Emergences & Emergencies
New British Asian Films
Curated by Sukhdev Sandhu
From the companion catalogue:
1. Sukhdev Sandhu on "India Calling" (Sonali Fernando, 2002)
2. Michael Vazquez on "Otolith" (The Otolith Group, 2003)
3. Naeem Mohaiemen on "Bradford Riots" (Neil Biswas, 2006)
4. Jon Caramanica on "Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music" (Vivek Bald, 2001)
5. Vijay Prashad on "The Road To Guantanamo" (Michael Winterbottom 2006)
6. James Brooke-Smith on "England Expects" (Tony Smith 2004)
7. Karen Shimakawa on "Skin Deep" (Yousaf Ali Khan: 2001)
8. Kamila Shamsie on "A Love Supreme" (Nilesh Patel, 2001)
9. Mohsin Hamid on "My Son The Fanatic" (Udayan Prasad, 1997)
10. Bharat Tandon on "The Warrior" (Asif Kapadia, 2001):
11. Gautam Malkani on "Young, Angry and Muslim" (Julian Hendy, 2005)
India Calling (Sonali Fernando, 2002)
Perverted By Language
- Sukhdev Sandhu
India Calling is a work of science fiction, a dispatch from a foreign galaxy whose inhabitants have been put through a strict program of identity mutation. They are voluntary abductees, night-for-day swappers who have chosen to conceal their names in favour of those of Bondi Beach surfers, cartoon web-slingers, boldface celebrities. They contort their mouths in order to neutralize their accents and communicate in corporate upspeak. Told that their places of birth are shameful, they engage in creative teleporting, hatching new origin myths in which, or so they tell their Western interlocutors, they were raised in the wilds of Wyoming or the back lanes of suburban Penge.
India Calling is Macaulay's 1835 Minute on Indian Education brought up to date. A beady-eyed look at the efforts of international capitalism to form a cadre of cultural interpreters, 'a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.' And, what's more, 'to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.'
Macaulay's goals were thwarted; millions of Indians refused to be perverted by language or to mimic-men their way through society babbling in babu brogues. Speaking the Queen's English did not make them loyal subjects. Similarly, for all that their put-on names and laboriously articulated v-sounds give the impression that they are digital coolies and obeisant speak-and-spell robotniks, the graduates in this film gradually bridle at their lousy pay. They turn against their companies.
India Calling is a postcolonial sitcom, The Office set in modern-day Delhi. Its setting is an air-conditioned new republic lorded over by self-proclaimed managerial maestro and beergut-general David Brett, aka Rob Bissett. Yomping around in his starchy white shirt, winking to a camera he thinks is there to salute his people-skills savvy, cracking up at his own lofty rhetoric, he embodies Western self-interest masquerading as corporate philanthropy. Cherish his cheeks-flushed pride as he rewards employees with $25 bonuses. Savour his boss-class largesse as he dons a Santa costume and hurls sticks of candy from atop a knock-kneed elephant. He is quite as alien as any of the young men and women who, we can be certain, are laughing behind his back.
Sukhdev Sandhu teaches at New York University and is the author of London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined A City (2003), I'll Get My Coat (2005) and Night Haunts: A Journey Across Nocturnal London (2007)
Otolith (The Otolith Group, 2003)
Little Girls Come From the Stars
- Michael Vazquez
A certain kind of child stares into the night sky and dreams of sailing through it. Most of the time the child grows up and forgets, toils in some uncertain vineyard, blithely and irrevocably terrestrial. One child in ten million never forgets, joins the military-industrial complex, becomes a spacefarer. A few hundred million become nerds.
Kodwo Eshun is one of the great nerds of the age. A DJ, critical theorist, and artist, he is the author of More Brilliant Than the Sun (1999), a strange and lovely book about futurism and experimental music that paid more than a little attention to Herman Poole Blount, the Alabaman pianist and bandleader who called his band the Arkestra and claimed to belong to a race of angels from Saturn. Together with Anjalika Sagar, Eshun is a member of the Otolith group, named for the semi-liquid organ in the ear that is responsible for the sensation of pitch and tilt.
Otolith is also the name of an ongoing series of film projects that owes a considerable debt to the crypto-postcolonial visual essays pioneered by the Black Audio Film Collective. Otolith I is a serious work of incredible whimsy, and a terror to describe. It is personal: the musings of a 22nd-century woman about her 21st-century granddaughter, much of it in the form of quotations from letters to her 20th century grandmother. It is science fictional: the narrator is a New Woman''agravic,' in the film's pleasing coinage'the product of a 'bifurcation in hominization' that has left most of us behind, vertical and challenged, while the new mammals, hopeful monsters, live without gravity in space.
