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Become a Cultural Navigator

Unexpecting cast member Rahat Saini proudly proclaims that she’s a bisexual Punjabi girl in order to benefit others

Rahat Saini by Raunaq Saini.
Rahat Saini will appear in Zee Zee Theatre's world premiere of Unexpecting. Photo by by Raunaq Saini.

Actor, comedian, and storyteller Rahat Saini says that part of her purpose on Earth is to take up space. She wants to be seen and heard.

“Because God knows, other brown women need to see that,” Saini tells Pancouver over Zoom. “And they need to know they have the permission to do that, too.”

The 25-year-old UVic fine arts grad has used comedy on TikTok to lampoon patriarchy and societal expectations. In one of these videos, she begins by declaring that her name is Rahat Saini and that she’s a bisexual Punjabi girl.

Why did Saini do this? The Surrey resident replies that she wants people to know that she has recently started dating a man.

Saini then quips in the video that her mother is so happy. As a result, she must tell her mom to take it down a notch. That’s because her daughter is still bi.

It’s a humorous take on heteronormative perspectives within her community.

However, Saini says that she was startled by the strong reaction to this video from people in India and the Indian diaspora. Some ended up following her for the very reason that she stated she was a bisexual Punjabi girl.

“There are people who’ve never seen a brown woman openly, loudly, proudly talking about themselves in that way—talking about their queer identity, talking about the issues around it or the experience of it—even in a joke-ier, fun manner,” Saini says. “There’s just not a lot out there.”

She aims to change this.

Zee Zee Theatre fills gap for Saini

Saini will have another chance to take up space as a queer brown woman in Zee Zee Theatre’s world premiere of Unexpecting, which will be performed at Studio 16 (1557 West 7th Avenue) from May 5 to 21.

Written by Bronwyn Carradine and directed by Cameron Mackenzie, Unexpecting is about two married women, Annie and Josephine, who’ve been trying to start a family for the past five years. In addition to Saini, the cast includes Elizabeth Barrett, Jessica Healey, and Melissa Oei.

“It’s almost like this play is really validating my queer identity,” Saini says. “I’m getting to see and live a version of my life that very much could exist—a version in which I am partnered with a woman.”

Her other stage credits include SEETHERED, 7 Stories, and The Drowsy Chaperone. In addition, Saini has acted in such film and TV productions as Hallmark’s The Journey Ahead, Picture of Her, and Match Me, Please, as well as Under the Bridge and Boot Camp. And she made the finals in CBC Comedy’s NEXT UP contest.

“I’ve created a pilot for a television series that I intend to make one day, which is really exciting,” Saini adds.

This show has “central female brown characters”, she says, because she doesn’t believe there are enough of these roles.

Left to right: Melissa Oei, Rahat Saini, Elizabet Barrett, and Jessica Heafey perform in Unexpecting. Photo by Tina Krueger Kulic.

Intersecting culture, race, and sexuality

Meanwhile, Unexpecting is not her first work with Zee Zee Theatre, which tells diverse stories focusing on LGBTQ2SI+ communities. Last year, Saini did community outreach for the company for Men Express Their Feelings. It’s a Sunny Drake-written comedy exploring gender, sexuality, and identity in a hockey dressing room.

“I thought it was so funny, so clever, and so touching,” Saini recalls. “It had a great effect on me, honestly, to see a queer story featuring a young brown boy.

“I was excited about my family seeing that and bringing other South Asian folks into the building,” she continues. “Because I think there’s a real gap in storytelling—around queer storytelling especially—when they tend to centre around whiteness.”

Saini finds herself drawn to stories like Men Express Their Feelings that look at intersections of culture, race, and sexuality.

“It was really great to see that cultural factor being explored more deeply through this parent-son relationship on-stage,” she says. “And to see how that plays out as a young person is discovering themselves but coming up against a culture that doesn’t necessarily want them to.”

Bollywood inspirations

Saini spent the first 13 years of her life growing up in Mohali, a city in Punjab next door to the state capital of Chandigarh. She says that she’s been a performer since the age of one-and-a-half.

“I started singing when my mom was changing my diaper,” Saini says. “I could barely talk and I was singing a full Bollywood song.”

Like many born in northern India, she developed a love of Bollywood from childhood. Two of her favourite actors in her home country are Rani Mukherjee and Kajol. Moreover, she confesses to being physically upset once she learned that Kajol wasn’t partnered in real life to her on-screen love interest, Shahrukh Khan.

That prompts Pancouver to ask if Saini likes Kajol’s husband, Ajay Devgn, who’s another major Bollywood star. “Not nearly as much,” she says with a laugh.

Throughout her childhood and into her teen years, Saini was often on-stage. And because she grew up in an urban environment, she was used to seeing people who were different.

Her first Canadian school experience came in Grade 9 after her family immigrated. Saini lightheartedly jokes that this was “an awesome time to be a person in a new country”. In reality, it was one more wrenching issue for her to address in adolescence.

Kajol and Shahrukh Khan perform “Gerua”, filmed in Iceland, from Dilwale (2015).

Parents seen as a gift from God

But make no mistake. Saini takes acting very seriously, notwithstanding her comedic chops.

“There’s something really special about being able to step into a person’s shoes to be able to tell a story from the inside out—and to honour the story and the world created by whoever wrote it,” she states. “It’s part escapism but it’s also part investigation of the self. As an actor, you really have to be in tune with yourself.”

As for spirituality, Saini says that she absolutely aligns with the basic tenets of Sikhi, including its emphasis on equality and giving service to the community. But she also recognizes that with all organized religions, things sometimes get messy when people and money become part of the equation.

“My family is Sikh,” Saini says with a smile. “I would say I am Sikh-leaning.”

She’s eager to credit her parents for giving her the confidence to speak out on various issues. In fact, Saini refers to them as “the gift from God”—they’ve never made her or her sisters feel like they would have rather had a son rather than girls.

“That is like a foundational difference in the way that I walk through the world compared to most brown women in the world, period,” Saini declares. “And to me the fact that I’ve been a bit more comfortable taking up space has only grown with time. I know intimately how limited this space is that brown women are allowed to take up.”

She concedes that her willingness to state her views has resulted in a backlash from those who claim it’s disrespectful to speak in the way that she does.

“There’s a lot of ‘shut up, stay in your place, do not take up space, do not talk, be quite, go away’,” Saini says.

But she won’t be deterred.

Photo by Rebecca Roberts/Zee Zee Theatre
Photo by Rebecca Roberts/Zee Zee Theatre.

Warning about hypermasculinity

In the meantime, Saini also worries about the effect of toxic hypermasculinity within her culture on young Punjabi males. And she suggests that it can get in the way of emotional growth or any kind of sensitivity developing inside some young men.

“You know, there are young brown boys that don’t fit into these hypermasculine ideals and don’t want to,” Saini says. “And they don’t have a choice because there is no other path. It’s either be that or be treated badly or made fun of or whatever and be called a girl.”

This is another reason why she feels it’s so critical to involve South Asian people in LGBTQ2SI+ theatre and screen productions.

“When we don’t exist in queer stories around us, it makes it even harder for young queer brown folks to step into the light and discover themselves,” Saini says. “They feel like they have to shut it down and just be the norm. And the norm can be really damaging to a lot of people. I’ve definitely felt that myself.”

Zee Zee Theatre presents the world premiere of Unexpecting at Studio 16 (1557 West 7th Avenue) from May 5 to 21. For more information and tickets, visit the website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.