Yasmin (2004) begins with a scene that forces discomfort upon its audience. We hear the azaan, wafting through the windows of a mosque and rolling onto the undulating English countryside, where a young woman, hidden away by the uneven topography, is getting out of her salwaar-kameez, and into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. She pulls off her headscarf, rolls it together with her burqa and salwar-kameez, and tosses it into the backseat of her bright red car. She then puts on a pair of sunglasses, plays loud music on the CD player in her car, and drives off. This is Yasmin, and the act that we have just witnessed – an act that makes us squirm in our seats because we recognize her disavowal of her community, but also her sense of liberation in doing so – is an act she performs every single day on her way to work. As a film about the effects of 9/11 on the lives of Muslims in parts of the western world outside of the US, Yasmin manages to make its audience feel uncomfortable about several things, and this is one of its greatest achievements.
Yasmin unfolds in two contrasting worlds – a low income, predominantly South Asian tenement in London, and a children’s nursing home, whose affable, mostly white employees get along with each other and hang out after hours in bars, dancing and drinking. The title character, played artfully by Archie Panjabi, inhabits both these worlds – she is a British-born Muslim Pakistani who lives with her oppressive and patriarchal family in the tenements, but works at the nursing home, and parties with her white colleagues. As expected, Yasmin is constantly treading the tightrope between these two worlds: she exhibits all the struggles that have come to typify the lives of postcolonial South Asian immigrants in Britain, as we have seen so often in British South Asian cinema, from My Beautiful Laundrette (1984) to Brick Lane (2007). Her father is one of the priests at the local mosque, and even though Yasmin is the one who keeps the household running, her father has an extremely strict, patriarchal set of rules in place, and she is expected to abide by them. She is made to wear the burqa and traditional Pakistani clothes, and is married against her will to a man from Pakistan because her father feels indebted to this man’s family, and wants to help him establish himself in London. Within this constricting framework, Yasmin fights several, tiny battles every day – she resists her father’s interference in her life while still maintaining the dress code approved by him. She constantly fights off the advances of a husband with whom she does not even have a language in common. And even as she attempts to break free of her life in the tenements, she still helps the members of her community receive basic amenities such as housing, from the British government.
Yasmin then sets off for work, stripping herself of all the cultural markers of her ethnicity and religion. When she hangs out with her friends – all of whom are white Britons – all she wants to do is to be one of them. She refers to other South Asians as “Paki,” and reveals nothing of her own family to her friends. In a typical blueprint for a narrative of postcolonial migration, Yasmin deals with ethnic difference by trying to wipe it out. She deals with the racism she has been subject to, by pretending to be the entity as whose hands she – and other immigrants of color in Britain – have suffered.
The film meticulously establishes her daily routine for us, and while this is framed in a manner that makes her suffocation palpable, it is, up to this point, predictable. After all, just how many times have we watched that scene where a young, immigrant woman leaves home in a conservative outfit, only to get out of it at the first opportunity? The cinematic representation of the cultural quandaries faced by immigrants is hardly novel. The film, thus far, is engaging, but not enthralling.
And then the horrific events of 9/11 occur. The film’s treatment of the transformation of Yasmin’s life after this elevates it, making it not only intriguing, but also an important piece of commentary on the aftermath of the attacks. We see Yasmin’s brother turn from a drug-dealing, pot-smoking, Qur’an grudging young man to an Islamic fundamentalist. We see her father’s despair over the chaos that unfurls around him, at the failure of Islamic moderates such as himself, and at the loss of his son to an ideology of violence that horrifies him. At the other end of Yasmin’s tightrope, we see her friends abandon and ridicule her. John, her closest friend, and the man she is in love with, explains it to her by saying she shouldn’t really blame her white friends for their behavior – “I mean, it’s not as if you apologized, you know?” By “you,” of course, he means Yasmin, and all muslims, by extension. This is a moment – excuse the cliché – of political awakening for Yasmin. (Until then, we see her shout “Go home, you Paki bastards” at the TV set, every time a visual of the 9/11 attack is screened.) At this point in the film, Yasmin realizes the futility of all her attempts at being like one of her white, British peers. She knows that she could dress, speak and behave just like them, even the most racist among them, but she would always be one of the Others. Where, how and when the lines of differentiation are drawn out is beyond her control.
The ambition of Yasmin is to take a critical look at the reactions of various people and communities in Britain, in the aftermath of 9/11. But it is more than just a film that runs on the fuel of liberal guilt. It questions every character – and therefore every character type – provoking its audience to question not only what they see on screen, but perhaps also what they see off it. Most of all, it is a sad reminder that no matter how vigorously we debate the philosophical relevance of racial and other differences among people, in reality, we may actually be light years away from resolving them.