It is also political: itself an emblem of latter-day Afro-Asian solidarity (Eshun's family came to England from Ghana; Sagar's from India), Otolith also evokes a nostalgia for a time when the globe was divided in three, when the Third World turned to the Second for inspiration and instruction (and also, guns and military advisors). And it is poetical: Usha and her forebears reflect on verticality and modernity and the 'bravest woman' of their era, Valentina Tereshkova, the Russian cosmonaut who became the first woman in space.
To date only 450 people have been in space (not counting the angels), nearly all of them engineers, scientists, or test pilots. Here's hoping that the next space race takes a few poets and theorists along for the ride.
Michael Vazquez, former editor of Transition magazine, is a writer and consultant based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
Bradford Riots (Neil Biswas, 2006)
Shuldn't b callin us Pakis
- Naeem Mohaiemen
The first time I was in the middle of a fight was at the now defunct Mutiny asian underground night. The early adopters (gay boys + misfits) had been replaced by I-bankers, setting up turf wars with the hardcore borough crew. The tussle was about the usual stuff, somebody looked at somebody's girl. But as I waded into the crowd, I was pushed to the ground with surprising vigor. Muscular, angry and jacked up: these Asians were spoiling for a fight.
I always feel an irresponsible, secret thrill at these testosterone displays of masculinity. These are not the get along/go along meek Asians of my father's generation. When 1960s England turned into a nasty brutish place with bottle attacks at bus stands, my father decided to pack up the family and go 'home'. Others with fewer options had to stay and take a beating. When Bengali tailor Altab Ali was beaten to death in 1978, seven thousand Bengalis took to the streets in the largest Asian protest in England. But asswipe-in-charge Morrissey would still reminded the 'Bengali in Platforms': you don't belong here.
Tectonic shifts are underway as a muscular new asian/black identity asserts itself. That's right, we are here because you were there. The cloying accents of Mind Your Language, or the chuddy-kissing minstrelsy of Goodness Gracious Me, have given way to sharp shards on the street and screen. The thrill I felt on that New York dance floor is the same impulse in Gautam Malkani's Londonstani, as Hounslow rude boys go ballistic: 'Shuldn't b callin us Pakis, innit, you dirrty gora'. As the Empire (subjects) strikes back, a panicked white working class seeks common cause with BNP proto-fascists and the shoot-on-sight tactics of the security-panic police force. The mixture is toxic and explosive, the larger Asian community the collateral damage.
Bradford Riots commemorates one among many explosions of urban violence. On display: raw orgiastic rage, street violence as CNN of the inner city, and anarchic energy that is easy to glamorize. The burning fires of the banlieu gave me a momentary thrill: 'That's right, fuck things up!' But in the cold, hard after-light, the French riots ended up empowering Sarkozy and moved Segolene to embrace the flag. Is it really revolutionary violence if it further empowers Empire? When I'm not swept away by adrenalin rush, these conflicting thoughts come crowding in.
Naeem does art/text interventions in Dhaka + New York. Projects include ‘Oppose Us & Rome Will Not Forgive You’ and "Sartre kommt zu Stammheim".
MUTINY: Asians Storm British Music (Vivek Bald, 2001)
What Lies Beneath?
- Jon Caramanica
Early 1998: Mutmahim, Malik and their crew would come grab me in SE London's New Cross in an old beater and we'd all scoot up to the Notting Hill Arts Club, a little cocoon in W11. 5 quid at the door bought entry to a small, often dank basement space where DJs brought in tabla players to spar with, where traditional dances competed with more contemporary styles, and where the drinks were overpriced. Even when it was raging, it was still moody and somehow calm - everyone there looked like they had a sense of purpose, like just being there was important.
But was it somehow too comfortable? The regular night, a spin-off of the Outcaste record label that had become a home for progressive-minded, cross-pollinating Asian musicians, was itself ultimately a home for folks who (mostly) looked the same and (mostly) thought the same. And this 2nd generation was fashionable, too. The magazines and newspapers had caught on, and nothing seduces quite like seduction. Is it possible to be both cool and purposeful?
Maybe it was speed garage, as they used to call it, which took the spotlight away, with the mainstream press only so capable of juggling subcultures. At the end of Mutiny, many of the artists interviewed bemoan their late-90s dealings with British major labels, though I'm sure no one was honestly, truly surprised. Every artist interviewed here sees the act of music-making as an act of resistance, and the record industry was no more an ally than the government.
