“If the roles don’t exist you have to create your own"
Actor Varun Raj starred as the leading man, Mushy in the acclaimed rap infused play Mushy: Lyrically Speaking (2019) based on the true story of Educating Yorkshire’s Musharaf Asghar.
Musharaf, famously known as Mushy, attained immediate success when he overcame his severe speech stammer with the help of his dedicated teacher Mr Matthew Burton.
Mushy: Lyrically Speaking (2019) depicts the story of Mushy’s inspirational journey as he overcame the odds to attain his voice.
Yet, what many people are unaware of is what happened after the teenager’s life-changing achievement.
The theatre production explores Mushy’s experiences as he was hit with the highs and lows of instant fame.
Varun Raj, who essayed the role of Mushy, hails from Ascot, Berkshire in England. While he was studying at school, the actor was also a part-time student at Redroofs Theatre School.
Varun also achieved a BA (Hons) Psychology and Drama degree from the University of Winchester. He then went on to attain his Masters (MA Acting) at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.
The actor boasts a great performance history including the critically acclaimed, sell-out Dubailand (2017) at Finborough Theatre and The Wolf, The Duck and The Mouse (2019) at the Unicorn Theatre.
DESIblitz had an exclusive conversation with actor Varun Raj about what drew him to the role of Mushy, overcoming challenges and inspiration.
Working with Mushy
16-year-old Mushy was the star of Channel 4’s reality TV series, Educating Yorkshire (2013-2014) and was impeded by a critical stammer which threatened to render him mute.
The inspirational teenager hopes that he can inspire other people who are challenged with similar difficulties. Musharaf Asghar said:
“I’m really excited that Rifco Theatre Company is telling my story, everybody remembers the headphones moment but nobody really knows what happened afterwards.
“That one moment has changed my life and I hope that I can be an inspiration to other people like me.”
There is no doubt Varun had big shoes to fill when portraying the role of Mushy. We asked Varun what initially attracted him to the role of Mushy. He said:
“Mushy’s fearlessness with his stammer was something that spoke volumes to me.”
“At times in the classroom, he could’ve sat back and stayed silent when the teacher asked for someone to read but his hand was one of the first to shoot up.
“That character trait and mind-set is something that resonates with me.”
Varun continued to mention that he met Musharaf Asghar which helped him develop his character. He revealed:
“I was in contact with Musharaf whilst developing the character.
“I studied a lot of videos online of Mushy through his teenage years in the different shows he participated in.
“After we met for the first time when the BBC came to the rehearsal room, he was incredibly open to answering any questions that I had.”
Every actor must overcome challenges to perfect their roles. In this instance, Varun Raj was faced with getting to grips with respectfully approaching a stammer.
Varun highlighted the difficulties he faced while trying to do justice to portraying Mushy with a stammer. He said:
“The most challenging part of the role was approaching a stammer.
“As someone who’s never had a stammer, I wanted to portray it in the most respectful way to the stammering community.
“This was challenging and I didn’t understand how difficult it truly is when you can’t get your words out.”
Another challenge faced is the lack of British Asian representation in theatre that is certainly a cause for concern.
Unfortunately, British Asian stories are not widely portrayed in mainstream theatre.
We asked Varun about how difficult it is for British Asian actors like himself to find work in theatre. He explained:
“In the past, it has been incredibly difficult as British Asian stories weren’t being told so there weren’t any complex and truthful characters/stories being explored.
“However, as time progresses, we are starting to see an openness, in some capacity, from the industry to hear these stories.
Despite there being slow progression, Varun is optimistic that his generation will continue to make a difference. He expressed:
“It is still not accepted as much as British Asian artists would like, but the needle has started to move and will continue with my generation.”
Inspiration in Theatre
Inspiration is a key element in everything we do. It allows us to reach for new possibilities and transcend our perceived capabilities.
We asked Varun which theatre actor inspires him to continue doing the amazing work he does. He stated:
“Lin-Manuel Miranda is a big inspiration of mine. He has an ability to create the role he wants to see in the mainstream industry.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda is an American actor, composer, singer, lyricist and playwright who is popularly known for creating and featuring in the Broadway musical, In the Heights and Hamilton (2005).
He continued to say: “If the roles don’t exist you have to create your own and take control of your narrative.”
The world of theatre requires more British Asian talent and diversity. Mushy: Lyrically Speaking was bought to life by the Rifco Theatre Company.
The Rifco Theatre Company helps develop and produce various new plays and musicals that go on national tours to some of the UK’s respected regional theatres.
It also presents an authentic, thought-provoking and engaging theatre which rejoices and reflects ongoing British Asian experiences, culture and society.
We asked Varun what advice he would give to upcoming British Asian actors. He said: “To stay afloat in this industry, it’s incredibly important to diversify your skills and abilities.
“For example, if you’re an actor look to writing, directing or even producing. Work on everything. The more you can do at a skilful level, the higher your worth is.”
Mushy: Lyrically Speaking (2019) also stars Oliver Longstaff as the passionate teacher, Mr Matthew Burton and Medhavi Patel as Mushy’s Ammi (mother).
Since music played a significant role in enabling Mushy to find his voice, rapper Raxstar wrote and composed the rap music for the lyrical narration used in the production.
The hit theatre production was streamed online on February 7, 2020, and was previously toured in Autumn 2019.
Varun Raj is an example of how hard work and perseverance can lead to successfully becoming an actor despite the challenges and adversities faced by British South Asians in theatre.