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Guarding the Taj Mahal: Bali Padda's new show reminisces on a peculiar friendship

Two friends, one Taj Mahal, many heartbreaks


Set in India in 1648, Guards at the Taj follows best friends and guards in Shah Jahan’s Imperial Army - Humayun and Babur. They bicker, reminisce about jungle escapades, and stand guard over the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan’s epic tribute to his dead wife.


Bali Padda debuts as a director for this heartbreakingly funny work from Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Rajiv Joseph at Riverside Theatres. We speak with him about the importance of a Hindustani play in Australia, how South Asians are growing in the arts industry and why Guards at the Taj is, at its heart, a story about friendship.



Dilpreet: Bali, this is your directorial debut, congratulations! Why did you pick Guards at the Taj as your launching story? I assume you were intrigued by it for a while, but please tell us more.


Bali: Thank you so much! A friend told me about Guards at the Taj just after it won the 2016 Obie Award (NYC’s Off-Broadway Awards) for Best New American Play and suggested I put it on and perform in it myself. I read the play and was enthralled, but overwhelmed. I didn’t feel ready then to handle this text, nor did I have the resources needed to really do it well.

Skip ahead to October 2020, when I met up with Joanne Kee, NTofP’s Executive Producer, for a casual chat over chai at my home. It was the right time and place to tell a friend and colleague that, after having spent 2 years as a bureaucrat for the screen industry, I was itching to direct some theatre. I needed to be an artist again. Joanne nearly spat out her chai, exclaiming that she had the perfect play that she wanted to program for the 2021 season (and now 2022 season, thanks to the rona) and I should direct it. Then I nearly spat my chai out when she mentioned Guards. I probably sound like a wanker, but Guards at the Taj chose me. Legit.

 

Director Bali Padda / Supplied

Dilpreet: Friendships are sensitive, complex, beautiful, but also political. How much of these elements will we see in the play?


Bali: Friendships ARE sensitive, right?! Friends are often the closest people in our life. So, the fear of creating disharmony and losing any of those friendships is a major concern. I’ve had the most cherished friendships that are not in my world anymore. Sometimes it’s a slow fade like we are unanchored vessels in an ocean drifting apart on separate currents. Other times we experience heartache and betrayal. All for a multitude of reasons. 


The bond between lifelong friends, Humayan and Babur, in this show is front and centre. Audiences will see how these fast friends are so familiar with their idiosyncrasies and how their ideological differences come out in full effect. Both men have distinct desires: to live and dream freely versus following the rules and making the best impression in order to safeguard their status in society. 


Dilpreet: I love posters, and Guards at the Taj has an interesting one. It’s mysterious and doesn’t tell us much. Is how the play is perceived before people watch a conscious decision for you where you might want to keep some things hidden?


Bali: In discussion with the producers and marketing team, it was tricky deciding how best to represent the play without giving too much away. We erred on the safe side of not spoiling anything (although, there are spoilers in the content warning). I do enjoy subverting expectations with my work and guiding our consumers and audiences into potentially unforeseen experiences.

 

Behind the scenes / Supplied

Dilpreet: How did you find Idam and Akkshey, and how did you know they were the ones?


Bali: We auditioned a number of South Asian Australian actors for this show. I had some ideas about who was out there, but I was very keen to see as many as I could within the parameters I was given. Auditioning is a great opportunity to become known by creatives and companies. If you leave a great impression, even if you don’t get the part, that’s a great outcome. It was a nerve-wracking decision. I was so moved and entertained by the guys that came into the audition, but it was the hardest thing to choose only two of them. Idam and Akkshey both have an exceptional presence on stage. They also have quite different energies and I wanted to show the distinction between Babur and Humayun with their own physical presence, personalities and ideologies on stage. The chemistry that these gents generate is exceptional. I’m so honoured to work with such easy-going, hugely talented, and hard-working actors. They’re going to make me look REAL GOOD! 


Dilpreet: Theatre is coming back after a long time, Bali. What is that one feeling you want the audiences to take away from Guards at the Taj?


Bali: Ooh… just ONE feeling?! How about two? I want audiences to leave feeling enthralled and confronted after seeing Guards at the Taj. Oh… and entertained, of course. Sorry, that’s three.


Dilpreet: We’re seeing more and more South Asian artists and creatives around Australia. How do you see them represented in the larger scene, and what are some of your own hopes?

Bali: I am inspired by the friendship and work of fellow South Asian- Australian artists and creatives Nicholas Brown, Mithila Gupta, Sonya Suares, Leah Vandenberg, Sheila Jayadev, S. Shakthidharan, Roanna Gonsalves, Ana Tiwary, Bindi Bosses, Vidya Makan, Arka Das, Chum Ehelepola, Bina Bhattacharya, L-Fresh the Lion and more. 


It’s so refreshing to see the diversity of South Asian culture expressed and represented in art and entertainment. I started my journey as an actor about 15 years ago, almost immediately after seeing Anglo-Indian Australian actor Nicholas Brown on Network TEN’s The Cooks in the early noughties. Seeing him on the screen changed my life. Then, I saw Legally Blonde the Musical on Broadway and there was a character called Sandeep Agrawal Padamadan. There hadn’t been anything for me in the kinds of shows I loved and recreated in my bedroom or with my school friends during lunch.

I’m looking forward to seeing us all continue to succeed, grow and inspire more members of the South Asian community in Australia to engage with and pursue their art practice in any form that speaks to them. 


Catch Guards at the Taj at Riverside Theatres from Feb 24 to Mar 5, 2022, by booking your tickets here

 

Meet the cast and crew:


By Rajiv Joseph

Director Bali Padda


With

Akkshey Caplash

Idam Sondhi


Mentor: Darren Yap

Set and Costume Design: James Browne

Sound Design: Me-Lee Hay

Lighting Design: Kate Baldwin

Creative Futures: Rita Naidu

About the author

Dilpreet is the founder of South Asian Today. More about her can be found here.

 

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