A couple of years ago, when I defended the proposal for my dissertation on British South Asian cinema, one of the questions that came up was, why British South Asian cinema? In a field where people often assume that your area of academic specialization will relate strongly to your own background in some very personal, but compelling way, those present at this defense understood my academic interests at two levels. They instinctively understood my interest in postcolonial cinema (I am, after all, an English-speaking South Asian), and in diasporic South Asian-American cinema (because here I am, a South Asian studying at an American university, living far, far away from her family and home). This was not a deal-breaker for my dissertation, of course, but, the following questions – fueled mostly by curiosity – were posed: had I ever been to Britain? No. Was my family British-South Asian? No. Had any of my immediate family members lived in Britain? No. At the time, it sufficed to say that I wanted to study British South Asian cinema because I liked it. I liked it more than I have ever like South Asian-American cinema, in a sense that I was then at a loss to explain. All I could say was that British South Asian cinema spoke to me like South Asian-American cinema did not.
Later on, however, I did force myself to articulate – even if just to myself – the reasons why I felt greater affinity to postcolonial British South Asian cinema than diasporic South Asian-American cinema. Regardless of whether or not the questions raised at the defense were academically relevant, they were certainly relevant to my own understanding of my academic interests. British South Asian cinema and South Asian-American cinema both handled similar themes: exilic loss, diasporic anxiety, racial discrimination, a severe clash of cultures, and the guilt an immigrant faces at the opportunities thrown her/his way by the fact of living in a first world society. These themes, especially the last, are brought to life through the narratives of immigrant youth, usually second or third generation naturalized citizens of a western country. Here in the US, films such as ABCD (1999) or, more recently, The Namesake (2007), use as their central theme the struggle young South Asian-Americans face in trying to strike the right balance between the culture they grew up in, and the culture their parents consider their own. The characters of Nina, from ABCD, and Gogol, from The Namesake – in their skeletal construction as children who disagree with their parents on the important things in life – are stock characters in every other sense, indistinguishable from most other characters in the ‘rebellious children’ genre. What drives this characterization forward, lays flesh and blood on an otherwise generic idea, is the guilt these characters feel about their own cultural westernization. This guilt of having betrayed their parents defines them as their cultural rebellion does.
British South Asian cinema situates itself on the same bedrock of diasporic trauma, cultural rebellion, and filial guilt. Omar, from My Beautiful Laundrette (1984), wants to milk his family for its money and reputation, while drifting far away from it culturally, setting up a business in partnership with a former neo-Nazi. In doing this, however, he constantly struggles with the feeling of having betrayed his father, a man whose life was ruined by the racial discrimination he faced as an immigrant in England. Jassi, from Bend it like Beckham (2001), similarly, lies to her family in order to be able to play football. In an important scene towards the end, though, when she runs away from her sister’s wedding to play a crucial match, her guilt manifests itself in the form of a comical illusion. As she starts to run up to the ball for a free kick, in place of the wall of opposition players, she sees a wall comprised of her mother, sister, and various aunts, all in their wedding clothes and finery. This illusion is momentary, but it suggests the guilt Jassi feels at having run away from her family when they most needed her. In this, British South Asian cinema shows a heavy thematic overlap with South Asian-American cinema.
