Bollywood in Britain

Tales of being British, Pakistani & female in Bradford, set against classic Bollywood

18 Confinement

I’m still sometimes confused by the present layout of Bradford city centre. Etched in my mind is the arrangement I discovered during my teens. That’s when I earned my first slivers of freedom and was finally permitted, unsupervised, to make my own way into town. Back then, the bus swooped into the Bradford bowl and stopped directly outside the old smoked-glass fronted police station which we knew as the Tyrls. Word had it that there were cells beneath the building from which prisoners were taken to the adjacent Magistrates Courts via an underground walkway. This was long before City Park and Centenary Square, when there was no pedestrianised public area and the lone fountain outside the police station was without airs. But at least we had stylish shops.

The self-effacing Sunwin House had been settled at the junction of Sunbridge Road and Godwin Street since 1932, baring its window displays beneath distinct dark brown awnings. It was the sort of department store that Bradfordians can only dream about today. Sunwin House sold everything from buttons to beds, from toothpaste to television sets, and from wigs to wedding dresses. It had the kind of food hall where buying basics like bread and milk made you feel extravagant. Unaffordability never stopped mum scanning the performance ranges of the German sewing machines on the first floor. The cookware in the basement was more my thing, where I liked to imagine how it would feel to have Wedgewood in my dowry.

The store was owned by the Co-operative group so customers earned dividend stamps – an early version of the club card, you might say – where you were rewarded with a tiny percentage of the value of your spending. A small purchase earned you the small ‘5’ stamps, of which you had to collect 32 before you had the satisfaction of filling a page. You could garner the higher value ’40’ stamps with a large purchase, of which four alone were enough to fill an entire page. There was something gratifying about being issued with a crisp new book, with its distinct red cover promising the ultimate incentive, ‘This book when completed and exchanged is worth £1’. I was the sort of organised person, you see, that industriously collected the stamps, licked them diligently before sticking them meticulously in the book. As if completing the book wasn’t rewarding enough, there was still the bonus of monetary gain to be had!

Across the road from Sunwin House stood the crisp white 12-storey headquarters of the National and Provincial Building Society. The substantial 1960s office block monopolised the prime location, which today makes up much of City Park and Centenary Square. With its prim lawns bursting with spring bloom, it stood self-assured, bowing only before the majesty of the Venetian gothic styled clock tower of Bradford City Hall. It was here on the fourth floor, in mortgage administration at Provincial House that I put my organisational skills to use. Although it was a temporary position, it was the sort of stable nine-to-five office job that mum valued. There was even the possibility of a discounted mortgage rate if I could just impress my employers enough to offer me a permanent position.

Alas, I handed in my notice to start married life in Pakistan. A couple of years later though, I was back in Bradford with ego bruised, contemplating a return to clerical work. Meanwhile, mum was willing me to return to married life in Islamabad after my ‘short break’, which is why she was still shielding the real reason for my abrupt arrival back in Bradford. I wasn’t sure how temporary my refuge would be but I knew it was enough for now. Bigger decisions could wait. I wasn’t ready to make any. I wasn’t sure that they were mine to make anyway. In the meantime, I wanted to make up for the months I’d lost in Pakistan. There was self-esteem to be regained. Perhaps it was time to send a message to my family that I was taking control. But while I yearned for my old life, I didn’t want to confine myself to mortgage admin. If I was going to find a job this time, it would have to be on my terms. To offset my emotional disappointments perhaps, I was also primed to elevate the professional bar.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that my career path was probably influenced by that cult American TV series, The Incredible Hulk. I should say in my defence that I was just an impressionable teenager when the series was broadcast during the early 1980s. It was about a scientist with a sinister secret; a condition which transformed him into a giant green monster whenever he became angry. Jack McGee was his nemesis, a hardnosed reporter investigating the mysterious monster’s sightings for The National Register. Every time he confronted the irritated scientist, Jack was darkly warned, “Mr McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

An annoying antagonist he may have been to everyone else, but I saw Mr McGee as a man with a mission. I was charmed by the world he inhabited; driving up and down the country at all hours to document the stories that fascinated him. He had the sort of job that also appealed to my nosey disposition. But I also knew that any perceptive Pakistani parent would deem it a disagreeable career choice for precisely these perks.

