“Producers need to ensure that our stages reflect the population."
Musical theatre is forever growing, particularly with magical performances that are a treat to watch.
Talented British Asian theatrical performers are a part of this exquisite community.
Some of these performers specialise in musical theatre, with others having crossed over from other mediums.
Various theatre production companies use British Asians at the centre of their work. The Rifco Theatre Company is one of them that develop and produce compelling shows to watch.
Musical theatre performances such as Bend It Like Beckham (2015) and Aladdin – The Musical (2017) are some of the shows that are performed by British Asian actors and actresses.
DESIblitz highlights some of the most talented British Asians in the musical theatre scene.
Meera Syal was born in Wolverhampton, England on June 27, 1961. Coming from a British Asian background, Meera has endless talents, which she uses in enthralling musical theatre performances.
She is an actress, playwright, singer, and writer. However, she is also a comedian and a producer too. She was honoured with a CBE for services to drama and literature services in 2015.
She attended Queen Mary’s High School and studied English and Drama at Machester University, graduating with a First.
During the time Meera was studying, she had joined the Stephen Joseph Studio. Here, she would act and write stage plays.
Meera had the opportunity to co-write the play One of Us (1983) where she played fifteen parts. She had the opportunity to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival where she also won a prize.
With Meera featuring in One of Us, a director from the Royal Court Theatre asked her to perform in a play there. The contract was for three years, where she gained experience.
Stage performer, Meera Syal has performed in some popular musical theatre performances. These include Much Ado About Nothing (2012), Rafta, Rafta (2017), Annie (2017) and others.
Actress Shobna Gulati was born in Oldham, Lancashire, England on August 7, 1966. Gulati has performed in some amazing musical theatre performances such as Anita & Me (2017).
In 2004, Shobna Gulati was nominated for her role in the play, Dancing Within Walls. It was staged at the Contact Theatre in Manchester and was one of her early theatre performances.
When the Mamma Mia! Liverpool tour took place in 2015, Gulati took part in the performance. Playin the character of Tanya, she loves the pop group, ABBA whose songs she sings in the theatre.
When speaking to TEN about performing to the ABBA songs, she said:
“I love ABBA. It’s wonderful to be in a show where you love the songs and you love listening to other people singing the songs.
“I love my songs as well, and doing Dancing Queen with the girls. It’s so uplifting!”
As well as Mamma Mia!, Shobna Gulati has also played the role of Ray in the musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (2019). It is a West End production that took to the stage at the Apollo Theatre.
Born on July 4, 1973, in London, England, Raj Ghatak is an exceptional performer who takes part in musical theatre.
From 1982 to 1989, Ghatak attended The City of London School. It was at this point in life that he came to realise his passion for acting.
Raj then attended Bodens Performing Arts where he made his stage debut. To continue his A-Levels, he moved to Epsom College.
Diversity is apparent through his performances, on stage, and on-screen. Raj is most recognisable for his role as Sweetie in the Bollywood musical, Bombay Dreams (2002).
Earlier performances of his include the East is East show at Oldham Coliseum and West Side Story at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London.
Raj also played the lead role in the Rifco production world premiere Miss Meena & the Masala Queens (2017). Raj portrayed the character of Miss Meena who was dressed as a drag queen for the show.
Miss Meena & the Masala Queens was performed at Watford Palace Theatre. It was a play about British Asian drag queens, bringing diversity and controversy to the stage.
Ayesha Dharker was born on March 16, 1977, in Mumbai, India. Although she was born in India, she is a British Asian musical theatre actress.
Ayesha comes from a gifted family. Her mother, Imtiaz Dharker is a poet, documentary film-maker and an artist. Her father Anil Dharker is a columnist and ex-editor of Debonair, which is a famous Indian men’s magazine..
When in conversation with Neil Davey from the Hindustan Times, Ayesha defines what her version of ‘fame’ is. She states:
“For me, the idea of being an actress was loaded with the idea of being famous and I wasn’t interested in those. I was interested in stories and storytelling.”
In 2015, Ayesha Dharker took part in Anita and Me on stage at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. She also participated in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Bombay Dreams, playing the role of Rani
Dharker first starred in Bombay Dreams in the West End.
Two years later, in 2004, she went on stage again to perform it at Broadway.
In 2016, at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Ayesha also performed in the theatre play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ayesha played the role of Titania in the popular Shakespeare play.
Ayesha has performed on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Company many times. In 2016, she starred in the production of Othello, playing the character Emelia.
Irvine Iqbal was born in Bolton, England on July 22, 1977. He is famous for his musical theatre performances in Britain, leaving his mark on every stage.