What British South Asian cinema does differently has a lot to do with the history of its production as specifically a postcolonial immigrant cinema. The guilt that defines the characterizations and narratives of South Asian-American cinema is derived from betraying one’s parents or family, and the specific set of values by which these individuals conduct their lives. In ABCD, for instance, the main bone of contention between the Indian immigrant mother and her Indian-American daughter is that Anju – the mother – wants to see her daughter Nina married to an Indian man, while Nina is in a relationship with a white American man. In Srinivas Krishna’s Masala (1991, Canada) too, the main source of conflict between parents and children is the sexual behaviour of the younger, westernized generation. The Namesake attempts to throw more light on the history of Gogol’s parents, but even there, Gogol’s acceptance of his parents’ culture comes purely out of an appreciation of their own, individual journeys and struggles, rather than an appreciation of their larger cultural background or national history. In British South Asian cinema, on the other hand, the guilt its narratives are predicated upon is a guilt that comes from having betrayed an entity that stretches far beyond just one’s own parents or family – it is a guilt that arises from the fear of having betrayed one’s national history. It is a guilt that comes from an implicit awareness of the political dynamic of being the citizen of a former colonial metropole. Of being the child of colonial immigrants, and yet reaping the benefits of living in a formerly colonial society, and aspiring to assimilate into it. When Jassi’s father, in Bend it like Beckham, tries to talk to her about why it is a bad idea for her to pursue her sporting dreams, he tells her about the time when he, as a young, colonial immigrant from India, had tried to play cricket in England, but was denied the opportunity because of his nationality. In secretly pursuing football, therefore, Jassi is betraying much more than her mother’s aspiration of raising her daughters to be domestic goddesses. At stake, in this secret life Jassi leads, is a fight with the colonial history that held her father back several years ago. Omar, in My Beautiful Laundrette, displays a similar confusion of allegiance in his attempt to start a business with a formerly racist mobster in England. Throughout the film, it appears as though Omar cannot get far enough away from his father, and his extended Indian/Pakistani family. After the big opening of his business, though, he has a showdown with his partner, Johnny, and tells him that for over two hundred years “you” ruled over “us,” but the tables have turned now, and Johnny is Omar’s slave. This is a very significant exchange between the two, because the film is set in the 1980s, and Omar, whose mother was British, has never even been to South Asia. Johnny, similarly, is a young man who (his former neo-Nazi background notwithstanding) was never an active participant in Britain’s history of colonization. As far away as Omar tries to get from his family, and as hard as he tries to live his life like other Britons, his narrative is driven forward by the guilt that arises from a sense of national identification that he has inherited from his extended family, and the knowledge of their history as colonial subjects.
British South Asian cinema frames its narratives within a very specific history of colonization, and as I mentioned earlier, this difference from South Asian-American cinema has everything to do with the difference in modes of production, which, in turn, are products of history. South Asian immigrant filmmaking in the US and Canada was never an organized movement. During the 1980s and 1990s, directors of South Asian-American films were seldom even full-time filmmakers: they were often professionals in various other fields, and felt inspired enough to make a film about their experiences as immigrants in the US. Krutin Patel, the director of ABCD, has only ever made that one film. Srinivas Krishna (Masala), and Mira Nair (The Namesake), are two of the few directors who make films professionally, and their range and filmmaking interests extend far beyond the documentation of South Asian immigrant experiences in the US. This scattered and unorganized nature of production, therefore, ensures that the stories told in these films are very often stories of individual families and very personal experiences. In Britain, by contrast, South Asian immigrant filmmaking began in the late 1970s and early 1980s when, in an effort towards cultural diversity, the British government made funding available for minority filmmaking. To make use of this funding, several ethnic film collectives were formed in the early 1980s, such as the Black British film collective Sankofa, and the the South Asian film collective Retake. Since the very origin of these film collectives was community-based, the films they produced were inevitably set against a political and historical background. Whether these were short films that shed light on housing discrimination faced by South Asian immigrants (Hotel London, 1987), or feature length dramas about adapting to life in Britain (Majdhar, 1984), British South Asian cinema has always been invested in the larger, colonial narrative that frames South Asian immigration to Britain.
I think British South Asian cinema’s insistence on framing its narratives within colonial history is the quality that allowed me to relate with it more than I could with South Asian-American cinema. Even though I am a diasporic subject living in the US, my experience of diaspora does not include conflicts with my parents over my own social choices. Having grown up in urban India, however, even though I was born nearly forty years after the British empire withdrew from the region, I understand why Omar’s relationship with Johnny is fraught with tension, even though neither of them has ever experienced colonialism first-hand. I understand Jassi’s guilt at aspiring to play football, given her father’s experiences at trying to play cricket. Several generations of my family have grown up on English literature, and growing up, English became my first language. As a teenager, however, as I began to take an interest in such matters, I also began to understand the political implication of this fact. As it turns out, then, my academic pursuits have more to do with my background than I had anticipated, just like a British South Asian film that deals with the theme of art education has more to do with colonial history than one first imagines.