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Taqi Nazeer - Heer Ranjha (Retold)

Two Monday mornings ago, actor Taqi Nazeer was walking through Glasgow Central Station en route to rehearsals for Ankur Productions’ production of Shan Khan’s play, Heer Ranjha (Retold). As he made his way through the rush-hour melee, the ex-investment banker who ditched a life in high finance to study at RSAMD had a minor epiphany. He looked at all the men and women in suits, scurrying to glass-fronted offices and realised that, if things had worked out differently, he still could have been one of them.

As it is, though still only in the second year of his course, he’s stepped in at the last minute to play one half of a star-crossed couple in Khan’s contemporary version of Waris Shah’s classic poetic folk tale, which looks somewhere between Romeo and Juliet and Bollywood. In the hands of Khan, however, whose plays for Edinburgh International Festival, Office and Prayer Room, weren’t exactly mealy-mouthed, Heer Ranjha (Retold) looks set to become something else again.

As Khan himself describes it, “What attracted me to it was we could do a contemporary Romeo and Juliet and set it in the Asian community, and I think it was just the case of it’s a love story. It doesn’t matter if one is Sikh and one is Muslim, and one it Catholic and one is Protestant, or one is Capulet and one is a Montague. It’s about two people who are in love and the people on either side of them do not like that. And it just happens to be one is Sikh and one is Muslim, and it happens to be a point of conflict, but that’s what makes a good drama. I think setting it in Pollokshields, the Asian community round about there, I just like the contemporary nature of it. Whether it was Asian or Catholic and Protestant or Capulet and Montague it’s the same and it will always be the same: those stories are universal and timeless.”

As the male lead, Nazeer is clearly relishing playing a love-struck loser.

“Ranjha is what I call a fan’s favourite,” he says. “He’s not had much direction in life from his family, and he has no career aspirations. All of that changes when he meets this girl, Heer, and he falls head over heels in love with her. He’s very lonely, with no family or friends to guide him, but he has this inner strength that helps him to keep on pushing.”

It’s an inner strength clearly perceptible in Nazeer himself from the way he talks, though any tendencies for fecklessness, one suspects, are highly unlikely.

“I took the traditional route,” Nazeer says. “I went to high school, then I went to university and got my degree. I got a job in finance, but I come from an arts background. Both my cousin and my auntie are artists, so getting a job in finance was a bit like Ranjha in reverse. I was a bit of a black sheep, but I’d always wanted to be an actor, and when I decided to pursue it, I went straight back. To be honest, in the current economic climate, I’m quite glad that I did.”

Nazeer had his revelation shortly after spending a year training as a presenter at the BBC. This led to him attending weekly workshops with Ankur in Glasgow. The company was so impressed that he ended up being cast in Detainee A, taken from a screenplay about a Glasgow Asian family whose home is raided by anti-terrorist forces. Nazeer has also appeared in a short film, Homecoming, about the prejudice encountered on both sides of the racial divide when an Asian man takes his girlfriend home for Christmas.

Nazeer was aware of Khan’s previous work, though he didn’t see either Office or Prayer Room. Both artists, alongside Heer Rahjal (Retold) director Daljinder Singh (one of the winners of last year’s Arches New Directors Awards) and the entire Ankur team, are part of a new generation of Asian theatre-makers who are as twenty-first century as they come.

“The big thing,” says Khan, “is there is an assumption that is made in the media, that because you’re brown/Asian, that is the way you are. It’s not racist but it is borderline racist. It’s like someone saying to a Scottish writer all you can write about is skipping through the heather and dancing around swords. Scottish people don’t like that any more than Asian people. Where do English people just have to write about Morris dancing and country fetes: they do not have to write that they can write whatever they want? That’s proper multiculturalism for me.

“I remember going for an audition at TAG Theatre for The Banyan Tree and they told me you are not being Asian enough. I didn’t like that at all. At that time that there was no one really like Ankur or anyone who was doing a show like Heer Ranjha, that was basically allowing actors just to be actors: yes this world is set in an Asian world and it is dealing with Asian issues, but they’re also universal. Any role in my scripts can be played by Asian performers, but in most it’s not stipulated that someone is white, brown or whatever. Heer Ranjha is one of the exceptions to that, in having ‘Asian’ roles.”

As a young actor embarking on his career, Nazeer has yet to encounter any tokenistic casting of ‘ethnic’ roles.

“I just don’t see it,” he says. “I’m an actor. I can act, regardless of colour or creed. If I was to start getting typecast then it might be different, but so far at least I just haven’t seen it.”

Whatever he encounters in his future career, Nazeer’s devotion to duty pours from every word. For Herr Rajhar (Retold), “My life’s been put on complete hold for the next three weeks. I’m working as hard as I can, and there’s a lot of pressure there, but it’s the sort of pressure I enjoy. That’s part of the reason why I became an actor in the first place. What’s really exciting is being able to apply all the disciplines ‘m being taught at the academy to a professional show that’s got everything from physical theatre, dance, music and an amazing story. It’s such a privilege that can’t begin to tell you what a great opportunity is for someone at my stage.”

Following Heer Rajhar (Retold), Nazeer will be returning to RSAMD for a series of mime and movement workshops he’s already looking forward to. In the long term, the world, it seems, holds no bounds.

“I’ve got the training,” he says. “I’ve got the experience, so whether it’s theatre, television, film or whatever, anything that challenges me, bring it on. There’s so much I want to accomplish, and on that journey I want to keep on being challenged. So let’s keep going and see where it takes me.”

Heer Ranjha (Retold), Tramway, Glasgow, November 20-29
www.ankurproductions.org.uk
www.tramway.org

The Herald, November 18th 2008

ends

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