Popular for his role in Aladdin: The Musical (2017) as Princess Jasmine’s father, Iqbal is an influential British Asian actor. His performance for Aladdin took place at the Prince Edward Theatre in London.
Iqbal is also recognisable for his role as Teetu’s dad in Bend it Like Beckham: The Musical (2015).
Iqbal has voiced his concern about the lack of British Asian talent, taking centre stage in musicals. He exclusively told DESIblitz:
“There is a surplus of talent amongst British South Asian Musical Theatre performers today, but not enough representation on our stages.
“Producers need to ensure that our stages reflect the population; if we don’t see ourselves represented on the stage how can there be any representation?”
In 2020, Iqbal features in The Boy in the Dress at the Royal Shakespeare Company, taking on the role of Raj. He is the first and only British Asian actor who has performed in all three British Asian musicals in the West End.
These musicals include Bombay Dreams, The Far Pavillions (2005) and Bend it Like Beckham.
Irvine Iqbal has been awarded an ARAM Associate at The Royal Academy of Music.
Anthony Surath Jayawardena
Musical theatre actor and enthusiast Anthony Surath Jayawardena, also known as Tony Jayawardena was born in London.
He stars in many musicals throughout Britain, along with featuring in TV programmes.
In 2015, Jayawardena was part of the original cast of Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical at Phoenix Theatre. Jayawardena performed to songs such as ‘People Like Us’ and ‘The Engagement: Look At Us Now.’
The ever so talented Jayawardena has also played significant roles at several other famous theatres including the Royal Shakespeare Company,
In 2016, he played Stephano in The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the theatrical version of the Shakespearean play, the use of real-time motion-capture technology was seen on stage.
This was not the first time the British Asian actor played at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He also played there for Twelfth Night (2009), playing the character of Fabian
Additionally, Jayawardena starred in the theatre performance of Hobson’s Choice. It was performed at the Royal Exchange in 2019 and was an uplifting and enjoyable performance.
Preeya Kalidas was born in Isleworth, England on June 21, 1980. She is a famous British Asian actress and singer who performs in musical theatres.
To kick-start her career, Preeya attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London to receive training in acting. She was also trained at Songtime Theatre Arts in London.
Preeya began with the part of Priya in the Bollywood musical Bombay Dreams, a theatrical adaption of the book by Meera Syal and Thomas Meehan.
Preeya also played the role of Pinky in the West End production Bend it Like Beckham: The Musical.
In recognition of her character Pinky, Preeya was nominated at the 2016 Laurence Olivier Awards for ‘Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical.’
Before the musical, in the film, she had played the role of Monica.
Soon after, she also took on the role of Miss Hedge in the musical, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Preeya has also starred in the show Chiaroscuro at Bush Theatre in 2019.
Tony Hasnath went from being a comic shop owner to becoming a professional actor.
His first big break on stage was when playing the young lead role of Pi in The Life of Pi (2004). The play was showcased across different UK venues.
Earlier in his career, he also portrayed the child-like innocent role of Mowgli in the Jungle Book, a production of the Birmingham Stage Company.
Additionally, he played the sensitive Simon in the musical Lord Of The Flies (2008) at the Pilot Theatre in York. The music by composer Sandy Nuttgens was a key feature of this play.
Furthermore, he came in the romantic Shakespeare inspired play Cymbeline (2013), led by artistic director, Samir Bhamra.
Featured as the sexy bad guy Yakim, the Phizzical production play was showcased at twenty-two venues across England over a period of twelve weeks.
The great Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet (2016) also featured Tony Hasnath as Mercutio, Romeo’s friend.
The play took place at the independent Orange Tree Theatre.
Hasnath also has a history in free running and martial arts. This is evident when watching him on stage, as he is pretty flexible, particularly when jumping around.
Hasnath has been in the theatre industry for over ten years.
Musical theatre performer Jamal Andreas is a gifted British Asian actor from Watford, England.
The younger brother of Pakistani drama actor Meekal Zulfiqar, Jamal graduated in 2011 and attended the London drama school, Urdang Academy.
Urdang Academy is the UK’s leading dance and musical theatre. It holds rehearsals, casting and open classes for acting. Jamal gained a lot of skills, whilst training there.
Jamal has used his experience from there to reach a good level.
His initial appearances in theatre included Ragtime the Musical and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which were both performed during 2012.
In 2015, Jamal played Tony in the contemporary play Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical. This marked Jamal’s West End debut, leading him onto bigger and better things.
Jamal was also part of the ensemble in Legally Blonde the Musical (2016) which was performed at The Curve Theatre in Leicester, United Kingdom.
