India and Pakistan’s 1947 partition had devastating effects. This compelled many migrants to move from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to build a life in the UK. During this time, many members of the South Asian community in the UK faced prejudice and financial hardship. Consequently, during the 70s and into the 80s, their voices were presented in British cinema.
Early titles like A Private Enterprise and My Beautiful Launderette highlighted the struggles of South Asian immigrants in the UK. Integration and adoption of the British lifestyle are balanced with heritage and culture. But it is ironic how many of these films were created by filmmakers who do not belong to the region. It is only in 1993 that Gurinder Chadha made Bhaji On The Beach which not only champions womanhood but also the clashes between Punjabi and British cultures. Also penned by Meera Syal, Chadha emerged as the first British-Asian woman to helm a feature film.
Subsequently, the BBC backed the sketch comedy, Goodness Gracious Me. This showed the conflict and integration of (mostly Indians) in the UK. Whilst many found this to be a ‘revolution’, it certainly offered laughs at the time. But in retrospect, at the expense of religious and cultural stereotypes. Whereas a movie like East Is East focuses on how racism evokes a divisive mindset amongst the youth.
Of course, in 2002, the floodgates opened after Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham became a major box-office hit—also, the highest-grossing film based on football. The first mainstream British film showcases an Indian woman who is passionate and talented in the sport, juggling the cross-cultural milieu. After this, the filmmaker takes her British-Desi flavour global with Bride and Prejudice, a melting pot of various talents from the US, UK and India. Examples like Brick Lane also depict a realistic snapshot of Bangladeshi migrants in London.
Largely, since the early 2000s, the British-Asian film industry has gone through a dry spell. Even though pre-pandemic, films like Eaten By Lions and Yesterday were engaging. However, Basam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli emerged as a turning point as it embraces the current lifestyle and South Asian history in the UK fused in a creative avant-garde manner. But with the numerous releases gaining traction in 2023, is it breaking the glass ceiling further?
What’s Love Got To Do With It? – Dir: Shekhar Kapur
Kapur, who is known for highlighting complex human emotions in movies like Masoom, returns to helm a rom-com with a vigorous coming-of-age crux. With production houses like Studio Canal and Working Title Films on board to back it. A fusion of Indian, Pakistani and British talent uniting for storytelling.
Set between London and Lahore, a filmmaker documents her childhood friend and neighbour’s arranged marriage to a bride from Pakistan. Though not biographical, it is inspired by Jemima Khan’s life with her former spouse, Imran Khan. Integration and celebration of one’s culture is a key underlining theme, in modern-day Britain.
Though it has a simplistic, breezy appeal and a predictable ending, it deals with the emotional pressures many foreign-settled desis endure. Despite the two protagonists hailing from different backgrounds, the mental pressures that they face from society connect them.
It also presents a contemporary perspective on Pakistan and how the youth there embrace modernity. There is also an emphasis on encouraging open and honest conversations with one another – especially in families – where the topic of ‘izzat’ always takes precedence. The fact that such a progressive story is free of mundane stereotypes.
Polite Society – Dir: Nida Manzoor
Manzoor makes her feature film debut with Polite Society, which had a terrific response at Sundance Film Festival. It now has the major backing of Universal Pictures and Focus Features as the distributor.
Narrated through the lens of a high-school student and martial arts practitioner who aspires to become a stuntwoman. But when her sister drops out of art school and gets engaged, she decides, along with her friends must pull off a wedding heist. However, the truth is a lot more sinister than it seems.
The movie is a melting point of cultural references. Be it classic Hindi songs or the Tarantino approach to filmmaking and storytelling, it employs visual aesthetics and powerful metaphors to highlight societal subjects. Especially when it tells a strong female story by another.
In fact, the movie tackles serious topics like sham marriages in a light-hearted yet sensitive manner. It fights the regressive notion of how when a woman speaks out against an issue or decides to live an independent life, she is branded as ‘crazy’ or is frowned upon. Such topics are discussed on a bigger scale.
Little English – Dir: Pravesh Kumar MBE
The most recent release Little English is another exemplary piece of British Asian, independent cinema. The project enabled 10 unemployed young people to secure their first paid roles within the industry as Trainees during the pandemic. Backed by Resource Productions, it secured successful theatrical releases too with the support of the BFI Audience Fund.
Locked in her crazy in-laws’ house to uphold the family honour,
the imported bride falls in love with her wayward brother-in-law and must
make a choice between love and duty to the family. Through the lens of a dysfunctional family, the movie addresses rampant topics including migration, crime, mental health and racism. Through wacky humour, it competently presents the sentimentality and seriousness of such subjects.
But making films like this, specifically of and for the diaspora, has been a challenge for Director Pravesh Kumar. He tells us: “It’s often seen as risky. People who run film companies often think that an audience does not exist for it. But for 20 years, as a theatre, I’ve been proving that there is a huge audience for authentic British Asian stories.”
He adds: “There seems to be this resistance to making these authentic films. Part of the reason might be that our stories might not seem important or valued by people who read scripts or run these companies. There are stereotypical tropes of what we are seen as. We can make hard-hitting dramas. But as soon as you want to make a comedy or love story, that seems to be something not important.”
It is fascinating how many several societally-driven movies have been released. For instance, Provoked and the Channel 4 series Britz, have strived to tell stories that are hard-hitting. Even Nathalia Syam’s directorial debut Footprints On Water and upcoming independent title Tell Me About It strive to tell stories that are intense yet rooted and relatable.
Representation has become a very pertinent subject within cinema and other workplaces. However, it seems like ‘diversity’ is more of a criteria checklist rather than actually supporting cinema across various cultures and countries. We quizzed Hollywood filmmakers The Russo Bros on this.
“It all starts from the vibrancy of the Indian film community. Because it is such a robust and successful film community, the people who move up in that system are incredibly talented. For Joe (Russo) and I, we aspire to be international storytellers. We are excited by the ability to, in this day and age, communicate globally through cinema,” Anthony Russo says.
He adds: “Our job as storytellers is to figure out how we craft narratives that speak most resonantly to a global audience. We never approach it in a manner like ‘satisfying diversity’. What is interesting to us is discovering things of substance and value in every corner of the world.
Despite time progressing, independent filmmakers even now suffer the lack of support from mainstream productions. How can this change? Pravesh says: “If we keep chiselling at the glass ceiling. We have to come together as an artistic community. Which I don’t think we do enough. We have to shout louder and raise our voices. We need to keep making work and bringing audiences to the cinemas. That’s the only way things that will change. Things will only change when they see the figures.”