Talk of music as resistance can seem quaint in an age where, thanks to technology, more voices can be easily heard than ever before. The fantastic archival footage here - of traditional bhangra bands, Asian punks, Asian breakdancers and the like infiltrating UK television - is a throwback to the days of chipping away at the monoculture. By 1998, the questions were different, though, and what Mutiny best captures is the struggle over place. How fighting for it, or against it, can make us who we are. How having it is no guarantee of true power. And how the moment the doors open onto it is the moment it changes, ideas and sounds escaping out into the world, sometimes forgetting whence they came.
Jon Caramanica is the Music Editor of Vibe magazine. He writes regularly about music and television for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and several other publications.
The Road To Guantanamo (Michael Winterbottom 2006)
- Vijay Prashad
Patrice Lumumba Ford, son of a Black Panther, went to China as an undergraduate. There he met some of the 18 million Chinese Muslims, found succor in their faith and converted to Islam. He returned to Portland State University, where a professor remembered, 'He was devout, but he was not a missionary.' A few weeks after 9/11, a sheriff's deputy saw Ford and five other Muslims in a gravel pit at target practice. He took their names and let them off. Some weeks later, the group left the U. S. for Afghanistan, where, they claimed, they wanted to make contact with the Red Crescent and help their Muslim brethren who faced the wrath of the U. S.-led invasion. When they returned to the U. S. without getting to Afghanistan, the FBI arrested them. The Portland 7 defined the presence of al-Qaeda's Fifth Column, a deadly force within the U. S. ready to do the bidding of the enemy.
The Portland 7 is the U. S. version of the Tipton 3. These are groups of young people who bear within them the histories of imperialism, and who take refuge in Islam not for its doctrinal or theological aspects, but for the platform it provides in solidarity with Muslims who face the brunt of the war machine. African Americans (such as in the Portland 7) or British Asians (such as in the Tipton 3) turn to political Islam in response to Atlantic racism and to the sustained campaigns against lands where the populations are largely Muslim (and whose land bears rich resources coveted by the Atlantic world).
Neither Europe nor the U. S. has come to terms with their imperial pasts, and they still sees their 'minority' population as outsiders, as immigrants; neither Europe nor the U. S. accept that the world's resources can't simply be seized without the generation of anger and resentment. The Tipton 3 went to Afghanistan out of curiosity perhaps or by accident, just as the Portland 7 tried to go there to do humanitarian work (as another British Asian Guantanamo prisoner, Moazzam Begg, did). Their intentions are irrelevant to the Atlantic powers who are invested in fear-mongering about their darker co-citizens, the imputed Fifth Column, whose presence engenders fear, and silences the democratic impulses of a population who pay for these wars with blood and treasure.
Vijay Prashad, Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, is the author of many books, including The Karma of Brown Folk (2000), and The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (2006)
England Expects (Tony Smith 2004)
East London: Space of Flows
- James Brooke-Smith
England Expects maps the emergent social geographies of East End London in the era of globalization. The action takes place in and around the Canary Wharf financial district, a pre-planned island of gleaming corporate towers that dwarfs the crumbling housing estates of the working-class communities that surround it. This is an east London that has become a twenty-first-century contact zone where the human, financial, and informational flows of the globalized world collide. The narrative triangulates the uneasy relationships between the occupants of this contested social space: sharp-suited commodities traders, disaffected Asian youths caught between cultures, their immigrant parents, the struggling remnants of the urban white working-class, members of the crypto-fascistic British National Party, and the harassed public servants who distribute scarce resources from a dwindling welfare state.
The film focuses specifically on the vicissitudes of national identity in this trans-national space of flows. Alison is a Scottish trader who keeps a key-ring memento of her favoured British Unionist football club in her purse; Rashel is a young Asian heroin addict who is threatened by his mother with a return to the old country; Ray is an ex-fascist agitator who attempts to keep a lid on his boiling resentment and hold down his job as a corporate security guard. In their own ways, these characters are all trying to come to terms with their place in a new world order.
England Expects was originally broadcast on the BBC in April of 2004. It updates the British public service broadcasting tradition of social realist drama for a new generation. Its focus on local communities and class politics places it firmly in the tradition of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, but it expands on these traditional themes with its broadened focus on issues of globalization, surveillance, and post-9/11 security fears. It is a hugely ambitious film that attempts to cast a wide net over the complex social, political, and cultural energies that animate East London in the twenty-first century. Perhaps some of those complex energies will always elude the limited grasp of narrative form; but in its own messy way, England Expects manages to tap into the main channels of Britain's shifting national identity in the globalized world.