Natasha Jayatileke is a British Asian actress of Sri Lankan descent. Born in London, Natasha has had a connection with musical theatre for more than ten years.
From a very young age, she had an interest in ballet, opera, plays and musicals.
Despite wanting to be a professional ballet dancer, she took an interest in musical theatre at the age of 7 after watching Starlight Express by Andrew Llyod Webber with her family.
Besides graduating from Cambridge University, she also went to pursue vocational training at Laine Theatre Arts in Surrey.
Some of the musical productions she has got to feature in include playing Shinde Kaur in Britain’s Got Bhangra (2011) at Watford Palace and National Tour, along with playing Sita in Wah! Wah Girls (2012) at Peacock Theatre.
Sita is a British Asian with a strong Yorkshire accent who shakes her Bollywood dance moves at a dance club.
She made her West End debut with the musical comedy, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice.
Natasha also had a key role as Mrs Bhamra in Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical.
She plays the strict and unintentional funny Punjabi mother of Jess Bhamra (Natalie Dew). She wore a wig and fat suit for this character.
Natalie Dew who was born on October 3, 1987, is a British Asian actress who features in several musical theatre plays. Her mother is a Malaysian Indian.
In 2007, she featured in the musical, The Full Monty at Guildhall School Of Music and Drama, playing the part of Pam.
In 2009, Natalie achieved third place in the Ian Charleson Award. This award was for the fantastic play, As you Like It at Dash Arts.
The first long contract she ever took on was for the play Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical. As her contract was for a long duration, she was lucky enough to play the main role in the musical, football enthusiast, Jess Bhamra.
She was nominated for ‘Best Actress in a Musical’ at the 2016 Laurence Olivier Awards for Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical.
The play achieved a beaming number of positive reviews, with happy audiences from all over the United Kingdom. Before this, she had also performed in the play, Twelfth Night (2008) at Regent Park Open Air Theatre.
After starring in Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical, Natalie went on to perform at many venues. These include the Royal Court, Liverpool Everyman, National Theatre, Leicester Curve and Royal Shakespeare Company.
Natalie certainly has made her way up the ladder and achieved success.
Sophie Khan Levy
Sophie Khan Levy is a mixed-race, British Asian who stars in various musical theatre performances in Britain. She is the daughter of veteran stage actress, Shaheen Khan.
During the time when her mother was a part of the theatre scene, she faced a fair share of difficulties. This was down to the colour of her skin and the fact she was one of the first Asians amongst her white peers.
Sophie shares how she believes there is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of diversity in the theatre. When she graduated from Warwick University, she was very conscious of her mixed-race identity.
Successfully, Sophie is the only Warwick graduate who has gone into her second season at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In an interview with The Boar in 2019, Sophie spoke about her identity and how she decided to embrace it. She says:
“And then I realised that I was part of this other division of actor, which I hadn’t really considered as being my identity.
“Since leaving drama school, I’ve been kind of forced and then excited to explore it.”
From a stage perspective, in Cymbeline, Sophie got to play the alluring Innojan.
Sophie has also starred in As You Like It (2019) as Celia. The play took place in Stratford and was a huge success.
In June 2019, Sophie took on the role of Mariana in Measure for Measure. Both plays, As You Like It and Measure for Measure are part of a world tour, running until April 2020.
Reece Bahia is a British Asian Punjabi actor and singer-songwriter who was born in Coventry, England on April 24, 1995. Between 2012-2014, Reece was studying musical theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon College.
He also attended the Guildford School of Acting (GSA), studying musical theatre.
Reece got his breakthrough, playing the handsome Qays in the Rifco Art’s touring production, Laila: The Musical (2016).
Speaking to Coventry Live, Reece spoke about how he was having a pleasant experience with this challenging role:
“I’m really enjoying the experience, coming from a primarily music background it is a great challenge and opportunity to be able to go on stage as a character rather than myself and take the audience on the character’s journey.”
He was also cast in the musical Thriller Live (2017), a major West End theatre performance. At the time, Reece was excited to be cast for this distinguished theatrical performance:
“It is a huge honour to be cast in this production. When I was growing up, Michael Jackson was my biggest inspiration so to be able to celebrate his music is just perfect.”
Whilst music is an important part of his career, Reece continues to consider exciting musical theatre offers.
Mixed race actress Sophie Kandola is a British Asian actress from Leicester, England. She has taken part in several theatre shows in Britain.
Her theatre career has been virtually non-stop since the tender age of three. She has attended ballet classes for a long time, indicating that dancing and performing have been a big part of her life.
