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“I can guarantee that absolutely no part of this show is true”

Provocative performer and writer Pariah Khan has been voted as one of Bristol’s 24 Most Influential Young People by Rife Magazine, and is bringing his debut one-man show “An Indian Abroad” to The Wardrobe Theatre later this month. We chatted to him ahead of the performance to find out more about the inspirations behind the play, how it aims to subvert the role of the “white male adventurer”, and how he hopes the show will bring more diverse audiences into the theatre.

Culture Calling: What’s the inspiration behind your debut one-man show “An Indian Abroad”
Pariah Khan: I spent a lot of time growing up reading about this particular story of “the white male adventurer” going to foreign countries, exploring the land, seeing the savagery of tribes, learning from the locals and bringing this wisdom back home. And I thought it was an absolute crock of shite. Just the idea that that narrative would even exist is kind of insulting. I’d also spent a lot of time around Stokes Croft in Bristol where I’d be hearing lots of white, middle class teenagers talk about their journeys to India on their gap year and how it transformed them. And I thought, no place is that transformative that you change forever, especially when you come home and start working in investment banking again! So I decided to flip it on its head. What if a middle class student from India, going through the regular adolescent struggle of “what is life? And what is my purpose in it?”, thought the only way he could answer his questions was by doing a gap year to Britain.

Image Credit: Lorna Foster
CC: As well as being humorous, is it also trying to explore relevant, serious themes…
PK: I would say so. There are always these moments when I think, what am I talking about? What’s the purpose of the show? Maybe I’m just going on a bit. But then something inevitably happens in society that reinforces why the show is important.
CC: What sort of contextual events make you think the show is important? Are you referring to current political struggles, and the question of what post-Brexit Britain will look like?
PK: Politics does have a part to play in my work. I definitely do identify with the left side, but also there’s a lot of the left that I have problems with, because within it are some uber liberal/lefty white people who wear bindis and yoga pants. So for me it’s about having a conversation between two sides of that extreme, between the super lefty, white liberals on one side, and also trying to unpick other thoughts and perceptions that may be on the right. They both inform the piece.

Image Credit: Lorna Foster
CC: It sounds quite different to your recent short film Slice for Channel 4 Random Acts, which is quite a gory, dark view of graduate experience. Can you tell us more about that, and where the inspiration came from?
PK: As you will see, a recurring pattern in my work is that it tends to be satirical or subversive! I was going to, again, Stokes Croft in Bristol, a lot of open mic nights where people would talk about how difficult it was to be a graduate, and the struggle and pain they were going through. Even though I have been through that entire experience and felt the same way, I just got so bored listening to it. It was mind numbingly vacuous. A couple of years ago, I didn’t want to focus on my writing so much, I thought, you know what I’m going to be an actor! So I was taking part in quite a few student films, and again that same theme of the difficulty of the real world was repeated. I wondered why the way this issue was discussed seemed to bother me so much, even though I think it’s important and it’s something we all go through. So I decided to create this film where I took graduate angst and the experience of feeling empty and dead inside to the absolute extreme. And that formed the basis of Slice.
CC: So all your work seems to address social themes. How do you think using humour can help when discussing these sometimes difficult subjects?
PK: I think humour has always introduced an element of humanity to work I’ve seen. I feel if a show is purely dramatic or purely serious for its duration, that it loses that sense of humanity. Comedy is such an important part of how we can process and deal with things, and talk about issues without coming across preachy or trying to convert someone. And anchoring a show to a personal experience can also really help with that. I’ve seen a lot of one person shows, especially about race, and they often come across like a TED Talk with a bit of dramaturgy added on top. It’s just “here are some statistics that I conveniently put into dialogue. Whereas, I can guarantee that absolutely no part of my show is true. It’s entirely false. Paradoxically though, it’s also based on heavily autobiographical experiences.

Image Credit: Jonathan Noakes
CC: What are you hoping people will take away from the play?
PK: I don’t think the show is going to absolutely convert people. But I think this will introduce a lot of perspectives to an audience, that maybe they’ve not considered. First and foremost, I just want them to have a great night, in terms of seeing something that is entertaining and engaging. I also want to use this show as an opportunity to bring, hopefully, more diverse audiences into that theatre space, if they can see work that is reflecting them. If I can engage more of the Asian and South Asian community, that would be a big plus, and also people from a more working class background. This type of work, which for me is a blend between theatre and stand up, makes theatre a little less stuffy, and a little more engaging for an audience which is perhaps the one that needs to see it the most.
Pariah would like to thank the Arts Council for funding the show, as well as Rising Arts Agency, Creative Youth Network and The Arnolfini.
An Indian Abroad runs from 31 October – 1 November at The Wardrobe Theatre, The Old Market Assembly, 25 West Street, Old Market, Bristol, BS2 ODF.