James Brooke-Smith is a graduate student of English Literature at New York University. He is writing his doctoral thesis on the pre-history of the information age.
Skin Deep (Yousaf Ali Khan, 2001)
- Karen Shimakawa
mirrors give me back to myself as you see me, skin side out.
skin marks the border separating inside and outside, me and not-me. it is where I end and everything and everyone else begins. it contains me, protects me, encases me -- it is not me, yet it is what makes me me. (not entirely true: as a container, skin is imperfect. it has holes, it leaks, it is vulnerable to penetration, to puncture, to breach.)
it’s invisible from within: I cannot see it from the inside, despite the fact that “inside” is where I am located in relation to it.
it’s all (or nearly all) that is visible of you from the outside. it is, for me, what contains, encases, constitutes you. it is the means by which -- the form in which -- you become perceptible to me.
what is the you that skin makes? law names it: mongolian, hindoo, malay, negro. in the U.S., until well into the 20th century magistrates rolled up the sleeves of citizenship applicants and compared tan lines, then peered at the veins pulsing beneath the surface as if to pierce the membrane and see the “truth” of identity it concealed. when that method of investigation failed, and noting that their own skins were far from “white” in a literal sense, they nonetheless denied the rights of those whose skins could not be properly called white by virtue of one’s education, place of birth, or parentage.
others name it: chink, nigger, paki.
what is the me that skin makes? it contains (or is supposed to contain) within it only that which belongs in/to me, that which is “proper” to me, that which is “purely” me. everything else has to be jettisoned in order for me to stay me. but the fallibility of skin means that there is always the possibility -- the certainty -- that there is that within me that which shouldn’t be there -- waste, decay, excess. it is the expulsion, shedding, scraping away of what shouldn’t be there that keeps me me. what belongs inside, and what doesn’t, and who decides?
Karen Shimakawa is an Associate Professor of Performance Studies, and the Program Director for Asian/Pacific/American Studies in the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis. Her research focuses on the somatics of cultural identification.
A Love Supreme (Nilesh Patel, 2001)
- Kamila Shamsie
In Urdu, the ultimate compliment reserved for a cook is 'haath mey mazaa hai' ' the delight is in the hands. Such a claim, when made about a cook, pushes to one side the question of the freshness of ingredients, the excellence of a recipe, the sharpness of a blade. If the delight is in your hands it will transfer itself to anything it touches, any meal it prepares.
Nilesh Patel's A Love Supreme is that old, slightly worn compliment rendered beautifully alive. The hands in the film do not function as participants in the preparation of a samosa ' on the contrary, the ingredients and utensils are merely the props which the hands use for their performance.
There are two sequences, in particular, which highlight the shifting nature, the varied properties, of the hands. In the first, lemon juice streams onto and between the hennaed fingers of a woman's hand, light sparkling off the juice; the effect is sensuous, the curved fingers and the play of light on liquid calling to mind images of a body beneath a waterfall.
In the second, seen through a fish-eye lens, a pair of hands slap together like cymbals, exerting their mastery over both the ball of flour that is flattened between them and - as the slap fills our vision - over us. Who would not be intimidated by those hands, and awed by their power, their certainty'
The division of the film into different stages calls attention to the intricate layers of action that go into the preparation of a snack; but beyond this it also allows each stage to function as distinct performance space. We know we are watching the same hands throughout, but in ' or on ' each stage, they show us a new side of themselves, and by the end ' though we have seen nothing above the elbow of the women to whom they belong - we feel ourselves intimately bound to those hands which confer delight on us as we consume the images they create.
Kamila Shamsie's novels include Salt and Saffron (2000), Kartography (2002), and Broken Verses (2005). She lives in London and Karachi.
My Son The Fanatic (Udayan Prasad, 1997)
The Road of Inquiry
- Mohsin Hamid
I remember watching My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) on video as a teenager in Pakistan. I was shocked by the bravery and originality of Hanif Kureishi's screenplay. His world of British Asians was one I had no familiarity with, but I appreciated his daring in exploring themes of sexuality and drug use. I read his first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), in college and decided that this was a writer whose work I wanted to follow.
But I was disappointed by his second novel, The Black Album (1995), and by his subsequent film, My Son The Fanatic (1997). The old themes were still there, gritty as ever, but to my mind they were overshadowed by a fixation on extremist Islam. Having grown up in Pakistan and now living in America, I thought Kureishi's treatment of Muslims was exaggerated and fanciful.
