Basmati Bitch: Ankita Singh on her dystopian play reflecting real-life premonitions

By Ashley Nolan

Credit: Julie Zhu & Todd Karehana
Credit: Julie Zhu & Todd Karehana
Ankita Singh is the first female South-Asian Kiwi in the country to have a main bill play commissioned by ATC.

To hear that Basmati Bitch is set in a world where borders are closed and a humanity-altering disease is prevalent might have you thinking the plot was inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic – but the idea for the play first came to Ankita Singh in 2018. “I was like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be interesting if rice became like a biomedical hazard, or there was some kind of disease that would wipe out the fauna in New Zealand’,” she says. “And then I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be strange if borders were closed and everyone was wearing masks? And then COVID happened and I was like, no, I have to rewrite this. It’s too real.”

Now her prescience has struck again, having set the play in a city going underwater. “This might be triggering for Aucklanders, but there’s really heavy rain throughout the whole show … When the floods started happening and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I should just stop writing’.”

Basmati Bitch is being staged by Auckland Theatre Company in July – a significant achievement considering it’s Singh’s first play. “It’s pretty crazy to think I’m a first-time writer and I’m working with ATC,” she says. “That’s insane.” Set in a dystopian alternate Aotearoa, where closed borders and crop disease make rice the ultimate commodity, Basmati Bitch follows two South-Asian anti-heroines as they become embroiled in the contraband black market. Retired fighter Shiva is dragged into the world of illegal MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) by bored, overworked Bisma, before they unexpectedly find themselves in debt to basmati baron Toby, ‘The King’, and needing to acquire a truckload of rice within seven days, or else … “It’s about teamwork, it’s about how even in this horrible dystopian future, people still need each other to survive and to work together to fight injustice,” Singh says.

Singh first started working on Basmati Bitch as part of an Asian playwrights lab. Hearing actors read her work aloud made her think writing was something that she could pursue. “It just sounded so much better when the actors read it out, and people were having a really good time reading it and playing around with it.”

Singh has experience working with Auckland Theatre Company after it staged Scenes from a Yellow Peril last year, which she co-produced. When ATC artistic director Jonathan Bielski was pitched Basmati Bitch in the wake of that collaboration, he was thrilled by the concept. “This is when I was still working on the script, so I hadn’t finished it, but he just said he had a lot of faith in us as creators and because our collaboration had been so positive he was keen to work with us again.”

Basmati Bitch is the first commission by Auckland Theatre Company of a main bill show from a South-Asian writer, and the first nationwide for a South-Asian female. Singh feels privileged for the faith that Bielski has put in her, and in artists in general. “Hats off to him because there’s no guarantee [a new show] is going be good. But I think he’s of the mindset that if you want to try and make something original or you want to change the scene, you just have to take those risks.”

The show was already extended for a week due to popular demand during presales. The show is directed by Arts Laureate Ahi Karunaharan, whom Singh says is the perfect choice. “He’s all about the extravagance, the spectacle of theatre, and that’s very much what this show is about,” she says. He is joined by dramaturgs Nathan Joe and Jane Yonge, fashion designer Imuy Teav, sound designer Te Aihe Butler, and design team Bradley Gledhill and Rachel Marlow from Filament Eleven 11.

Singh says to expect a highly physical and comedic show. “It’s going to be really fast paced – the poor actors aren’t going to be able to sit down, or catch their breath!” She says while the play touches on some pressing themes like climate change and the immigrant experience, overall audiences should expect a light-hearted show. 

“I just want to give people a fun night out. We need hope, we need light – I just hope people laugh and have a good time.”

Basmati Bitch
11 – 29 July, 2023
Q Theatre, Rangatira


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