In mum’s day, you see, the ultimate job for respectable women was teaching. But then, as I was often reminded, mum was raised in a society where parental wishes were heeded without question. So she’d worked in a state-run girls’ school in Rawalpindi before marriage. Not only was it stable and secure, the female environment also created the sort of seclusion which the principles of purdah are based on. Even progressive protagonists in Bollywood films of that era became teachers. Naturally, they were portrayed as noble, no-nonsense creatures, ready to nurture their students. There’s an irrepressibly effervescent song from the brilliant film Shree 420 (Raj Kapoor, 1955) which comes to mind. ‘Ichak Dana Bichak Dana’ means ‘One Little Seed, Two Little Seeds’, which refers to a game of ‘guess what’. It’s performed by the luminous Nargis, who takes the role of the aptly named Vidya, meaning knowledge. Using song and illustration, she devotedly encourages her young charges to solve riddles in a makeshift classroom in her father’s courtyard. As she asks, ‘bolo kya’ – ‘what is it?’ – at the end of each rhyme, Raj Kapoor in his Chaplinesque guise can’t help falling in love with her. The wholesome teacher though remains characteristically unimpressed by his flirtations.

And so, it was much to mum’s alarm that I rejected the lure of a discounted mortgage and went to work for a tin-pot TV production company. I began to travel almost immediately since we worked from a suite of grubby offices at the Batley Enterprise Centre. We were making a factual series called Zara Dhyan Dein, which loosely translated meant ‘please pay attention’. The programmes looked at health and social issues affecting South Asian families in Britain; like reducing the risk of a heart attack, healthy eating and depression. It didn’t matter that the programme was just five minutes long, or that it was broadcast in the middle of the night. People still watched it, primarily because there was little else televised in Urdu in those days, but mainly because the programme was screened immediately after the weekly Bollywood film.

You see, it was normal to record the Bollywood film off the TV in the late 80s and early 90s because it saved you having to stay up until the early hours to watch the film as it was being broadcast. It was also the only economical way of creating a personal film library. It’s worth remembering that programming VCRs to record automatically was a fiddly affair. It was far simpler to stay up long enough to manually press record at the start of the film, and then retire to bed knowing that recording would continue until the four hour tape was full. Of course the five minute health broadcast, Zara Dhyan Dein, which followed the film, would also be recorded inadvertently.

As it turned out, mum had nothing to worry about. My job as researcher was to organise things, including finding people to take part in the programme; an Indian GP one week, a Pakistani taxi driver the next, volunteers in a gurdwara, a diabetes patient, or a housewife discussing her family’s diet. It may only have been five years since the ceremonial burning of The Satanic Verses outside the Magistrates Courts in Bradford, but Muslims as well as Hindus and Sikhs were still clamouring to be on TV. I realised that, despite the ungodly hour of broadcast, working on a TV programme for the Asian community seemed to garner an absurd amount of kudos. The weariness of being under the media’s glare that we Bradfordians baulk at today, hadn’t yet set in. On the contrary, having a film crew in the house offered credibility and public recognition. Best of all, mum’s friends assumed that landing this marvellous job was my first step to submitting my husband’s visa paperwork. Although I had no intention of inviting him to join me in Bradford, it suited mum and me not to contradict the conjecture in the community. It bought us both time; as I asserted my new-found independence, I hoped mum might muster the strength to go public with my separation.

Things were going well until the producer announced a programme highlighting the importance of prenatal care. I was to find a young Asian couple where the wife was visibly pregnant, whom we would film going through routine check-ups at a local hospital. At my young age, I’d never had anything to do with pregnancy, so how could I have known that this condition merits the utmost privacy among South Asians. Only after accepting the producer’s challenge did I realise that flaunting one’s baby bump like a pregnant Spice Girl was a massive taboo. Doing so, you see, alludes to private marital relations. Even now, a respectable married woman is expected to bury her bulging bump beneath her diaphanous dupatta and further disguise it with loose clothing.

To this day, pregnant protagonists in Bollywood films also remain a rarity. They don’t parade their pregnant bellies and they certainly don’t sing and dance. The only song that comes to mind is from the blockbuster Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (Sooraj Barjatya, 1994). You may recognise the opening bars because ‘Didi Tera Devar Deewana’ (Sister, Your Brother-in-law is Crazy) was famously used in a kitchen roll TV commercial a few years ago. The song further emphasises the invisibility of expectant women from our screens because it actually features a mock pregnancy, purely for the sake of entertaining a gathering of women at a baby shower. As celebrations begin to mark the imminent birth of her sister’s baby, Madhuri Dixit’s character bears a fake oversized bump. The nature of the celebrations requires such a strictly separate women’s space that a lady in drag has to play the male lead. As the two lampoon intimate scenes and pregnancy stereotypes, men are forced to watch secretly because they’re vigorously refused access.

