Modern Britain is home to people from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and cultures. It has consequently acquired a multicultural identity. In the river of human nature, cultures are like its tributaries, which come together to form confluences of cultural hybridism. Hence, the existence of British Asian, Black British, culture types. The development in the representation of British Asian culture, particularly with the Indian diaspora, is still in its infancy.
So, this essay will focus on what exactly is represented through the films selected and their levels of accuracy, in conjunction with the academic contexts of identity, representation, diaspora, and difference.
A report by the High-Level Committee of India (2002) states, “The Indian Diaspora is a generic term to describe the people who migrated from territories that are currently within the borders of the Republic of India. It also refers to their descendants.” This diaspora comprises of two types of Indian citizens: Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs). PIOs refer to the children of NRIs and to ” people who have acquired citizenship of some other country.”
Indians have been moving to the UK, since the 1950s and according to the Report, “the number of PIOs and NRIs was 942,000-i.e 1.6 of the total” population, by 2000. It is also diverse, particularly in terms of religion, language, history of immigration and crucially, levels of affluence.” (Stafford, 2000)
Like other minority groups, the Indian diaspora was under-represented by British film and television. Yet, Karen Ross finds “A nascent British Asian filmmaking culture has been present since at least the 1970s, but has been largely ignored.” (Ross, 1996, p.46)
It was not until the late 1980s when the representation of the Indian diaspora came to the limelight. Sunrise Radio, (1989), Bhaji on the Beach, (1993), Asian cable and satellite television channels (1994), Bollywood films at British multiplex cinemas (from 1997) and Goodness Gracious Me (1998-2000) on a BBC primetime schedule were some of the major breakthroughs responsible for this. Keeping all this in mind, a critical examination will now be taken up on the selected films, in how and what issues have been represented.
Bend It Like Beckham (2002) is a film that effectively represents the Indian diaspora in Britain, accurately portraying key aspects of British Asian lifestyle. Its swift plot revolves around Jess, or Jasminder Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) and the transition from the life she has led to the life she is to lead. Jess belongs to a Punjabi family living in Hounslow, a London borough which has a dense Indian population.
Like most Indian families, Jess is brought up to be thoroughly aware of her root (Indian) culture and her Western cultural environment. She wants to become a professional footballer, but her parents want her to become a solicitor. The narrative ends with an equilibrium, Jess gets to pursue her dream through a scholarship in the USA. However, what is interesting is the way she achieves this. Jess is representative of PIOs her age and background. Marie Gillespie finds such people tell her that “while their parents are concerned with maintaining ‘the culture,’ they themselves are open to change.” (Gillespie, 1995, p.206)
Bhaji On the Beach (1993) was one of the first hybrid films that caught the attention of British cine-goers. The plot centres on a group of various-aged Indian women, going on a trip to Blackpool, with their relationship problems in tow. The film is set in the early 1990s; a time when the younger generations of British Asians had grown into adults and more such women were getting qualified jobs.
The problems which the female characters have, seem to become their identity. Ginder (Kim Vithana) flees with her son, from her violent, egocentric husband (Jimmy Harkishin) and his wretched family.
Jinder is seeking independence and wants to start her life afresh, which everyone from her community disapproves of. Asha (Lalita Ahmed) is one such person, who opposes Jinder’s intentions but also sympathises with her situation. Asha meets an Englishman of her age, in Blackpool. Both are attracted to each other, but Asha finds her romantic notions being repressed. Her psyche is portrayed to have accustomed the traditional Indian marital values imposed on her, like fidelity, sacrifices for the family, pious (even fearful) belief in Hinduism.
Hashida is soon to do a medical degree and is a favourite in her community. However, she has a tryst with an African-Caribbean and finds herself pregnant, on the day of the trip. She is confused and petrified of what her family would say if they find out.
Anita and Me is an adaptation of the same-titled novel, written by Meera Syal. The plot is around a pre-pubescent, British-born-and-bred Punjabi girl, Meena Kumar (Charandeep Uppal). It is set in the 1970s and gives the audience a witty, accurate insight into British Asian lifestyle at the time. Meena is the only Indian child in her village, Tollington. Her parents (Sanjeev Bhaskar, Ayesha Dharkar) want Indian culture to grow on her, rather than forcing it on her. While this is a good approach, Meena is less interested in it. She is, instead, fascinated by the English culture, which her neighbour, Anita Rutter (Anna Brewster) represents.
