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Is award-winning play about Hounslow's 'Punjabi Boys' west London's answer to Billy Elliot?

Hounslow-born playwright Amman Brar set out to portray a very different type of Asian character in his play Punjabi Boy

Like Gary in Punjabi Boy, Amman Brar smoked Gauloises, drank lots of coffee and read Sartre during his time in France(Image: Tarun Jasani)

Could a play about the "Punjabi Boys" of Hounslow be west London's answer to Billy Elliot?

That's the comparison writer Amman Brar makes, and while the similarities with his semi-autobiographical drama aren't immediately obvious, you don't have to look too hard.

Billy Elliot, the hugely successful film and now stage musical, followed the fortunes of a coal miner's son who risked ridicule to pursue his dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer.

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Brar's Punjabi Boy challenges stereotypes down south by telling the tale of Gary (Gurinder), whose cosmopolitan tastes and appetite for philosophy set him apart from your typical "Punjabi Boy".

'More interested in Sartre than Bhangra'

"I felt that kind of sensitive Asian man, someone who speaks French and is a bit snooty, hadn't been shown on stage before," says Brar, who grew up in Hounslow.

Punjabi Boy writer Amman Brar(Image: Shyamantha Asokan)

"Gary's not Billy Elliot but he has that same sense of someone growing up in a place where he doesn't want what everyone else wants. He's more interested in Sartre than Bhangra."

Gary's childhood friend Bob (Balvinder) is your typical "Punjabi Boy"; someone who, in Brar's words, is "loud, brash and loyal, who drinks whisky and loves tandoori chicken".

They begin to drift apart when Gary heads to university in France, where he falls in love and learns for the first time that being Indian can be interesting.

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Returning from his continental sojourn, he struggles to reconcile his new influences with the community which shaped him but from which he has grown detached.

Why so few 'sensitive Asian men' on stage?

Brar attributes the lack of "sensitive Asian men" on stage to two principal factors: one being that writing a sensitive character can be "indulgent" and "not that interesting"; and the other being the people commissioning plays.

"A lot of people who commission plays aren't Asian, so when they look at Asian writers they think what can this writer bring and it can be a bit issue-led," he says.

Punjabi Boy is very loosely based on writer Amman Brar's experiences growing up in Hounslow and studying in France(Image: Tarun Jasani)

"It also means you get lots of plays about Asian terrorists, taxi drivers and shopkeepers. Those stereotypes are a bit passé but they do still exist."

It's easy to see the similarities between Gary and Brar, who like his protagonist grew up in Hounslow, went to private school and studied at a French university where he smoked Gauloises cigarettes, drank coffee and read Sartre.

Brar insists the play is only very loosely autobiographical, but he did draw on certain real life experiences.

Like Gary, he never thought while growing up in Hounslow that there was anything interesting about being Indian, so it was a "revelation" when his new friends in France found his background so fascinating.

Play will resonate with anyone who's been to university

Gary's experiences should resonate with anyone who's attended university and been moulded by the new people and experiences they're exposed to, only to return home and be treated as the young person you were and not the very different adult you think you've become.

And Brar says everyone will know a Bob, because whatever background you're from "there's always a guy who's just so happy within his own culture".

The writer grew up in Hounslow, where his dad worked in the post office, and he attended Twickenham Preparatory School.

The 43-year-old, who now lives in Richmond , initially honed his dramatic skills at writing workshops run by Tim Jones at Watermans arts centre in Brentford .

He was one of the Royal Court's 50 new writers announced to celebrate the theatre's 50th birthday in 2006, and it was with the Royal Court he developed Punjabi Boy , which won the BBC Writersroom10 award for new writing.

Amman Brar with Hounslow mayor Ajmer Grewal at the opening night of Punjabi Boy

He is a strong advocate of the power of new writing to reflect people's experiences and help them start conversations about sometimes taboo subjects, like inter-racial marriages.

"I think for many people in Hounslow, their only experience of theatre has been pantomime or big West End shows," he says.

"Often they've never seen new writing which reflects their own community and seeing characters they know grappling with dilemmas they've faced can help them to start difficult conversations."

Punjabi Girl already written

There's good news for those who can't get enough of Punjabi Boy , as Brar has already written a companion piece called Punjabi Girl .

The comedy fleshes out the story of a minor character from Punjabi Boy and follows her fortunes as she endures a disastrous arranged marriage.

Punjabi Boy is at Hounslow Arts Centre, upstairs at the Treaty Centre , in High Street, Hounslow, from July 5-24.

Tickets for the play, directed by Mukul Ahmed, cost £12 and are available from the Hounslow Arts Centre website or the box office on 020 3743 2329.

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