Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha’s voice offers a universal message for South Asian diasporas separated by an ocean
Gurinder Chadha’s first film I’m British but…, released in 1989, explores the dueling identities many second-generation immigrants struggle to reconcile. Through a series of interviews and slice-of-life scenes — mostly crafted through the lens of music — Chadha told the story of several UK-born twenty-somethings who knew little of their parents’ homeland and felt pressure from both family and peers, who operated from different sides of the cultural divide, to adopt identities that suited others but clearly didn’t fit their sense of self.
The documentary is set in Southall, a predominantly South Asian neighbourhood in London’s West End, near Heathrow Airport, where many immigrants in the ‘70s and ‘80s began their new lives after stepping off a plane. Chadha agrees that, if she were to reshoot that film to highlight Canada’s South Asian diaspora — one that makes up almost half the residents in Brampton, located next to Pearson Airport, where thousands of newcomers arrive each year to begin their Canadian journey — the themes would be exactly the same.
“In Canada, interestingly, you have a large number of people who come straight from India. But then you have people like my niece, who were born and raised here, who are like Jasminder from Bend it like Beckham [Chadha’s internationally acclaimed 2002 hit film]. They are that crowd. In that sense they [Canadian and British diasporas] are similar,” Chadha told The Pointer.
A scene from Bend it Like Beckham
The universality of her message, of a generation of people who feel out of place in their own environment, finds a particular audience in Brampton, where there’s a mosaic of diasporas who struggle to define their identity. “The parents have dreams, the children have dreams, but somewhere the dreams don’t meet in the middle,” Chadha told an audience in Brampton this week. She is visiting as part of the International Film Festival of South Asia, which launched its 8th annual edition on Thursday with a Mississauga screening of her latest offering.
Chadha, probably best known for exploring duelling identities through the competition of sport in Bend it like Beckham, was promoting her latest film Blinded by the Light, a story about a 16-year-old Pakistani boy named Javed living in the UK in 1987, a time of great social upheaval and racial tension as many communities struggled with the complex collision of cultures in post-colonial Britain.
Thematically, Blinded by the Light and I’m British but… are almost identical. Javed constantly feels pressure from his immigrant family to stay true to them and their culture. He has a strong desire to become a writer, but his strict and old-fashioned father, who was born in Pakistan, won’t permit it. His father’s name, Malik, is appropriate because it is the Arabic word for king and, according to Javed, “In my house, no one is allowed to have an opinion except my dad,” which leaves Javed feeling hopeless, his dreams seemingly just beyond reach.
Javed, the main character, with his father
He feels a constant pull to belong in the only homeland he has known, but some of the old-stock Britons of Luton, the town just north of London where he lives, don’t want him there. In one harrowing scene, Javed barely escapes a racist attack by a neo-Nazi whom he had caught writing “Pakis out” on a brick wall in spray paint. An irony that represents the essence of Javed’s deeply discordant sense of dislocation hits its mark when Malik, unknowingly repeats the skinhead’s alienating words: “You will never be British.” Javed feels like a man without a place.
Javed’s decisive moment comes when he meets a Sikh boy at his high school named Roops, who introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Javed comes to believe The Boss’s lyrics are about him, songs that talk about voiceless figures in a society that has forgotten about them. The song “Born to Run” is about a youthful desire to run away from a place where the middle-class American Dream is dead — which resonates with Javed as he wishes to get away from Luton and take a writing course at the University of Manchester. The song that triggers his awakening is “Dancing in the Dark,” Springsteen’s cathartic piece about demanding meaning in a world crumbling around him.
Many of the social issues tackled in the film feel transplanted from Brampton to Luton. Racial resentment in Canada is once again front and centre. Racist rhetoric from a resurgent ultra right-wing nationalist camp, on the one hand, is fomenting a culture clash in Canada. On the other hand, many members of visible minority groups, now seeing the emergence of a fourth generation, sometimes wonder if there is a place for them here.
Brampton’s status as a “bedroom community” has led many to resign themselves to the fact that there will be few jobs here, prompting young people to either leave the city to make a life for themselves or wander aimlessly through life, in what many consider a self-made patchwork of ethnic ghettos that hardly represents the Canadian ideal of pluralism. Meanwhile, truly diverse places like Toronto, Montreal — and London — call out to them. Along with missed cultural opportunities, housing here is hard to come by, at least in terms of stock young people can afford, meaning that many remain suspended in uncertainty, often stuck living with parents, squeezing out room for personal growth.
Meanwhile, for an older generation who may have spent the first half of their lives elsewhere, it is difficult to see eye to eye with the identity struggles of their children. In traditional South Asian families, the extended kinship network is their entire world. So questions about one’s place in a new land are irrelevant; the family is their country, and they will fight to keep themselves sovereign. “You should be listening to our music before you get confused and hating yourself,” Javed’s sister admonishes him when she finds him listening to Springsteen.
After losing his job at British carmaker Vauxhall’s manufacturing factory, Javed's father is only emboldened in his refusal to see Javed’s dream of becoming a writer as a worthwhile pursuit. He instead expects his son to abandon his dream and martyr himself to help his family survive.
“Our parents saw themselves as Indian, while we were saying, ‘Well, no, we’re British,’” Chadha told The Pointer. “The third generation in Britain, we had the debates: ‘Oh, am I British or am I Indian, Pakistani, British-Pakistani, British-Asian? Am I Black? Blah, blah, blah’ — we had all these debates to try and make sure the national consciousness included us. The third generation don’t give a damn. They’re like, ‘Oh, this is who we are, and what’s the problem?’”
The veracity of the film’s message and how applicable it is to the society at large can be found in the film’s inspiration. Chadha says she was moved by the life story of British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who went through the same struggles Javed does.
“No one is telling our stories; no one is putting our history on the screen. No one is showing the world what it means to be British and Asian,” Chadha said, explaining her determination to change that.
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