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I'm British But... (1989)


Main image of I'm British But... (1989)
DirectorGurinder Chadha
Production CompanyBritish Film Institute Production
 Channel Four
ProducerEliza Mellor
ScriptGurinder Chadha
PhotographyNina Kellgren
EditorMichael Danks

Interviewees: Apala Chowdhury, Michael Khan, Jabeen Mohammed, Ramesh Rana, Neetinder Boparai, Haroon (Joi Bangla Sound), San-J (X-Zecutive Soundz)

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Bhangra and Bangla music and the experiences of Asian sons and daughters are used to build a picture of a defiant popular culture.

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An exploration of the complex issue of identity for second generation British Asians, I'm British But... (1989) was the first film by Gurinder Chadha, subsequently the most successful of the new wave of Asian-British filmmakers in the 1990s.

Chadha's documentary uses the rise of Bhangra music - a vibrant fusion of traditional Punjabi dance music with contemporary Western dance styles from Hip Hop to House - to investigate the extent to which Asian forms have both absorbed and influenced Western culture and the way this reflects a more confident generation of Asian-British young people who reject stereotypes of passivity. The interviewees, a deliberately diverse group drawn from Glasgow, Belfast, London and South Wales, all but one of whom was born in the UK, are largely relaxed about their identities. They are clear that this is their home, but equally certain of their wish to retain a link to their Asian origins, even if their parents' homelands feel remote and unfamiliar.

In interviews about the film, Chadha stressed the importance of Bhangra in developing a proud and private culture for young Asians in Britain: "Bhangra music gave us back something for ourselves; it had nothing to do with English people or white society." The Bhangra musicians she interviews appear more comfortable with the music attracting white audiences, but note that it contains references that would be missed by most white listeners. This point is stressed by the recurring shots which recall The Beatles' celebrated rooftop performance at Abbey Road. Here, however, a Bhangra outfit performs on the roof of a Southall video shop for the benefit of bemused shoppers below. The wit of this device is deliberately undermined by the lyrics of the band's song, an angry lament of the experiences of Punjabi immigrants to a hostile England: "How will you thrive in this strange and loveless land/Where hatred mocks you at every turn?"

Elsewhere, the interviewees note the unpleasant connotations of Britishness - colonialism, the Raj, the massacre at Amritsar - and report with regret and anger the racism they continue to face; one relates with extraordinary calm the arson that destroyed his family's Rhondda valley farm. For all that, the film's message is essentially a positive one, hailing the creative energy of a generation for which old certainties no longer apply, but which has the self-assurance to create new identities to suit new circumstances.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Arriving in Britain (1:41)
2. The rise of Bhangra (3:12)
3. Connotations of Britishness (2:45)
Complete film (28:45)
Production stills
Surviving Sabu (1997)
Chadha, Gurinder (1960-)
Asian-British Cinema
Short Films
They Started Here
Channel 4 Documentary