Asian Films in Britain

By Maarit Khan

Maarit Khan attends the Birmingham International Film and Television Festival and talks to Asian film-makers who work in this country about making a career in an industry where race relations are problematic.

There is a description from The Scent of India in which Pasolini describes the actors from the cinema billboards. He bemoans the fact that these representations of ideal bourgeois beauty, stocky and pink-faced with black whiskers and a hairy chest, are not graceful and thin like all other Indians he has encountered...

...I’m not sure who Pasolini intends stereotyping here, the type of the fat actor who teaches him to recognise the type of the fat bourgeois Indian, or the type of the thin Indian who makes him yearn for a certain little beggar boy. What is certain is that by perpetuating the stereotype of one, you will be inadvertently typing another as its opposite, and its counterpart. If we shout loud enough about a type, will we soon hear it in stereo? Pasolini may have disliked the face of the Indian actor, but it helped him clarify his relationship to another type, the poor little beggar.

At the 11th Birmingham International Film & Television Festival, Saeed Jaffrey resembles the rotund preening actor of Pasolini’s description. In discussion, he admits that he is happy to play the role of the rich uncle. ‘I’m not bothered by middle-class family roles,’ he shrugs. In another cinema, film director Shyam Benegal, a proponent of social and auteur cinema watches his first film, Ankur (The Seedling, 1974) for the first time in ten years and tells the unusual story behind the financing and distribution of his second film, Manthan (The Churning, 1976). Benegal explained: ‘Five thousand milk farmers each invested 2 rupees in the film, and received a return of between 100-200 rupees. The National Diary Development Board made 58 prints of the film and the film began a tour around the villages. New Indian Cinema died in the 70s. In the mid-80s national TV wiped out the cinema audience and took 30 per cent of the cinema revenues. The professional middle classes of urban India became the audience for TV.’ Those same fat bourgeois of Pasolini’s description.

According to Munni Kabir, India is in the wake of a satellite and cable revolution. TV is no longer the preserve of the educated classes and is accessible to everyone. ‘If you live in India today, you know what’s happening in every corner of the world because of satellite TV, but it’s not the other way round. How often do you hear about what’s happening on the sub-continent with the same immediacy?’

While the developed world may enjoy detaching itself from its own context and saturating developing markets with its own culture, immigrant culture has always tended to assimilate with the host culture and adopt a double-barrelled name. In Britain, we have arrived at the third and fourth generation of Asian immigrants with an established immigrant culture and framework of reference. Are terms like culture and identity relevant or do they perpetuate stereotypical programming and film-making.

‘We’ve been asked these questions for the past 20 years and we’re fed up with it,’ says theatre director and film-maker Shakila Maan. ‘Asian magazines like Bazaar and Tan promote the work of Asian film-makers. The politics are incorporated into the work. They expect us to break barriers. What is discussed is the problem of funding.’

With its Independent Film and Television department and commitment to its original remit, Channel 4 assisted a variety of film-makers in the 80s. Now a proposal submitted by an Asian film-maker is no longer confined to the multicultural desk, it may no longer be necessary to speak about the configurations of being confined to a specific cultural context.

‘I know that for some people there is some benefit to be gained by making their careers out of belonging to a nice, cosy category,’ says H.O. Nazareth, independent producer at Penumbra Productions. ‘I would describe this attitude as an extension of race relations, of careerism in the race relations industry.’

Film-maker Munni Kabir, who has worked as Indian film consultant at Channel 4, still believes it is difficult to get mainstream slots for so-called ethnic stories. ‘I don’t see you getting a mainstream slot or a very prestigious series, a great sweep of history like People’s Century. I don’t know if as an Asian producer you could swing that.’

‘I think if you talk to Asian film-makers, each one will come from a very different perspective and position,’ explains Parminder Vir at Formation Films. ‘A film producer like me will come from another because I don’t just work with Asian film-makers. I’m conscious of the Asianess which informs my work, but I work with a whole range of film-makers from around the world.’

In terms of funding, the question of being culturally confined to certain areas of resources does become a problem. Does it bother you? ‘Yes, absolutely it does,’ insists Parminder, ‘because it puts limits and bias on us from the point of view of getting access to resources, facilities, exhibition space for our creative expressions.’

Shakila Maan has been commissioned by Asian cable TV to make a six-part series titled Aurat (Woman). Set in Southall, in English and in Hindi, it’s about the pressures of single-parent motherhood. ‘I’ve become interested in addressing the Hindi viewer and not the white viewer’, she explains. ‘I’ve woken up to the fact that television is full of white liberals who either want to support and promote your work, or to appropriate your ideas and produce them for themselves, or they want you to have very specific ideas. I’m fed up with being forced to be an ideology first and human second.’

‘I’ve created my own community,’ says Pratibha Parmar, ‘because community is not just about your particular affiliation based on your gender or your race.’

