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
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.