Malaysian actor channels Bollywood dreams, debuts one-man cabaret in London

“It’s my heart laid bare,” says theatremaker Shafeeq Shajahan about his latest work, Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

The one-man cabaret show will be staged on Feb 10 and 17 at Soho Theatre in London, marking his debut on the West End stage.

Though the 60-minute production Satyam Shivam Sundaram takes its name from the classic Bollywood film, which was first released in 1978 and stars Sashi Kapoor and Zeenat Anam, it’s not a re-enactment of the movie, but a deconstruction.

“In the cabaret, I peel away the layers of its narrative and iconography to delve into its deeper meanings, especially when they pertain to my own life experiences,” says Shafeeq, the co-founder of theatre outfit Liver And Lung, who now divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and London.

“It’s an act of unpacking the themes, characters and motifs of Satyam Shivam Sundaram and reassembling them in a way that resonates with contemporary discourse, particularly around issues of identity, faith and family. It’s both a homage and a personal reinterpretation – a dialogue with the film, if you will.”

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Shafeeq, 30, first came across the movie at the age of six, as part of his and his mother’s weekly excursions to watch old-school Bollywood films.

“For some reason, this one stuck with me. It’s a brilliant movie with a sophisticated philosophical message, one that I kept coming back to.

“The movie champions a philosophy that celebrates the intricate linkages between truth, divinity and beauty – it’s about looking beyond the surface, listening to spiritual callings and finding beauty in truth,” says Shafeeq.

He also finds many parallels between the experiences of the characters in the film with the stories of him and his mother, which is reflected in the cabaret.

“The show is ultimately about both the stories of my mother and me. Our journey threads through tales of resilience, understanding, and evolving love. In many ways, it mirrors the central theme of the film – to seek and embrace the beauty that transcends physical appearance and societal expectations,” he adds.

“My mother’s story, woven from the fabric of her struggles and triumphs as a dark-skinned Muslim young girl, is shared on stage as an articulation of her influence on my quest for authenticity. Our relationship is a dynamic canvas, boldly painted with instances of love, learning and deeply rooted affection.”

While Shafeeq has performed a one-man cabaret at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2022, he admits that this is a more intimate experience.

“Developing Satyam Shivam Sundaram has been an odyssey, and I am happy to be representing Malaysia on a global stage. In many ways, having the opportunity to tell an authentically Malaysian story to Londoners is a dream come true and a responsibility I take seriously.

“I have always made it Liver And Lung’s mandate to champion our stories internationally and will continue to do so while remaining authentic to my roots for the rest of my career,” he says.

The show also signifies a positive development for Malaysian creatives abroad, as it was selected to be part of Britain’s Soho Rising Festival 2024, a showcase for emerging international talent fostered by the venue’s Lab programmes.

Audiences will be treated to a mix of poignant storytelling, accompanied by the music of Liver And Lung collaborator, Vasilis Konstantinides, a Cypriot composer who co-developed the music of Melur The Musical in Petaling Jaya last year.

Set to the backdrop of a global soundtrack, the cabaret fuses Malaysian, Bollywood and Mediterranean music, and also stars Badrika Baluch and Nabilah Hamid, Malaysian theatre performers and Liver And Lung regulars also residing in London now.

Later this month, Liver And Lung returns to the Malaysian theatre scene with its new production Sang Kancil And The Dragon King, which plays at PJPAC from Feb 29 to March 10.

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