Interview: Satinder Chohan

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Courtesy of the Dukes

Hard-hitting surrogacy drama ‘Made in India’ came to Lancaster’s Dukes Theatre last week. SCAN spoke to the playwright Satinder Chohan about the play and the arresting topics it deals with.

What is the premise of Made in India?

In a fertility clinic in Gujarat, India, three women meet. It’s English woman Eva’s last chance for motherhood. For Indian village woman Aditi, surrogacy is a lifeline out of poverty. For clinic owner and businesswoman Dr. Gupta, it’s all just another transaction. But with the backdrop of profound global forces, can it possible remain that simple? Made in India is a play about birth and motherhood in a brave new world.

What made you want to write this piece?

I read a shocking article about a middle class English woman who paid an Indian village surrogate to birth her baby. The woman described her surrogate as a ‘vessel’ and had a real sense of privilege and entitlement about what she was doing. I completely identified with the surrogate – with my Indian village roots, the surrogate could have been any of my female relatives or maybe in another lifetime where my parents hadn’t emigrated to the UK, even me. The situation between the two women was loaded with so much conflicting emotion, culture and politics, I had to write a play to explore that fertile terrain. There had also been instances of altruistic egg donation in my community, so I had always wondered about the generosity of one woman towards another in those situations – what drove a woman to offer her eggs or her womb to another woman, to have a baby for another woman, without payment. So commercial surrogacy in which both strangers and payment were involved was fascinating to me.

What do you want the audience to take away from the show?

I hope audiences might think a little about the way science and economics conflict and play out through the female bodies of these surrogate workers – and the way we all contribute to creating an inequitable world through our material demands and choices in our ‘everything for sale’ society, whether buying a baby or a pair of trainers. Maybe think a little more too about the rapid advance of science and the impact of life-giving and life-changing Assisted Reproductive Technologies on the people involved (adults, children, families) and society as a whole, from all perspectives. We’re only just beginning to catch up with what this incredible pioneering, sometimes controversial science means ethically, morally and emotionally for all of us – even legally (and politically?), in the way countries such as India, Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia have recently banned commercial surrogacy. Ultimately, I hope it’s a play that makes people think – and perhaps might even compel them to do something, however small, about inequities in their own lives or the lives of less fortunate others.

Is it challenging to address complex issues like surrogacy on stage? How do you make sure you don’t disrespect the subject matter?

Yes, I do think it’s challenging. Surrogacy is an incredibly complex issue emotionally and politically. I think it’s important to do as much research as possible and to think about the subject and characters from all angles as empathetically and fully as possible. I was very anti-commercial surrogacy when I began developing the play and had to alter my stance as I was writing. It’s important to try to understand why different women in this situation are driven to do what they do and to give the audience some understanding of the motives and lives of those characters as truthfully and honestly as possible within the parameters of the story. As with any emotional, biological or financial transaction in which people want something from someone else that might also bring out less palatable aspects of human nature. But above all, it’s important to remember this play is a story about the issue, a story that tries to capture some essence of the situation and lives involved, its complexities and nuances but one that takes dramatic licence in doing so.

Theatre is also an effective medium that can highlight such issues and ethics because of the immediate and potentially explosive way it can fuse politics, creativity and emotion through drama, in a communal space. In ‘Made in India’, we focus on the lives of these three entwined characters in a woman-centred space. We see the essence of what surrogacy and all its emotional transactions entail in the present moment, living that experience and the shifting power dynamics with those characters in the here and now.

What was the process like, from writing to performance? What is your favourite part of the process?

The process was intense and there was a lot of drafting and redrafting involved – over 15 drafts. But I was lucky to have the most brilliant dramaturg in Fin Kennedy. I thought I was almost done over a year or so back. Then the Indian Government suddenly decided to ban commercial surrogacy. Cue hasty rewrites. I had to drop some of my favourite scenes and rewrite the play from a different angle!

My favourite part of the process is actually the research stage. It’s an essential phase for me regardless of what I write about. Research always triggers interesting ideas, creative connections and deepens understanding of the world and a new subject, from manifold perspectives. I love researching and finding out new things about people and places and stories that I didn’t know about before. Writing is simply painful. I find it immensely difficult to write because nothing ever seems quite right or good enough. Sometimes, I wonder why I do it! But in those moments when the writing feels like it works, it’s the best feeling in the world and all those fraught and tough moments pay off. Performance is also hugely exciting when you have a group of talented, brilliant actors like our cast – Syreeta Kumar, Gina Isaac and Ulrika Krishnamurti – who make the world of the play and the characters so wholly and seamlessly their own.

How has the tour gone so far?

As a writer, it’s tough to put your work out there, hoping audiences turn up to see and respond positively to something that has lived inside you for so long and you’ve worked so long to create. But it’s been a great and hugely rewarding tour so far. I’ve been lucky enough to see the play in Coventry, Edinburgh, Colchester and Lancaster and it’s been incredible to experience appreciative, thoughtful audiences in those different cities, to talk to people after the show about their thoughts on the play and the issues involved. It truly makes those years of sitting writing away in my Southall cocoon so worthwhile. It’s also brilliant to see new audiences embrace a diverse show like this that is too often seen as marginal and risky by the theatre establishment. For diverse writers like me, we desperately need to get our work out there to become better writers, so we can preserve our stories and reach out to new audiences. I’m so glad we’re finding those audiences with this play.

Which plays and playwrights inspired you to become one?

I have to admit I didn’t know a great deal about theatre before I started writing plays. I had only been to the theatre a couple of times before uni, on school trips. At school, I loved the epic reach of Shakespeare and we also read ancient Greek drama, some Brecht and Edward Bond – which began teaching me about politics in theatre. At uni, I discovered Ibsen and Strindberg but I especially loved the raw passion and creativity of Lorca, who also writes women so powerfully. I love Arthur Miller’s plays, the way he writes about fragile humanity, using drama to question and challenge an inequitable world. Plays such as Wole Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ layers spirituality, history and politics in an epic, arresting way. But in all honesty, I just wanted to write and tell stories, regardless of the medium and as I continue writing for theatre, I hope I can also learn to write film and fiction too.

What is the unique aspect that will sell this performance to an audience?

I think ‘Made in India’ is quite a truthful, confronting play about the modern world, colonial relationships, global power dynamics and commercial transactions. It’s a play that challenges assumptions and isn’t afraid to shy away from the more controversial aspects of commercial surrogacy and the science it comes from, the world it occupies and the sometimes questionable characters it creates.

It’s also quite rare to see such a diverse and woman-centred play and collaboration out there. From the all-female cast to the director Katie Posner, designer Lydio Denno, lighting designer Prema Mehta and AV designer Shanaz Gulzar, it’s a play pulsating with creative female energy! I really hope people will go to see the play, to support diverse and woman-centred work that shows the theatre establishment and its practitioners that these risky and marginal stories are worth telling – and will be heard! Especially at a time like this in a frightening political climate when we need to speak up and stand up for marginalised, global underclasses more than ever.
‘Made in India’ is now showing at London’s Soho Theatre until March 25th, after which it heads to Luton and York. Find out more at www.tamasha.org.uk/made-in-india/