Goodness Gracious me was a primetime sitcom aired by the BBC, that represents the Indian diaspora through wit and humour. Researcher Mark Lewisohn finds that although “the Asian clichés may have seemed particular (clinging mothers, girls regarded as a second- class citizens, the snobbery of assimilating Englishness) but the themes were universal enough to strike a chord with audiences who, though of different backgrounds, could appreciate the sentiments.”
The plots represent similar issues but through different ways. In Bend It Like Beckham, Mr and Mrs Bhamra (Anupam Kher, Shaheen Khan) want their daughters Pinky (Archie Punjabi) and Jess to acquire respectable jobs (i.e.jobs that are understood by the Punjabi community) and get married to men from their community.
For them, their children getting a university degree is being modern and liberal enough. They want their children to lead lives within a setting they know of. There is a scene where Jess tells her football coach, Joe, that her wanting to be a footballer “is taking me away from everything they [her parents] know.” They represent most parents from the Indian diaspora. Mrs Bhamra prefers domesticity, for this reason. So, she insists on teaching her daughters how to cook Indian cuisine both “meat and vegetarian” and dreads of getting cast off by the Sikh community, should her daughters want a divorce after they get married. She is identifiable with Indian mothers of her type.
The film climaxes with Pinky’s wedding and Jess’s football finale happening at the same time. Jess manages to juggle both events successfully, as both are equally important to her. This scene subconsciously represents how younger British Asians juggle both cultures and lifestyles together, as their identities stem from both.
In Bhaji On the Beach, the film suggests that the problems the characters have are because the parents have imposed archaic Indian values, having not given enough leeway for the characters to integrate these with their contemporary British and Asian culture, which is problematic too. The older Indian values consisted of opposing women emancipation and repressing their progression. Contemporary India today, is doing the opposite, enabling women to have an equal position with men. The plot peaks when an intense argument happens between Jinder, Hashida and Simi (Shaheen Khan) who arranges the trip, against Asha and Pushpa (Zohra Segal) an old, female tell-tale. Pushpa had instigated it by saying, “These modern girls can’t adapt and those with jobs are the worst!” She and Asha say they want to teach the girls morals they had learnt from “back home.” The girls reply that this ‘home’ is a place they have left for decades and are not likely to return there. They should listen to their children and allow for some modernisation. This is a typical example of the culture-clashing and identity struggle that happens within this diaspora community.
In Anita and Me, when it is Diwali, Meena reads a story she has written in English, to Indian friends of her parents. When she is asked to perform something Indian, she sings a Punjabi song, “with a Birmingham accent -” as her Aunty Shaila (Meera Syal) observes. Meena reads Jackie magazine with Anita, is confused about her racial, cultural identity and has pre-pubescent questions, which she knows her parents will not answer. Meena represents the confusion of cultural identity which girls of her background have. Gillespie accurately highlights the identity quibbles of people like Meena: “How does one show one is ‘Asian’, if one speaks no Asian language, and how does on show one is ‘British’ if one has brown skin? ” (Gillespie, 1995, p. 208)
In Goodness Gracious me, Indian behavioural and cultural traits are shown. Using humour, it highlights Indian parents being obsessed about their children getting top grades; being dramatic when forgetting to bring something while going out and British Asian youngsters getting Non-Asian partners, to irritate their parents.
Racial issues and prejudice
In Bend It Like Beckham, Mr Bhamra tells Joe how he was expelled from a foreign cricket team and being insulted for wearing his turban. He does not want Jess to suffer like this, but she did and he discreetly saw it – when Jess got a red card for a foul she did not commit. Yet, when Joe scolds her for this, in front of the team and Jess asks him why, he says: “I cannot treat you differently!” The difference here is in terms of Jess’s capability in the team.
In Bhaji On the Beach, Simi had arranged the Blackpool trip so that members of her “Saheli Womens’ Club” could ” get away from the patriarchal demands made on us, in our daily lives, struggling between the double yoke of racism and sexism.” However, the group are not spared from either “yoke“. They encounter racist insults from a group of English men and Jinder’s husband manages to hunt her down, to physically abuse her in front of the club. Pushpa then realizes what Jinder is trying to escape from.
In Goodness Gracious me, the cast pretend to be group of students from Delhi, who present a television documentary that critiques the British railway systems, in a similar way British documentarists would use to depict India. In another sketch, the British minority group in India is seen complaining about programmes called “Network West” and “Westenders” and say it is tired of being reduced to “marginalized, exploited and farcical stereotypes.” Such scenes are funny, yet the message of under or misrepresentation is smoothly conveyed to British audiences.
