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Asian-British Cinema

From the margins to mainstream

Main image of Asian-British Cinema

Lumping together filmmakers of any kind within a single cultural grouping is fraught with difficulty, so the term 'British-Asian' may, for example, fail to recognise individual artistic voices (such as those British-Asian filmmakers who are not making Asian-themed films). Nevertheless, it is possible to identify a notion of British Asian film, and these films do often have Asian themes and may be seen to share a number of features, including relatively low budgets.

It is clear that, over the last twenty years, attitudes in Britain towards Asian cultures have shifted, as has the taste of mainstream audiences for Asian-themed films such as East is East (1999) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002). The latter became one of the most popular British films ever and was a far cry from the colonially-obsessed images of Asians depicted in mainstream British cinema and television in the 1980s and earlier.

British Asian filmmaking has its roots in the 'Black' politics of the 1960s and '70s, as two distinct communities, Asians and African-Caribbeans, were melded together through their common experiences as racial minorities within the UK, often living under the threat of poverty and social exclusion. The need to challenge this racism and create greater awareness inspired a new wave of politically active filmmakers, such as the Trinidadian (of 'African-Asian descent'), Horace Ové, whose seminal documentaries and features such as Baldwin's Nigger (1969) and Pressure (1975) pioneered new cinematic images of Britain. In the 1980s, a new generation of African-Caribbean and Asian filmmakers began to emerge, exemplified by the Black workshop movement (including the Asian film company Retake) and independent filmmakers such as Yugesh Walia and Ruhul Amin. Asian filmmakers at this time often explored - in low-budget independent productions - issues relating to cultural activism, the fight against racism and the dilemmas of identity created by living 'between' two cultures. As Retake's Ahmed Jamal explains, Asian filmmakers were "in a position of reacting, of feeling strongly about depicting the reality of our experiences and resisting what has been imposed on us".

A number of other issues concerned filmmakers in this period, and went on to flavour work in Britain and in the wider Black and Asian diasporas in later decades. These include the influence of lesbian and gay themes (reflecting the arts and politics of the 1980s). Feminism was another strong theme - women fighting injustice in the home and in the outside world. Charged by feminist concerns, politically aware female filmmakers such as Pratibha Parmar and Gurinder Chadha emerged. Parmar's 1988 short Sari Red, a raw but disturbing docu-drama about an Asian schoolgirl who is run over and killed by neo-nazis at a bus stop, remains one of the most powerful pieces of early British-Asian film. Chadha's films, from I'm British But... (1988) to Bride and Prejudice (2004), have maintained a strong feminist message.

The 1980s also heralded the first British-Asian themed feature film to claim a mainstream market. As the director Udayan Prasad has observed: "My Beautiful Launderette showed that films with Asians in them could make money". This revolutionary film, with its mixed race, queer love story, was released in 1984. Its writer, Hanif Kureishi, went on to undertake a range of features and television drama about Asian experience throughout the 1980s and '90s, including Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), The Buddha of Suburbia (BBC, 1993) and My Son the Fanatic (1997).

The late 1980s saw changes in public funding structures and cultural politics. As a result, Black politics and arts began to become more fragmented. Some Asian filmmakers were increasingly commercially orientated, concerned with depicting a vibrant and diverse British Asian experience as well as exploring mainstream themes. Chadha's commercial feature Bhaji on The Beach (1994), subverted the British stereotype of the passive Asian woman by depicting a group of Asian women who find empowerment in each other's company. Writer Harwant Bains' Wild West (1992) also challenged the traditional portrait of British-Asian youth experience by showing a gang of teenagers in love with country and western music.

In the late 1990s, several British-Asian films managed to achieve limited commercial distribution while television and film developed ethnic feel-good productions. Film Four commissioned the screenplay of Ayub Khan Din's East is East (1999), a comedy about the experiences and conflicts of a working-class mixed-race British-Pakistani family. The film went on to become one of the most successful British films of the decade.

Asian-themed commercial films of the '90s have many similarities thematically with mainstream British features, not least feel good-comedy elements such as in East is East or Bhaji on The Beach. British notions of class and regionality are also played out, particularly a preoccupation with the post-industrial 'north' and all its incumbent stereotypes. Udayan Prasad's Brothers In Trouble (1996), for instance, depicts the troubled existence of illegal Pakistani immigrants in the early 1960s mill towns; East is East also delights in a romp through northern stereotypes.

Another common feature of commercial Asian films of the '90s is an homage to Bollywood, perhaps in deference to its popularity with Asian audiences. Chadha's Bhaji on the Beach has a surreal romantic interlude in which a White man and Asian woman dance Hindi-style around a tree. In East is East, the Khan family make a day trip to Bradford to catch a Bollywood movie, while the teenage daughter flounces around the backyard with a broom to the classic Bombay song 'Inhi logon ne' from Pakeezah (India, 1972; instantly recognised by Asian audiences around the world). Inter-racial romance is also a common narrative obsession, with cross-racial encounters in Bhaji, Brothers in Trouble and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, while in Shani Grewal's Guru in Seven (1997), Sanjay (Nitin Chandra Ganatra) aims to score with a range of women.

Today, 'Asian', once unfashionable, has become fashionable and almost 'sexy' in the Western media culture. In the USA, 1960s Swamis have been re-incarnated in the form of the 'life guru' Deepak Chopra. Madonna wears saris and mehndi, and calls to the youth accompanied by Hindi violins. Meanwhile, British-Asian musicians Nitin Sawhney and Talvin Singh are now established in the British music charts.

The British film industry has gradually begun to wake up to the 'brown pound'. British Asians are watching so many Hindi films that since 1998 these films have regularly entered the British top ten box-office charts. Director Gurinder Chadha has noted the change in attitudes between the release of her first film, Bhaji on the Beach (1994), and her third, Bend it Like Beckham (2002): "People are much more aware of difference, what was once foreign is now familiar".

Cary Rajinder Sawhney

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Bend It Like Beckham (2002)Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

Surprise smash hit comedy about a football mad young Asian girl

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Intelligent, witty film about Asian women on a day-trip to Blackpool

Thumbnail image of Brothers In Trouble (1995)Brothers In Trouble (1995)

Drama about a group of illegal immigrants in northern England

Thumbnail image of East is East (1999)East is East (1999)

Comedy about a Pakistani chip shop owner living in Salford

Thumbnail image of I'm British But... (1989)I'm British But... (1989)

Gurinder Chadha's documentary about Bhangra music and Asian identity

Thumbnail image of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Surprise box-office hit about a gay Pakistani/National Front romance

Thumbnail image of My Son The Fanatic (1997)My Son The Fanatic (1997)

The son of a Westernised Pakistani cab driver is drawn towards radical Islam

Thumbnail image of Private Enterprise, A (1974)Private Enterprise, A (1974)

The first British Asian feature, about a would-be entrepreneur in Birmingham

Thumbnail image of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987)Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987)

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