I will never forget the day I first saw Bhaji on the Beach. I was an eighteen year old undergraduate living away from home for the first time and learning to assert my independence. Watching a bunch of brown actresses appear on screen and wreak havoc on a day trip to Blackpool, and joining in the riotous laughter alongside the mixed British audience, I knew I had found a new passion – British Asian cinema.
Bollywood…correction, Hindi cinema was already firmly engrained into my consciousness courtesy of childhood family-friendly viewings of cult classics like Mother India, Sholay and Disco Dancer. The emergence of a new genre within British cinema and odd glimpse of films like My Beautiful Launderette (1985) and Sammy and Rose Get Laid (1987) had piqued my interest, but I was too young to fully appreciate them. It wasn’t until Gurinder Chadha and Meera Syal’s 1993 low budget dramedy hit UK cinemas that I, like many other second generation British Asians with artistic sensibilities, realised the power and significance of the film.
Not only did Bhaji provide a platform for up-and-coming and veteran Asian actors to showcase their talent, it also gave a voice to a community who was in the midst of great change. By giving culture clash, generation gap, racism, sexism and domestic violence a laugh out loud comedy treatment, the serious issues tackled within the story were made more palatable for Asian and non-Asian audiences.
A decade down the line with the release of films like My Son the Fanatic, Brothers in Trouble, East Is East and Bend It Like Beckham, seeing brown faces on the big screen and reading about a few behind (Udayan Prasad, Hanif Qureshi, Avie Luthra) became more frequent, but never as prevalent as one had hoped. Despite raking in good box office returns and garnering their fair share of critical acclaim and award nominations, their appeal had not necessarily translated to audiences further afield in Europe, North America and the Far East, thus justified further investment.
The emergence of a new generation of filmmakers in the 2000s, such as Menhaj Huda (Kidulthood), Bharat Nirula (Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day) and Asham Khamboj (The Basement) provided a renewed glimmer of hope to the ailing industry. However, their films have tended to target mainstream, urban audiences and been less concerned with telling tales about the South Asian experience. Fewer brown faces; more black and white.
This trend has continued with young guns like Nirpal Bhogal (Sket), Arjun Paul Rose (Demons Never Die) and Tinge Krishnan (Junkhearts), all of whom made their feature film debuts in 2011 with a mix of quintessential British dramas or youth-oriented urban thrillers.
More widely marketed films with Asian subject matters and lead protagonists, such as Danny Boyles’ Slumdog Millionnaire, Chris Morris’s Four Lions and the forthcoming Trishna (Miachel Winterbottom), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden) and All Inn Good Time (Nigel Cole) mark a continued trend of having more established, safer or 'bankable' British filmmakers and screenwriters at the helm of projects. A sign that the British and Hollywood studios are once again willing to take a punt on ‘foreign’ fare, or that they don’t consider British Asians filmmakers and writers capable enough?
Some filmmakers, writers and critics may argue it’s more indicative of the changing self-perceptions and goals of young British born and raised filmmakers who don’t wish to be confined to ‘ghetto’ cinema. The urgency or need to discuss their ethnic identities and culture specific crises may have faded as they find themselves more accepted and comfortable in their home environment. The same can be argued for British Asian audiences.
They could be right. With very few exceptions, independent British Asian filmmakers have always struggling to get their films made and seen, particularly when they revolve solely around Asian society or culture-specific themes. Difficulty raising finance and securing pre-sales and distribution deals has forced many to self finance and distribute or flog their rights at rock bottom prices to small time distributors, praying their films get a decent theatrical run before going to DVD.
The exception to the rule may be Asif Kapadia who started with The Warrior, a magnificent tale about an enforcer to a local lord who becomes the prey in a murderous hunt through the Himalayan mountains. It wasn’t long before his attention drifted away from Asian settings and subjects towards Hollywood and world cinema, making larger scale films like The Return, Far North and more recently the BAFTA award-winning documentary Senna. With big studios and producers knocking at his door who could blame him?
In a market where glossy million dollar Hollywood and Bollywood productions rule the box office and narrow-minded producers aren’t willing to take risks on what they see as ‘niche’ scripts, its no surprise that we are seeing less and less British Asian features being made. Even when they do, the filmmakers may be let down by poor attendance by the very British Asian audience they made the film for and assumed would come running.
So when we do hear of small budget independent films managing to release in UK cinemas, it’s always with hopefulness that one searches them out. But more often than not, it is also with some trepidation. The quality of these independent features can best be described as inconsistent. Ranging from the average to the down right awful, it’s usually by default or quiet release period they get a look in at cinemas and South Asian focused films festivals.
Without decent budgets and experienced producers and well thought out marketing campaigns behind them, most of these productions fail to make any real impact and survive past the opening weekend. I’ve lost count how many British Asian films are announced with great fanfare each year never to be completed, seen or heard of again.
Two filmmakers who face that very gamble in the coming weeks are London-based writer/director/producers Neville Raschid, of British Bollywood family musical Naachle London, and television presenter turned filmmaker Asad Shan who presents 7 Welcome to London, a romantic thriller that centres on the struggles faced by a young immigrant from India, who moves to the capital. Both aiming for the Bollywood loving British Asian market, they will go up against films with A-list Hollywood and Bollywood names, flashy marketing campaigns and larger loyal audiences.
What Naachle London and 7 Welcome to London have going for them is the fact that they are both Hindi musicals, with accompanying soundtracks that have been pre-released and gaining momentum and popularity via Asian satellite television and radio stations. Their online presence on desi websites and social media (namely Facebook and Twitter) has also helped spread the word amongst the youth in a way that many desi filmmakers have not been able to before.
While Raschid has a couple of feature films behind him as producer/director and the claim to be the maker of the first homemade ‘BollyBrit’ film, what Shan lacks in experience he boasts in sheer energy and effort to think outside the box. By roping in Slumdog Millionaire Oscar and BAFTA winning editor Chris Dickens as creative producer, Shan has attempted to give his film a slick polish. The result is thousands of hits for the film’s trailer and music videos on YouTube, one of the most vital modern day marketing tools today.
Despite the duo’s best efforts, the level to which their films will be appreciated at the box office and beyond remains to be seen. No manner of gimmicks or creative media campaigns will save their films unless their storylines and visuals are unique and entertaining. In a world where filmmakers worry about piracy and compete for attention against slick television drama and reality shows, the internet, mobile phones, e-books and live music events, it takes something special to make individuals leave their homes and buy a costly cinema ticket.
Nevertheless, I believe there is still a place for British Asian films in today’s day and age, be they small and independent or backed by recognised British, Indian or American production houses. No matter how small the budget or unknown the cast, if British Asian filmmakers have a legitimate story to tell in an interesting, unique and creative fashion, then we should be doing our best to support them. If we don’t, who will?
In return, our filmmakers must ensure they are making films with flair, skill and the right intentions. To make a contribution to the art form and industry as a whole; not simply spearheading personal vanity projects or benefiting from tax relief schemes.
So go out there and support your local filmmaker. You never know... one of them could be the future Attenborough, Spielberg or Chopra.
Naachle London releases February 24th and 7 Welcome to London on March 9th.