Before the hustle and bustle of theatre life, Kandola trained at the Guildford School of Acting (GSA). Studying between 2013-2016, she received a BA in Musical Theatre.
Whilst completing her Bachelors, she starred in two musicals. First, she played Louise in Ghost: The Musical (2015) at the GSA Conservatoire.
A year later, she was part of the musical ensemble for Our House (2016) at the same venue.
However, the first major stage assignment for Kandola was with Phizzical who are famous for their diverse shows.
She played the character of Rekha in Bring On The Bollywood (2017), developed by Samir Bhamra. This dance-theatre extravaganza went on tour for six months around the UK.
In 2019, Kandola portrayed the role of Amor in Stardust. The ambitious musical play had a world premiere at Belgrade Theatre in Coventry.
Stardust is a Phizzical production, with Shahid Iqbal Khan and Samir Bhamra being the directors.
The play is also the first LGBTQ+ theatre performance about same-sex marriages led by a South Asian production in the UK.
Kandola specifically plays the ‘Whitney Houston of Bollywood’. Her scenes in the play are all in flashback, going back to the year 1989.
Kandola spoke to Giverny Masso from The Stage about the lack of recognition of the LGBTQ+ community on stage. She mentions:
“There are parallels between the story from 30 years ago and the story from today. It centres around a gay relationship, and whether or not to come out and whether you’ll be accepted within the industry.”
Kandola is definitely doing some interesting roles and can only get stronger with time.
British Asian theatre performer, Vedi Roy belongs to the British Asian drag queen community. Roy is often flaunting his talent on stage in a way that the typical Asian community does not accept.
However, Roy hopes to successfully change the perspective of the British Asian community in terms of drag queens and queer Asians.
Roy trained at The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. He also has a strong passion for dancing and training at DNA Studios and Pineapple Arts.
Roy has featured in several theatre plays, which were successful. He was an ensemble for the theatre performance, Laila: The Musical (2016), marking his professional stage debut.
Along with Raj Ghatak, Roy also starred in the extraordinary play, Miss Meena & the Masala Queens, playing the character of Pinky.
He then played Gurvinder in Pop Music (2018) at Paines Plough and Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
From January to March 2019, Roy undertook a placement at Watford Palace Theatre. He had the opportunity to gain experience of being an Assistant Director.
On the placement, Roy was able to create a movement, assist direction and learn from other members of staff. He also conducted his own workshops with the LGBTQ+ community of Watford.
Robby Khela is a musical theatre performer from Slough, England. He has had years of training, including studying at Brunel University, London.
It was at Brunel where he went onto complete a BA in English & Drama. Later in 2015, he also undertook a screen acting course at Pinewood Studios.
Khela then travelled to the USA where he attended the John Robert Powers School of Screen Acting. Using his new skills and endless talent, he is a highly influential musical theatre actor in Britain.
Khela has performed in many plays directed by Samir Bhamra, under the theatre banner of Phizzical. Khela played Pisanwa, a servant in Cymbeline.
In many of Khela’s shows, he plays the role of a gay Asian man. He uses the theatre platform to raise awareness, defeating the Asian taboo surrounding gay men and women.
Besides acting, Khela also utilises the stage to show off his impressive singing. He sings in a lot of his shows, including Bring On The Bollywood.
In this riveting musical, he sang songs such as ‘Daru; with Anthony Sahota and Emiko Ishii Jane. He also sang ‘Na Jaane; with Nisha Aaliya.
Khela has also played the role of Dilectus in Grindr: The Opera atAbove the Stag Theatre in London.
This show received ‘Best New Musical’ at The Offies 2019.
Finally, Khela features as the central character of Amar in the musical thriller Stardust. He had also written original pop and R&B tracks for Stardust.
Nisha Aaliya is a Dutch-born British Asian actress of Indian and Burmese descent. She got her first big break, courtesy of Phizzical.
Nisha was chosen from dozens of people who came to audition for the leading role in Bring On The Bollywood.
As a newcomer, she played the role of the fiery Dr Katrina Parmar in the musical show, where east meets west.
Discovering this future star, director Samir Bhamra expressed:
“Andrew Lloyd Webber has rightly slammed the lack of diversity in musical theatre but, for me, the lack of opportunities for young British Asian performers goes much deeper.
“I discovered our perfect heroine, Nisha, by chance when she attended our auditions as a choreographic assistant. By urging her to audition herself, we have unearthed an exceptional acting talent for Bring On The Bollywood.
“However, like the majority of young South Asian performers, her only outlets for professional showcasing have been the Bollywood dance competitions.
