4 Yorkshire Bollywood and Me (Keighley)
I often wonder why it was that when my dad got off at Heathrow Airport in 1958, he rejected a life down south and carried on travelling until he reached Bradford. The truth is that he wasn’t interested in sightseeing, museums or palaces. He’d come to England to find a pot of gold. So he headed straight for the textile mills of Bradford where work was a plenty, well paid, didn’t require much English, any skills or qualifications. All you needed was a willingness to graft. You could arrive in Bradford at night and report to work the following morning with the men you were staying with. “Is there any more like you?” the mill supervisors would ask the immigrant workers. Such was Bradford’s reputation as a textiles centre, and such was its appeal to labourers, that I’ve heard stories of new arrivals not being met by friends at Victoria Station, and taking the porter’s advice to catch the Bradford train because that’s where the majority of Asians were!
Coming to Bradford was a financial arrangement, and a temporary one at that. There wasn’t much to do back home. A British wage and exchange rate meant that men like my dad could send more rupees each month to their families than they could dream of earning in a whole year. The men hoped that working in the mills for a few years would give the family in Pakistan a leg up; clear debts, build a house, and perhaps start a business. The aim was to earn as much as they could whilst living as cheaply as possible, which is why they didn’t bring their families with them.
If ever there was a man dedicated to finding his pot of gold, it was my father. If the work was available, he’d happily do double shifts all week, the equivalent of 16 hours on the trot. And what was the point of spending Saturday resting when he could earn time and a half at the mill! Being an entrepreneurial chap, dad bought 1 Alpha Street, Keighley, furnishing the modest terrace with several beds in the two bedrooms and two attics, as well as the lounge, and taking in about 15 lodgers. A rota system determined who slept when. If you finished work early, you might have to wait for a housemate to get up for his shift before you could use the bed. We might call it overcrowding now, but this was the norm among the migrant workers living in group houses, and of course it made things cheaper. They were probably awake for no more than an hour or so at either end of a shift, which was probably a blessing because there wasn’t much personal space to be found.
The men didn’t have much time to socialise. Any time off tended to get taken up with births, deaths and marriages among the new settlers. Seriously, people waited until the weekend to bury the dead because the concept of taking a day off didn’t exist. Dad didn’t even attend his own wedding. The family had taken on debt to buy land in Pakistan. It didn’t make sense for him to lose money by taking time off and incur the expense of flying back to Pakistan. So the couple took their marriage vows down the phone in 1964. A few months later, the last lodger at Alpha Street was just moving out as mum landed at Heathrow Airport. Thankfully, it was a weekend so her arrival didn’t interfere with dad’s shifts. Mum says you never saw anyone out in the daytime except for women and children. The English men would be working the daytime and evening shifts, while the Asian men, who tended to work the night shift, would be sound asleep.
Mum didn’t leave the house much after she came here. Dad did the grocery shopping or he would arrange a delivery. A rare treat, if you can call it that, was being accompanied by dad in a taxi to Bradford perhaps once in three months to visit friends and in-laws. The fare was around £2, probably a few hours’ wage in those days. But this was a necessity rather than a luxury as far as dad was concerned. A conservative man, he believed that his pride was dependent on his wife’s public demeanour. So, when mum accompanied dad, the onus was upon him to protect her honour, which mainly involved distancing her from the gaze of other men. This included male travellers on public buses, even if the alternative was costly. The rules were somewhat flexible though – mum was free to take a bus on her own because nobody would know whose wife she was, meaning dad and his honour couldn’t be implicated.
It was only after she befriended an English lady, Aunty Ivy we called her, that mum came to know there was more to Yorkshire than the main road between Keighley and Bradford. Mum remarked to Aunty Ivy one day what a built up area they lived in. She said she was bewildered by the ten mile journey between Keighley and Bradford, along the old A650 route. When she’d travelled by bus or train in Pakistan, she recalled recognising the end of a town or the outskirts of a new one by the ensuing fields which stretched out for miles and miles. The changing landscape and different crops acted as landmarks, alerting her that Gujarat was approaching, or Jhelum. But, wondered mum, how could you tell when Bingley finished and another area started. All she ever saw were row upon row of soot-stained terraced houses.
Dad would say, ”That’s just how it is here”. To be fair, even though he’d now been living in Keighley for a decade, dad didn’t know any different. You could say his relationship with the area was purely contractual so it probably never occurred to him to indulge himself during his Keighley voyage. There was no motivation for him to get to know the place. He’d bought a house in Keighley not because he was swayed by the area’s aesthetic values, but because he knew it would make him money – what you might call a buy-to-let I suppose, crucially located within a few minutes’ walk of several mills. Even after mum joined him in Keighley, dad still regarded his stay here as temporary. When mum grew tired of using the mismatched crockery she’d inherited from the lodgers and decided to buy a dinner set, dad chided her for wasting money on things they’d one day have to leave behind.
