Broadcaster, comic and foodie Hardeep Singh Kohli has now written Kanjoos: The Miser, an Indian adaptation of a French 17th century farce. Kathryn Tye spoke to him.
It is a true mash-up of cultures – an English translation of a 17th century French satire, reimagined by a Scot as a modern Indian comedy.
But despite its unconventional origins, Kanjoos (Hindi for The Miser) adapted by Hardeep Singh Kohli and the play’s director Jatinder Verma from Moliere’s work of the same name (albeit ‘L’Avare’ in French), has proved a critical and commercial success.
No one was more surprised than Kohli. He said: “It was going to be a short run in London, but a momentum was created and we decided to take it on tour.”
He grew up in Glasgow and was inspired to start the project by fellow Scot, poet Liz Lochhead, who translated Moliere’s works Tartuffe, The Misanthrope and The School for Wives into modern Scottish dialogue.
Kohli said: “I liked those adaptations and there was something about the family structure of 17th century French society which reminded me of Indian culture today. While the rest of the world has moved on, fathers still control families in India. I thought that it would be interesting to reimagine the play in that environment.” Moliere’s The Miser is a comedy of manners about a rich French moneylender named Harpagon, whose feisty children long to escape from his penny-pinching household and marry their lovers.
Kohli’s version is set in a money-mad Mumbai, where Harjinder is obsessed with hoarding his wealth by adhering to Gandhi’s principles of minimum dress and food. He hates spending money, whether it be on his household or his children, who are desperate for marriage and are obsessed with the Bollywood lifestyle.
The characters use a wealth of Punjabi language, something Kohli felt was important, even though he was aware that it might not be understood by the majority of audience members.
He said: “I feel it is right to use the right language. Punjabi is incredibly lyrical, the sound of the words is nice and gentle. It doesn’t matter if you understand every word or not. When people go to see Shakespeare, they don’t hear 30% of it, but you pick up the general meaning.
“It is interesting to watch the different reaction to the play by brown and white people in the audience. At first there is much more laughter from brown people, but as it goes on, it becomes half and half, as everyone starts to understand it.”
Yet he admits that the theatre is not traditionally a strong part of Indian culture. He said: “My parents were among those who came over from India in the 1960s and when they came here, all the money was spent on the kids or on a holiday back to India. The last thing they would do is go to the theatre, so they fell out of the arts. And equally, the arts organisations didn’t put on things that would attract them.”
But Kohli is adamant that he is not on a mission to create theatre aimed specifically for Indian audiences.
He said: “If I’m cooking a meal I have to like it. I cannot make something just for someone else and it is the same with a piece of work. If I try to create a piece of work for specific audience, it is likely to fail. My aim is just to make it interesting.”
Kanjoos: The Miser is at the Marlowe Studio in Canterbury on Thursday, March 14 and Friday, March 15. Tickets £12. Call 01227 787787.