguing blend of action and humor, draws inspiration from anime and manga. This captivating production marks the debut of Ankita Singh, an up-and-coming screenwriter, and holds the distinction of being the first commissioned main bill show by Auckland Theatre Company from a South-Asian writer, as well as the first nationwide production by a South-Asian female.
Prior to the premiere of her latest venture, Ankita Singh participated in a Q&A session with the Asia Media Centre, which she shared her personal journey and sources of inspiration, including her past experience as a business intern at the Asia New Zealand Foundation.
Can you tell us your story? How did you get into writing?
It’s quite long-winded, I actually started off producing in theatre after completing my bachelor of Communication Studies at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), but I’ll start from the beginning.
I was born in Mumbai but spent most of my childhood in Chandigarh and Amritsar. We lived in an intergenerational household with my cousins and Nani for most of my time there.
My Nani was born in Lahore - forced to move during the 1947 partition when she was around five. My Dadi was born and raised in Ranikhet, my Dadu was born and raised in Aligarh. Dadi was a nurse and Dadu was an English teacher (recently I found out he was quite the wordsmith himself, but I have no writings of his to look at) they met and raised my father in Lucknow.
Dadu converted to marry my Dadi, who was Christian - needless to say there was a bit of commotion when my own mother, from a Hindu family, ran away with my dad to get married. Though, all was forgiven when my older brother was born.
My parents decided to immigrate to Aotearoa for a more peaceful life for my brother and I in 2003. I turned seven a month or two after we landed here in 2003 and I spent my childhood between Chandigarh and Kirikiriroa.
It was pretty difficult adjusting to life here with no extended family, I could also barely understand English, so I got put into ESOL classes, which I actually loved because I got to read a bunch of stories instead of having to interact with people. I was an overweight, nerdy Indian kid with a thick accent who always had her nose in a book or was drawing constantly so I got bullied pretty badly - by pretty much everyone, even other South Asians! So, I found respite in reading, playing video games and daydreaming constantly - I had no community so I dreamt one up in my imagination.
High school was a much better experience - apart from making a bunch of amazing misfit friends, in year nine, I gave a killer speech in front of my year about “doing your mum” jokes. Everyone thought I was hilarious - they had no idea “an Indian kid could be funny”. I started using humour as a defence mechanism against my bullies, taking them down with sick burns.
Eventually, they stopped, and I actually really enjoyed my senior years at Hillcrest High. I took up drama without telling my parents in my senior year and that’s how I discovered theatre. It was actually during a drama trip I saw South Asians on stage for the first time with Indian Ink’s “Kiss the Fish” - it was a life-changing experience seeing people like me on stage for the first time.
Hamilton is a beautiful peaceful city, great for raising young kids, but man it is boring if you’re a teenager! I wanted to get out, but I had no idea where to go or what to study. My parents were very against me going to art or film school, so I did the closest thing I could to a film degree - Communication Studies at AUT.
Life has a funny way of working out, I made lifelong friends, learnt a lot about media, film and ethics during my degree - and thanks to my close friend Niniez Yasin, I got into Muay Thai! She also reignited my passion for K-pop - we started learning Korean together and I eventually landed a Communications Internship at CJ Culture Foundation in Seoul through the Asia NZ Foundation in 2019.
I had been producing Asian plays in Auckland and even though that had its own reward, I felt burnt out. It was during my three-month internship that I really got to do some soul searching and realised I was a creative at heart, I needed to give myself a shot.
So, while lying on the heated floor of my room in Seoul, I applied for the Master of Creative Writing specialising in screenwriting at AUT University - I landed back in Tamaki, started the course the next day and two weeks later we had the first lockdown.
Not long after graduating in 2021, I won the Piki Pitch, got funding to make an episode for a TVNZ anthology, and even got commissioned by the Auckland Theatre Company. So, I guess I made the right decision.
I think the lesson I learnt is that investing in yourself is always a good idea and the importance of giving yourself a shot, otherwise, you’re always going to be wondering what could have been.
Ankita Singh. Photo: Supplied.
The film/theatre production industry, especially the people behind the scenes, has been dominated by men. What are the challenges you have encountered in order to succeed in this industry?
I’ll answer this question from the perspective of a South Asian woman.
Even though things are getting better, and I am very lucky to be alive in a time where people are quite aware of issues of equality and equity - change does take time.
On a systemic level, we can see women continue to be underrepresented among directors, Pan-Asians creatives are unrepresented across writing, directing and producing in NZ On Air-funded screen projects (NZOA Diversity Report 2022).
Creative New Zealand Diversity's research shows a similar trend of Pan-Asian being unrepresented in arts funding proportionate to our population size in Aotearoa (CNZ Diversity Report 2019/2020). New Zealand Film Commission recently published a Diversity and Inclusion Strategy in 2022 trying to rectify similar issues.
On a personal level, I’ve been in plenty of situations where I am talked over, man-splained, and had my abilities doubted by men and women alike.
I think being a young, small, South Asian woman often means you’re put into a box, overlooked or have your opinions ignored. People expect you to be quiet and docile. I’ve also been in situations where my South Asian-ness has been exploited - whether it’s my cultural knowledge, networks or ideas/IP. I haven’t had the knowledge or experience to properly advocate for myself.
I’ve worked for free to “get my foot in the door” and I’ve worked in toxic environments to get something on my CV.