I suppose it was precisely because pregnancy is hidden from public view in my culture that we were making a programme about pre-natal care in the first place. But how could we make the programme if I couldn’t find anyone to take part. The producer seemed very understanding of my dilemma and agreed to come up with an alternative plan. On the day of filming, however, I arrived at the hospital to find a pair of unbecoming dungarees waiting for me, complete with a fake built-in baby bump. In the wake of my failure to find a willing participant, it seemed that I would have to take the role of expectant South Asian mother myself. An Indian crew member was lined up as my on-screen husband.

Despite my unease, I grudgingly went along with the plan in the name of professional integrity. Clad in my pregnancy dungarees, the opening sequence had me writing a letter to a friend to share my happy news. In one scene, I was shown discussing my dietary needs with a nurse. In another, I was having blood tests with my reassuring husband sitting beside me. As filming progressed, so did my anxiety. Amusing as it sounds, I knew this indiscretion would only further aggravate my relationship with mum. I wanted to earn her respect yet my televised phantom pregnancy was surely set to do the reverse.

I made sure she never saw the programme even though it was repeated several times over the coming months. The plot unfolded unintentionally in the food hall of Sunwin House. Mum was treating me to a vanilla custard slice from the bakery counter when she bumped into an old friend. We’d last seen her at my pre-marriage party as I was preparing to leave Bradford. “Congratulations!” she squealed as she embraced mum. Without as much as a glance at my noticeably non-expectant figure, she continued, “So that’s why your daughter is back in Bradford!”

That moment of disclosure was as poignant as it was painful because it captured the frailty of our mother-daughter relationship perfectly. Everyone in Bradford appeared to know something that I’d been frantically trying to keep from her. Meanwhile, mum was resolute that nobody in Bradford must come to know the real reason for my return.
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THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE IMMIGRANT SPOUSE
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PREVIOUS: GODSPEED TO BRADFORD

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6 Responses

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  1. Hi Irna, love your blog, as you know. Thought this might be a better way of leaving my details and the library’s school email (perhaps should have done this in the first place rather than twitter!). We’re definitely going to have a Bollywood week at school during October so if you do fancy coming down to Brum to speak it would be brilliant.
    Saw ‘Dil Se . .’ and ‘Yaadon Ki Baaraat’ at the weekend – two very different films! Loved them both in their own way – love Zeenat Aman singing Chura liya hai and Dharmendra has the most amazing screen presence – but ‘Dil se . . ‘ is amazing and fascinating in so many ways. There aren’t many films that want to discuss state violence and nationalism or terrorism v freedom fight in a sophisted way – let alone mix in the most amazing singing and dancing. They were times when it made me think of Battle of Algiers – which is about the highest compliment I can pay.
    If you really would like to come you can email me at school, but don’t feel bad if you’d rather not. Either way I shall keep you up to date (bore you) with my Bollywood journey.
    All the best, Gareth.

    Gareth Beniston

    01/07/2013 at 3:53 pm

  2. Another superbly constructed instalment, thanks again for sharing the unfolding tale. I also enjoyed your McGee analogy, especially in the context of your desire for a career that satisfied your nosey disposition. Your mention of that in contrast to the “approved” job of teacher made me smile when I saw your choice of song – til date NO ONE has been able to explain to me what the hell “anar” has to do with “iichak daanaa biichak daanaa daane uupar daanaa, iichak daanaa chhajje uupar la.Dakii naache, la.Dakaa hai diivaanaa, iichak daanaa” It’s the only part of the call and response / Q&A style of the song that makes no sense, and that irritates MY nosey nature.

    stuartnz

    20/04/2013 at 8:36 am

  3. Great blog! Loved the carer path based on the career of a hulk character.

    Jay Russell

    10/04/2013 at 8:16 am

  4. Best Bradford blog by far. And now officially the world’s most awesome set of blog post tags.

  5. As always Irna, a great post. How you write and describe simply captures the reader. Those places you recalled bring back memories when my father use to take us kids from Leeds (where we lived) to Bradford, only to feel more at home with the amount of South Asian community visible in Bradford City Centre. I remember, the Bradford Central library to be the first stop, followed by the Bradford Photography museum and then a routine walk up past Sunwin House to Kirkgate market then to John Street Market.

    Reading this post, brought back some good memories.

  6. Irna – this is just fantastic stuff – have sat here for the last couple of hours just reading episode after episode – as frustrated by what you don’t tell us as fascinated by what you do describe – more, more!

    Anamaria Wills

    07/04/2013 at 12:44 pm


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