“Without clearly defined pathways, formal training, and a diversity of roles, such talents can surely only rely on the chance few musicals that focus on Asian culture for a route into the West End.”
Nisha has also appeared as the poster girl for the musical Stardust.
Anthony Sahota is a British Asian musical theatre artist that has performed on stage. Sahota is known for his acting and singing when performing.
Sahota graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Kingston University.
While he was at university he headed over to star in the BBC talent competition, Let it Shine (2017), which was a new musical show in the UK.
Featuring in Group 3 of the competition, Sahota was eliminated during the quarter-final stages.
He received record deal offers before he entered the show. However, he made the decision to finish his degree off before entering the acting and singing space.
Sahota gained early experience in the theatre when he performed in the musical, Whistle Down the Wind, directed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Sahota made his professional acting debut with Bring On the Bollywood. He played the role of Lucky Pawar, the troublesome brother of Dr Katrina Pawar (Nisha Aaliya).
Sahota has also starred in the theatre version of Aladdin: The Musical where he played the lead role. This Dubai production gave Sahota a chance to show off his talent internationally.
In 2019, Sahota played the lead role in the family pantomime, Peter Pan at the Capitol, Horsham. When speaking to Mid Sussex Times about his role as Peter Pan, he said:
“You have got to be confident. But the main thing is the high energy, and I just love the idea that in panto you feed off the energy of the audience.
“I love that aspect of giving back to them.”
In a very short space of time, Sahota has done a varied amount of theatre.
Varun Raj was born in Ascot, Berkshire. He was a part-time student at Redroofs Theatre School in Maidenhead.
Raj has a degree in Psychology and Drama from the University of Winchester. He also has a Masters in Acting from Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in Peckham, London.
Raj is a British actor of Indian descent and has appeared in several theatre shows. He began his career from a young age and has been acting in theatre ever since.
In 2008, he played the character Lun Tha in the musical theatre performance for King and I.
Raj also played the character of Morgenthau for the show, Annie (2009) at the Theatre Royal Windsor.
Additionally, Raj bagged the title role in the upbeat rap-musical Mushy (2019), which is developed and produced by Rifco Theatre Company.
He plays the character of Musharaf ‘Mushy’ Asghar, a desi boy with a severe stammer. The play originates from a television programme where Mushy is trying to find his voice.
The British Theatre rated the musical theatre performance four stars and said:
“A funny, life-affirming, rap-musical story of one teenagers’ personal journey. ‘Feel-good’ is an oft-overused adjective, but with this show by Rifco productions, it’s exactly the right term.”
British Asian actor Ameet Chana is the director of Mushy.
Young, aspiring musical theatre performer Bilal Khan is from Ilford, United Kingdom. Khan has an endless amount of talent and is highly inspirational for being a performer with a disability.
Khan studied GCSE Drama at school and also undertook a course at Theatre Royal Stratford East. He was in college when he received his very first acting role in the theatre industry.
From birth, Khan has suffered from cerebral palsy. However, this does not stop him from achieving what he wishes.
He embraces his disability through theatre performances and has worked with the Rifco Theatre Company.
Dishoom! is a theatrical performance that revolved around Bilal Khan as a young man, Simon with a disability. The performance showed that his character is trying to find his place in the world.
In an interview with The Stage, Khan speaks about his role as Simon in Dishoom!:
“I think more roles like this should be written, especially for British Asian actors- and more so for British Asian actors with disabilities.”
In 2018, Dishoom! went on a UK tour and performed in many theatres, one of them being the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch.
The performance features playful re-enactments and music from the famous Bollywood film Sholay (1975).
The music used in the theatre performance instantly swoons the audience, along with the meaningful storyline.
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti is the writer of Dishoom!, with Pravesh Kumar being the director.
There are several other British Asian musical theatre stars that have not been touched upon above.
We have to specially mention the late Sophia Haque (1971-2013) who had a vast portfolio of work. This includes Rani (Bombay Dreams: 2002), Janoo Rani (The Far Pavilions: 2005) and Soraya (Wah! Wah! Girls: 2012)
Sohm Kapila, who is based in America has a number of credits to her name. These include Katrina (Bring On The Bollywood), Jussi, (Britains Got Bhangra: 2011), Mrs Chopra/Aunty (Bend It Like Beckham).
Other Musical theatre actors include Sejal Keshwala, Katie Singh, Tim Mahendran, Aaron Virdee, Sheena Patel, Kayleigh Thadani, Blythe Jandoo, Sabrina Sandhu and Nikita Johal.
We hope British Asians continue to flourish in the musical theatre scene for many more years to come.