| Shaheen with husband. Telegraph picture
London, Jan. 29: Salman Rushdie told an audience in London that Midnight’s Children, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage adaptation of his book, “has a lot of sex — don’t miss it”. And, he wasn’t kidding.
In what must be a first for the British stage, a well-formed, voluptuous brown breast made its debut appearance on a stage. This is the scene in which the doctor, Aadam Aziz, is allowed to examine a female patient, Naseem, only through a perforated sheet. And the doctor is allowed to fondle her — and falls in love.
Midnight’s Children, the RSC’s £2-million production of Rushdie’s prize-winning novel — it won the Booker and “Booker of Bookers” — was holding its much anticipated first night on Wednesday at the 1,100-seat Barbican Theatre in London.
Shaheen Khan, who is in her early forties and considered by some to be the most talented British Asian actress in the country — she was cast as the disapproving mother in Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham and also had a role in Bhaji on the Beach — plays the character of Naseem, who later becomes the elderly “Reverend Mother”.
She confessed she had been nervous about poking her breast through the sheet. “I asked Tim (Supple, the director) if he would use a prosthetic (artificial mock-up) but he disagreed and now I think he was right. I sweated buckets before I did it the first time but I am fine now,” said Shaheen.
After a performance, Archie Panjabi, herself an actress — she played one of the daughters in Bend It — came up to Shaheen and complimented her on her charms.
“I said, ‘I am stuck with playing fat old women while it’s all right for you; you get to play the young girls,” Shaheen recounted.
She argued the scene was crucial to the moment since Dr Aadam Aziz falls in love as he sees little bits of his patient. “The scene is appropriate, it’s very important.”
Shaheen’s husband, Joel Levy, has seen his wife in the play and seemed quite relaxed.
Later in Midnight’s Children, Shaheen also doubles up as Lila Sabarmati, a well-heeled woman who is shot by her jealous husband when he catches her out.
“I have an affair, so that’s all right,” added Shaheen. “I am bringing my daughters to the show.”
There is also plenty of simulated sex on stage. According to Rushdie, who has done the calculations, “Mala Ghedia (she plays Midget Queen/ Aunt Pia/ Masha Miovic/ Little Aadam) gets to have sex with all the men when you take into account their own roles as well as their understudy roles”.
There has been very little Asian nudity on the British stage. One instance occurred in 1997 at Waterman’s, a venue in west London, in a Gujarati play, Bhavani Bawai, directed by Ajay Kumar, in which the actress, Shakila Maan, sat nude on stage without moving. Her action was meant to symbolise “the ceremonial washing” of the body before burial.
Shakila sat nude in real life on a pavement in Southall and had passersby filmed as they stepped around her. This footage was then used in the play, which was considered pretty dreadful and sank without trace.
British Asians still talk about the 1985 film, My Beautiful Launderette, adapted from Hanif Kureishi’s novel, in which the Bengali actress, Rita Wolf, provided a fleeting glimpse of her breast.