Let there be no doubt about this: anyone involved in British Asian cultural life owes a massive debt to Parv Bancil, the playwright, screenwriter and mentor to many, who tragically passed away on April 1st.
Parv pioneered the telling of stories that showed the realities and absurdities of British Asian life, as opposed to the untroubling stereotypical or saccharine portrayals favoured by cultural gatekeepers. But he didn't just break new ground, he stood his ground - fighting long battles with said gatekeepers so that the writers and directors who came after him didn't have to. He refused to compromise or pander to the dominant culture, not because he wanted to be a controversial provocateur, but because he cared so deeply about the integrity of cultural representations of British Asians and other minorities.
After starting his career with the Hounslow Arts Co-operative in 1986 at the age of 19, he went on to write a succession of highly acclaimed plays that shook up the comfortable world of multicultural arts by tackling issues that nobody else was exploring, such as gang culture, drugs, crime and conflicted identity - often with an anarchic vernacular and humour that electrified audiences. His work remained cutting edge throughout a 30-year career that included a residency at the Royal Court, an attachment with The Soho Theatre and, most recently, multimedia projects and films.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that so many of us looked up to him. My university dissertation about British Asian rudeboy culture opened with a quote from his 1995 play Papa Was a Bus Conductor. I remember watching it as a teenager and being completely mesmerised. Here was someone who was writing about issues that were actually relevant to second generation Asians - and with an astonishing astuteness and wit; his talents supercharged by the sheer force of his conviction.
His plays should be required reading for anyone interested in British Asian literature. Crazyhorse (1997) is published by Faber and was developed through the late Sarah Kane's 'Wild Lunch' programme, in which she selected important new playwrights to work with. His follow-up, Made in England (1998), is published by Aurora Metro. A collected works that also includes Kings (1988), Bad Company (1989), Papa Was a Bus Conductor (1995), Ungrateful Dead (1995), Nadir (1991) and Find Me Amongst the Black (2007) is long overdue. The next chapter of his output, a new crop of projects he was working on at the time of his death for screen, television and stage, would have doubtless galvanised a new generation. Parv's body of work inspired and propelled hundreds of people from minority and marginal backgrounds to pursue their own creative calling.
Despite doing so much to shape British Asian culture, however, Parv was never given nearly enough recognition for it by the arts establishment. And yet his influence extended well beyond the stage, film, TV and literature. By doggedly sticking to the realities of British Asian life while the established arts world couldn't get past Bollywood or ethnic exotica, Parv also had an impact on the Brit-Asian music scene of the mid-1990s - helping to shape a youth subculture in a way that very few writers outside the Beat and punk movements have managed. Anokha, the legendary club and salon night held every Monday at Blue Note in Hoxton, proved pivotal for him. He was energised and inspired by the scene - dubbed the 'Asian underground' - and cared a great deal about its impact and longevity. His play Made in England is set against the backdrop of the music industry and tells the story of Bally Dingra, a British Asian musician who sells out his identity to pander to his record company and the cultural mainstream. Bally's newly-adopted moniker, Billy India, quickly became a cautionary watchword among British Asian artists.
But while it is therefore no surprise that so many of us hero-worshipped Parv, what was always completely disarming was the warmth with which he reached out to everyone. Parv would shift effortlessly between the roles of idol, mentor and the most genuine of friends. As if his written words weren't incredible enough, his shrewd observations over a pint or meal would leave you wanting to take notes. Such was his generosity that he would embrace with enthusiasm even those of us who were just retreading ground that he had already long ago covered. He would always energise other artists with his own enthusiasm for whatever he recognised as unique and genuine in their work.
Parv was able to call things as he saw them because his insight often came wrapped in his mischievous wit. Likewise, his solemn support for the arts often came wrapped in life-affirming hedonism - he always made an effort to support cultural events and openings, alongside his long-time confidant and former wife, the actress Shivani Ghai.
And wherever he went, those who met him felt nourished by his counsel. This is because, while Parv cared deeply about the integrity of British Asian theatre, film, music and literature, he was equally concerned about the welfare of individual writers, actors, musicians and directors. He didn't want us to be chewed up by the culture industry. When he warned people against selling out, it was partly because he knew that those who sold out would sooner or later be spat out.
And this is the key to understanding the magnitude of Parv's cultural impact: he didn't just put second and third generation British Asians on on the map, he tried to properly place us on the map - and make sure we could feel at home in that place for years to come. This is why we all owe him so much and why we will miss him so much.Suggest a correction