Pratibha Parmar has collaborated with Black activists, Alice Walker, June Jordan, and Angela Walker, producing internationally-acclaimed documentaries such as Warrior Marks (1991) about female genital mutilation and A Place of Rage (1993) about the civil rights movement.

‘While race is something which is crucial and pivotal to my work, I also resist being confined to that. I’m currently working on a half-hour documentary for Channel 4 for their Lesbian and Gay Icon series about Jodie Foster as an icon for lesbians. So it’s probably one of the first times I’m not doing something about race, and that’s partly related to the question of ghettoisation. It’s definitely a breakthrough in not being ghettoised as a film-maker who only makes films about Asian people or the Black community.’

To suggest the existence of a movement of film-makers based on a cultural affiliation is perhaps less of an aesthetic assumption than, as Parminder Vir believes, ‘a term of convenience for institutions who want to try and get a handle on it. What is this cultural identity, how can we define it, how can we fix it?’

Parminder Vir has produced documentaries such as The Sex Warriors & The Samurai for Channel 4’s Secret Asia series last year at the company she manages alongside her husband.

‘We’ve looked at the work we produced last year and it was eight films from around the world and we thought I’m sure we could do the same here because there is a whole new generation of film-makers coming through who don’t necessarily have the kind of resources that were once offered by the GLC. I’ve just completed the research for the BBC, looking at a series they want to do for Asian youth. They commissioned me to go around the country to look at what kind of talent was out there. I felt like, yeah there’s a purpose here, 10 years on Asian cultural expression is really confident, it’s really powerful in the music, particularly that someone like Jaz Man can knock George Michael off the charts, and Echobelly, an Asian woman can be a main star. There’s a whole new comedy camp that’s emerging as well as 26 Asian film-makers which the Arts Council have supported.’

The very existence of a body of work that is being pushed out and developed, which generates viewing figures and delivers major credits to the film-makers is perhaps representation enough, not to necessitate concern about specific representations of Asianess. An Asian audience will always be interested in an Asian content. In the case of the BBC’s research, youth culture, whatever its nationality, will always be seeking affirmation through a mirror image. There is nothing imaginative or revolutionary being commissioned here. The work is being commissioned on the basis of a cultural specificity.

If you are attached to a minority culture, you may either respect or detest the types which have been appropriated by the host culture, and assimilated by yourself in order to make sense of that host culture Whether you can ignore these types is conjecture, but in a strange, perverse way, they may be the protectors of a fundamental identity.

Munni Kabir produced and directed for Channel 4 the first series on British TV about Indian cinema. ‘We had very interesting responses from the series I made, Movie Mahal. It confirmed for young Asians that Indian popular cinema was OK. Their parents would be watching these films and the children would think: ‘OK this is junk.’

‘Channel 4 are planning to do a TV series of Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy. It’ll be very interesting to see if this drama series will have a mainstream audience because the book obviously did. It would be interesting to see if such a novel would have the same audiences as Pride and Prejudice.’ When asked if a British-Asian Cinema exists, Pratibha Parmar laughs. ‘If there is, I’m definitely not a part of it. I don’t know if they’ve got clubs or dinner parties they go to.’ She pauses. ‘I’m not naive. I know that’s partly to do with the heterosexism and homophobia which exists but who cares?’ (laughter) ‘I’ve got people like Alice in my life who needs the British-Asian film scene.’

How would one define the term British-Asian Cinema anyway? Is it important to include TV documentary as well as feature drama by a totem name such as Hanif Kureshi?

‘It’s quite difficult to make that distinction because you find that even if you are a feature film-maker like Gurinder Chadha, her career started in TV,’ says Munni. ‘It is a good idea to include TV documentary because television has become a training ground for a lot of film-makers, because many films are produced by TV.’

So what of the future?

‘It’s about your own particular vision of the world and where we want to go with that,’ says Pratibha Parmar. ‘I’m into challenging nation-state boundaries.’

H.O. Nazareth believes that it is the cross-fertilisation between the countries within Europe and the developing world itself which are the keys to the future.

‘It is a confrontational process and one can see how the future is going to pan out, partly because the majority of the population lives in the developing world, crises of environment, of economics, of politics, all occur in that kind of cross-fire. That kind of confrontation between North and South affects me a lot, partly because of my background, also partly because that’s where I think the big drama of the world is taking place.’

If satellite TV was to become a point-of-reference between the developed and developing worlds, we might all be discussing terms like mass and global instead of culture and identity. We might all be subsisting as a garbled translation of one another’s fashions and values. One shouldn’t be tempted to segregate diversity from the context of personal experiences formed from working in the industry. The viewpoints of film-makers are disparate enough. There may be in fact no great argument to construct. If there was, we might find ourselves becoming homogenised beyond type to the point of being astereotypical.

Marit Khan is a recent graduate in film and video at the London College of Printing