I was wrong. I moved to London in 2001, and in the six years that I have lived here, I have realized that the radical Muslim student groups and self-segregationist impulses Kureishi presciently described a decade ago do very much exist in Britain. Watching My Son The Fanatic now, without my hostility to what I had previously thought of as its anti-Muslim stance, I can appreciate how ahead of its time the film was.
But while the title of the film might suggest that the son is its focus, in actuality the tale is centered on the father. Parvez is a man torn between two worlds, that of alcohol, messy love with a white woman, and integration on the one hand, and puritanical rejection on the other. Kureishi's compassion for his navigation of that conflict, and actor Om Puri's sensitive performance, make theirs a film that has done more than age well: it has grown in power with each passing year.
For many of us who are exploring the experiences of Muslims in the West, both in cinema and in literature, My Son The Fanatic stands as an important marker on the road of inquiry.
Mohsin Hamid is the author of Moth Smoke (2000) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
The Warrior (Asif Kapadia, 2001)
Questions of Scale
- Bharat Tandon
In terms of scale, British cinema often finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place: the widescreen epic can seem too expansive, always risking the lapse into 'eye-candy'; conversely, that small, intimate scale, too easily identified as a 'national' aesthetic, can sometimes be used merely as an excuse for a certain aesthetic parochialism. What's so unusual about The Warrior's style is that it manages successfully to maintain both large and small scales within the same film: for all its accomplished use of open space (not least the extraordinary deep-focus landscapes), the story's most important emotional and narrative shifts are conducted in much smaller exchanges.
In the early stages of the film, Kapadia cuts repeatedly between the points of view of the perpetrators and victims of violence, suggesting an entire network of power-relations; and as Irfan Khan's protagonist continues his journey towards redemption in the mountains, whole conversations take place almost wordlessly in close-cropped exchanges of significant looks; yet the style of The Warrior never lets a viewer forget the (literally) wider background against which its dramas are set.
These mutually enriching perspectives feel appropriate, somehow, to a movie with such a diverse heritage (a Japanese folk-tale, transplanted to feudal India, made by a British Asian director); of course, as innumerable 'Euro-pudding' productions attest, such eclecticism can go spectacularly wrong, but Kapadia and the cast are so in command of their material that The Warrior's elements cohere strikingly. Critics are always quick to praise Ang Lee's ability to play different generic conventions off each other; in its own, distinctive manner, The Warrior amply demonstrates that a British director can bring off comparable cinematic coups.
Bharat Tandon, Lecturer in English Literature at St Anne's College, Oxford, is the author of Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation (2003).
Young, Angry and Muslim (Julian Hendy, 2005)
Young, Angry and Muslim
- Gautam Malkani
Here's a radical new idea: rather than simply brand as evildoers young British-born Pakistani Muslims who have taken up arms against the West, let's try to work out why instead. After all, if you want to solve a problem, it kind of helps to understand it. At least that's the basic strategy employed in science, art, business and even war. But when it comes to young, angry Muslims, this is evidently too difficult an approach both for politicians and the out-of-touch Muslim 'community leaders' they consult.
And so the challenge is met by Navid Akhtar, who appreciates the simplicity and stupidity of politicians' demands Muslims magically integrate more with mainstream Britain. Accordingly, he ventures beyond the usual 'clash of cultures' framework to show the contradictions within the two communities are often as important as those between them.
Hence CCTV footage captures the British 'yob' subculture that owes much to a drinks and leisure industry beholden to the equation that more intoxication and less conversation equals more profit. Interview footage illustrates the proverbial pressure cooker that results when parents care more for their family honour than their children's well being. Then there's footage relating to the wider world: Palestine, Bosnia - and the shameful images from Abu Ghraib that symbolise an immoral and inept foreign policy.
Against this backdrop, radical Muslim groups offer narratives that clearly appear less contradictory to the young and vulnerable. We must appreciate the extent to which these are political narratives as well as religious or cultural ones - with radical distortions of Islam becoming a seductive antidote not just to feelings of alienation, but also to apathy. After all, today's dominant 'urban' youth scene has cynically been neutered of youth culture's former political and counter-cultural content. By tackling issues of justice, poverty and the emasculation of people by powerful institutions, radical Muslim clerics take on an inspirational role once filled by the likes of John Lennon and Chuck D.
Efforts to promote a sense of 'Britishness' are therefore not as useful as promoting a more general 'civic' identity and culture to tackle political apathy. Listening to what young British-born Pakistani Muslims actually have to say is an ideal start.
Gautam Malkani is the author of Londonstani (2006) and works for the Financial Times.