Inter-community filmic representation
Although the selected films depict the Punjabi community, the cultural values are shared across the other communities within the Indian diaspora in the UK. Thus, uniting these into an apparent, imagined community. Bollywood films play a significant role in keeping this sense of community alive. The Bollywood star receives much celebrity-worship from Indian audiences, worldwide. Rachel Dwyer says it “emerges as a text, the focus for discourses on sexuality, desire and the body, love and the family. ” (Dwyer, 2000, p.96) Bollywood is depicted in the aforementioned films, with the characters either watching them (Mrs Bhamra in Bend It Like Beckham); or singing their songs (Meena‘s father in Anita and Me); or ridiculing the Asian gossip programmes (Goodness Gracious Me).
Filmmaking and production values
The mis-en-scene is authentic in Bend It Like Beckham Particularly, its background music. Contemporary Western pop music is played when Jess is playing football and traditional Indian music is played, when she is at home or participating in family activities. Bhaji On the Beach offers an adverse representation of the Indian diaspora, in a too-detailed, haphazard way. Resultantly, the narrative is rather loosely-connected. Karen Ross finds that “it tends to veer from slightly heavy-handed issue-based scenes one moment to dissolving into pure pastiche the next.” (Ross, 1996, p.49) The two cultures here, English and Indian, have been portrayed contrastingly and are not balanced together. Ross suitably sums up the film, which deals “with the debates surrounding identity and points of identification and acknowledge[s] the ambiguities and ambivalences which cross-cut diaspora communities.” (Ross, 1996, p.49)
Contrastingly, Syal provides an antidote to Meena‘s identity struggle, through the character of Nanima, or ‘grandmother’ (Zohra Segal), in Anita and Me. She is brought to help Meena’s mother manage the household and help the new-born son. Meena befriends her and would request to hear stories about India. This strengthens Meena’s interest in Indian culture. Yet, her respect for it is particularly realized in two scenes with Anita. When Anita jabs at how Indian food is eaten with hands, Meena surprises her family (and herself) by telling Anita that in top Indian restaurants, people eat with their hands. When Meena discovers Anita making racist comments on Indians, she becomes furious and throws Anita into a pond! As the films ends, Meena’s character is redefined to meet what her parents had in mind. She realizes that her position, in terms of schooling, family background and cultural identity, is more enriching than Anita’s. Anita is a school drop-out and her mother had eloped with her ex-boyfriend.
Roy Stafford finds that “no matter how strong parental attachments might be to ‘home’… for the second-generation all their cultural references are British. In South Asian families, there is a much stronger sense of another culture in the home, but school, television, music, etc, are still important in emphasizing ‘Britishness.’” (Stafford, 2000) Syal must have kept this in mind, while writing this quasi-autobiographical plot, as it clearly hints at allowing scope for a broader awareness of all cultures, when residing in a multicultural nation.
It is futile for any diaspora community and their native countries to believe that they belong to one country. As it is, both the country of origin and country of residence find it difficult to accept people from a diaspora fully. This is because the identity of a diaspora is comprised of social, cultural, educative, political values which are hybridised, amalgamated with those of another country. Hence, Pushpa sprinkles chilli powder on her chips in Bhaji On the Beach and the cast of Goodness Gracious Me pretend to be an Indian family who deny everything about their root culture, but cannot eradicate the inherent Indian tendencies.
None of the cultures, British or Asian, English, or Indian, can be denied or eradicated, particularly for the younger generations, who have lived a hybrid life all along.
A steady, more accurate development in the representation of the Indian diaspora, through British Asian cultural products is necessary. This will flesh out the various facades of its identity, canvassing a fuller picture of it.
- Dwyer, R (2000) All You Want is Money, All you Need is Love: Sex and Romance in Modern India; London, Cassell.
- Gillespie, M (1995) Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change; London; Routledge.
- Hall, S (1990) Cultural Identity and Diaspora; Rutherford, J (ed) Identity, Community, Culture, Difference; Lawrence & Wishart.
- Ross, K (1996) Black and White Media: Black Images in Popular Film and Television; UK; Polity Press.
- Stafford, R (2000a) ‘Where’s the Black in the Union Jack?‘ (ed. Stafford, 2000), in Stafford, R (2000) Film Reader 2: British Cinema; In The Pictures Publications; West Yorkshire.
- Woodward, K (1997) Identity and Difference; London; Sage.