There was no incentive for him to learn anything new, to raise his potential. He knew where the mills and the grocery shops were. He didn’t need to know anything else. Trained hands were in such high demand that you could walk out of one mill and straight into another. Maybe that’s why he didn’t bother to learn English, even after 25 years of working in this country. Perhaps his lack of education also contributed to his lack of curiosity about the world around him. So you can imagine then, can’t you, that introducing mum to the fabled Pennine landscape and the Yorkshire Moors wasn’t on dad’s list of priorities. Ironically, mum had read the classic works of the Bronte sisters at college in Rawalpindi but never realised, as she puts it, that for all these years, she’d been living in the armpit of Bronte Country. What mum knew about Haworth was that the mills there made a finer quality of wool than was made in Keighley. Whenever mum wanted to do some knitting, dad would ask acquaintances that worked in the Haworth mills to pick up some cheap wool for her. And so, it was Aunty Ivy who educated mum about Yorkshire’s legendary landscape, taking her on the bus to show her empty spaces, farmlands and different crops.
Mum’s ‘temporary’ stay in Keighley ended in 1971 when dad sent his wife and kids to settle in Pakistan. Mum brought us back in 1977 and we were allotted a council house on the Canterbury estate in Bradford. Mum was now our guide in what was really a new country for me (I was nine) and my siblings. In a way, we were still stuck in survival mode from my father’s era. This time, mum was the one working shifts and she had three pre-teens to care for. So we still weren’t sniffing around Bronte Country or the Parsonage looking for inspiration. I doubt that we could afford the bus fare, let alone the entrance fee.
During the early 80s, mum’s younger cousin from Lahore began making annual trips to London as part of her training to become a gynaecologist. A vivacious character, she’d represented Pakistan as a member of the table tennis team at the Olympics many years ago. After a round of training and exams in London, she’d borrow a car for the weekend and turn up at our door with a group of Pakistani friends – all female trainee doctors, and desperately homesick. Looking back, we didn’t have much to offer besides traditional food and hospitality. We didn’t have a car and didn’t know there were places locally that we could take guests to. Our repertoire involved walking down Canterbury Avenue to the Central Library, or taking two buses into Leeds City Centre, though our purchases were usually restricted to window shopping. It was probably my aunt and her friends that taught us how to be tourists. My first memories of ‘sightseeing’ involve my own doorstep, so to speak – driving through vast stretches of unspoiled countryside with my aunt, hunting for dainty little tea shops in pretty Yorkshire villages.
My aunt would also talk about the Lake District, apparently a place of great beauty with sweeping hills, lush green fields, and gorgeous lakes. Apparently it was just a stone’s throw from Bradford, easily manageable in a day trip although it was well out of our reach. I’d heard the Indian film, Lamhe (Moments, Yash Chopra, 1991) was famously shot in England, but I had no idea that one of its songs was actually filmed in the Lake District. Had someone asked me to identify the location, I would probably have said Switzerland, because the country’s scenery regularly features in Indian films (I’ll explain more about this in the next blog). And yes, the handsome chap in this clip really is Anil Kapoor from Slumdog Millionaire.
The Lake District was also immortalised more recently in a song from the film Mujhse Dosti Karoge (Will You Be My Friend, Kunal Kohli, 2002). In the title track, two families enjoy a day out in the Lakes including a ride on a steamer boat on Lake Ullswater. This sequence also showcases the area’s celebrated features – scenic lakes, rolling hills, narrow winding roads, dry stone walls dividing up the farming landscape and fluffy white sheep.
Much like it was in my family, the sights of Yorkshire are a relatively recent discovery among Indian film makers. I only know of one Indian film, a supernatural thriller called 1920 (Vikram Bhatt, 2008) which was filmed at several locations in the region including Allerton Castle, Ripley Castle and Bolton Abbey. Of course, Yorkshire hasn’t just hosted Indian film makers. I suppose Bronte Country is most famously epitomised in The Railway Children (1970). And who can forget Richard Gere blessing Keighley train station with his presence in The Yanks (1979)? Of course, Yorkshire’s grandest moment under the Bollywood spotlight came in 2007, when the region beat rival bids from the likes of New York, Barcelona, Rome and Hong Kong to host the International Indian Film Academy awards (Bollywood Oscars). The prestigious IIFA weekend was jointly hosted by five Yorkshire cities (Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, York, Hull) with the award ceremony at Sheffield Arena being watched by something like 400 million people in around 100 countries.
I’ll be writing about Britain as a Bollywood film location and how the IIFA’s came to Yorkshire in the next instalment of my blog.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: YORKSHIRE BOLLYWOOD AND GEOGRAPHY
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