Unfortunately, my experiences are not unique. Our industry is rife with unsustainable practices, we’re under-resourced, underappreciated and minorities are often forced into a zero-sum game mentality. And of course, we live on contested land with a dark history of violent colonialism towards Māori and non-white immigrants. It’s a lot to unravel as a young nation.
On another note, I think there’s a general blindness to South Asians in Aotearoa - chronicled quite well in Jacqueline Leckie’s Invisible. It’s a bit disheartening when you hear your colleague say British colonialism wasn’t “that bad” for South Asia (a cursory listen to any episode of Empire and the Brown History Podcast will show the true extent of this history).
The Guardian recently published a study which revealed “Asians” (quite a broad label) makeup 15% of New Zealand’s population but were represented in 41% of offences that targeted race or ethnicity specifically - South Asians were at the top of the list of groups receiving racially motivated attacks by a long shot.
Despite all this, negative experiences have become less common since I’ve surrounded myself with supportive collaborators - who include men and pakeha.
It’s hard work, but once you find the right people, things get easier.
The Pan-Asian Screen Collective has also provided a community and safety net for me, and there are definitely changing attitudes in the country towards Asians and multiculturalism.
Writing too has given me permission to advocate for myself and let people know what I actually think and feel. Being armed with legal knowledge as well, around your rights and how IP is secured, has helped me be more confident navigating the industry.
I am lucky though, many people before me have done amazing advocacy work and I’ve been fortunate to bear the fruits of their labour. And as Asia gains political, economic, and soft power globally, we’re becoming more visible across all forms of media, the diaspora is huge, and we want to see ourselves on screen.
What was the inspiration behind the Basmati B*tch?
I actually got the inspiration while I was studying at AUT, and it was a combination of things.
The seed of the idea came to me when one rainy evening, as I was walking home from a lecture, I saw an Asian student squatting at a bus stop, desperately eating plain rice out of a wad of glad wrap. It was such a striking image. That poor student - had they had anything else to eat that day? And I just had a random thought “What if rice was a precious commodity people were willing to fight and even kill for?”
I had also recently started practising Muay Thai at Jai (a Muay Thai gym a 10-minute walk from my university) and loved the sport and how badass it made me feel for the first time in my life. I really wanted to see South Asian women kicking ass on screen, so the two ideas got combined.
I’ve had various inspirations for the play since, Ruqsana Begum (a South Asian MMA fighter), Jenabai Chaavalwaali (a real-life rice dealer turned close consular of the infamous Dawood Ibrahim) Ashraf Khan aka Sapna Didi (a real-life femme fatal seeking revenge for her husband's murder by Ibrahim) and of course, the very real histories of climate and political disasters and colonization which lead to various famines and rice shortages throughout India’s history - I’d recommend listening to The Brown History Podcast and Empire (Goalhanger Podcasts) for anyone interested in learning more about these histories.
Still from Basmati B*tch. Photo: Supplied.
Basmati B*tch focuses on various social subjects such as women's empowerment, migrant workers exploitation, classism, and veiled racism. How did you manage to mould all these subjects into one?
Moulding all these issues together in itself wasn’t too hard as I think they are all interconnected at their source - capitalist-imperialist patriarchy. The difficult part was that I wanted to write a dark comedy to make these issues accessible, but I didn’t want to make fun of or make light of these issues.
My research unveiled lots of disturbing information that I never see covered in the mainstream media.
I found out about the dangerous practice of “donkeying”, people travelling in shipping containers, the climate crisis already causing mass migration, the exploitation of South Asian workers all over the world.
It was quite sobering to read, especially as a descendant of India’s 1947 partition, the experience of being displaced and potentially stateless and the trauma of forcibly being moved is something I feel emanates throughout my own family decades later. To see that literally millions of people are and will experience the same and worse is very worrying (understatement of the century).
It made me question again the whole idea of state, borders and citizenship - these thoughts were in the back of my mind while writing. But, at the end of the day, even if the characters in the play are facing all these issues, they’re resilient and kick ass - and that’s the main thing I want the audience to take away - a feeling of empowerment and hope.
There’s a fantastic quote by Parag Khanna from his book “Move” which encapsulated this feeling.
“History is replete with seismic global disruptions - pandemics and plagues, wars and genocides, famines and volcanic eruptions, and time and again after great catastrophe, our survival instinct compels us to move.”
Later in the book he says “...to move and build, this is the essence of being human.”.
I really hope, after being entertained, people are inspired to do a little more research into some of the issues the play touches upon, such as the plight of climate refugees and migrant workers - “Move” and "The Great Escape" by Saket Soni are a good place to start and I highly recommend all episodes of the Brown History Podcast too.
PR poster of Basmati B*tch. Photo: Supplied.
What should the audience expect from Basmati B*tch?
I think they can expect to see Asians on stage like they’ve never seen before in Aotearoa - whether that’s a good or bad thing, I’ll leave it up to the audience to decide.
If you’re the type of person who likes genre-mashups, stage combat, singing, dancing and probably swearing a bit too much you’re probably going to have a fun night out.
It’s going to be entertaining and, I hope, heartfelt.
Basmati B*tch will be staged at Q Theatre (Auckland Theatre Company, Oriental Maidens and SquareSums&Co), from 11 to 29 July 2023. Ticket details are here.
- Asia Media Centre