‘We need unity now more than ever’ – Coventry actor, Jassa Ahluwalia, discusses his starring role in landmark war drama, ‘Wipers’.
Inspired by the true history of the First Battle of Ypres, Wipers tells the story of a group of Asian and British soldiers who seek refuge in an abandoned barn whilst a lone Indian soldier holds off advancing enemy troops. Over the course of a single night, this group of very different men must confront their fears and find a way to come together if they are to survive.
Currently playing at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre until Sat 21 May, Wipers tells an incredible story of bravery, loyalty and courage in the face of adversity and pays tribute to the 400,000 South Asian soldiers who fought for Britain during the First World War.
With the production currently playing in the Belgrade’s B2 auditorium, we caught up with local actor and star of the show, Jassa Ahluwala to find out more about his Coventry roots, his Anglo-Indian heritage and the remarkable true story that inspired Ishy Din’s explosive new WW1 drama.
Where did you spend your childhood/teenage years?
Initially in Coventry, then Leicester. We lived near Binley Fire Station. My dad used to take me down to the demonstrations. I loved seeing the fireman’s pole, the hydraulic car wreckage cutters in action, but most of all the chip pan fire!
Unfortunately my parents were struggling financially so I went to live with my grandparents in Leicester when I started school – my grandfather was a teacher at Launde Primary School. I spent the weekends and holidays in Coventry before we all moved to Leicester when I was around 10 years old.
Can you tell us a little more about the character you play in Wipers?
I play the character of Thomas, a young British Officer who – as with many of the young men who found themselves in the trenches – is entirely out of his depth amidst the chaos and confusion of Ypres. In some ways, Thomas is having to realize that this myth of glorious warfare really is a myth and, in doing so, figure out what that means for his relationship both to his own ancestors in Britain and to the young men for whom he is responsible on the front line.
Those under his command include Sadiq, a young South Asian man who is dealing with the complexity of being from a really poor, rural South Asian background but is offered a way out through volunteering with the British Army. Sadiq is really the living, breathing embodiment of the complexities of colonialism and what that means psychologically for a young man trying to make his own way in the world.
Then there’s Ayub, our youngest character – a wide-eyed, freshed-faced young South Asian recruit and very much the counterpoint to Thomas who comes into the conflict with a degree of naivety and who is also trying to figure out what it means to be there. As the more educated South Asian voice in the play, he’s also able to bring in some of that wider political history into the mix.
Finally, there’s AD, another South Asian soldier who is very gruff and straightforward in his approach to why they’re out there and what they’re there to do. In many ways, AD is the moral backbone of the play as he believes strongly that leaving Khuddadad out in the field is the wrong thing to do, despite the infinite risks.
What are you enjoying most about being part of ‘Wipers’?
The opportunity to explore both sides of my heritage. The British and the Indian. As an Anglo-Indian who has grown up speaking Punjabi and spending time in India I often find myself straddling two worlds that both feel equally me. I discovered this play while I was researching the history of the Empire, essentially tracing my origins. Even though I’m playing British (I’ve played Indian in Radio 4’s Tommies) bringing those two worlds together makes me feel whole in a way I rarely experience outside of my family.
I think that one of the things we can be really proud of here in the UK is our long-tradition of respecting and celebrating diversity. I think it’s important that audiences understand that this tradition of collaboration goes back a long way, before 1914 even. Yes, that history isn’t without its complexities. Yes, there are aspects of that history which should be celebrated and others that we would rather forget but ultimately, it’s what made Britain the country that it is today.
Do you have any family connections to the army (and to WW1 in particular?)
My great grandmother lost the love of her life in WW1. She did later marry but the relationship was always tainted by the shadow of the war. My mother recalls that she always kept a photo of him on the mantelpiece with a pressed forget-me-not in the frame.
In WW2, my grandfather – the architect Jim Roberts – was on fire watch in Birmingham when Coventry was bombed and witnessed the devastation. He was a senior lecturer at the Birmingham School of Architecture in his younger years and had a large architects practice in the Rotunda. He was also responsible for The Ringway Centre and the former Albany Hotel as well as Solihull Library and The Mander Centre. One of his most successful projects was The Belfry Hotel and Golf Centre, spiritual home to the famous ‘Ryder Cup’.
He later went on to enter the competition to redesign Coventry Cathedral.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this play?
I hope people will leave the play with a greater sense of our shared global history.
The British Empire and its legacy are at the heart of our modern society and as an Anglo-Indian with truly diverse extended family and friends I find the current political climate heart-breaking.
As a nationality, South Asians received one of the highest percentages of Victoria Crosses during the conflict. That’s an incredible contribution and something we should all be proud of.
We need unity. Now more than ever we need to share these stories of people of all nationalities, ethnicities and faiths, eating together, fighting together and dying together.
Wipers runs until Sat 21 May in B2. Tickets are priced from £10.25 – £17. For more information and to book, call the Belgrade Theatre Box Office on 024 7655 3055 or visit www.belgrade.co.uk where tickets are cheaper.