Bollywood in Britain

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

Archive for the ‘Indian Cinema’ Category

6 Yorkshire Bollywood and Me (History)

Above the flickering gas fire on the mantelpiece, a precious jar labelled 1964 took pride of place. My parents had carefully filled it to the brim with religious values and cultural traditions before leaving Pakistan to start a new life in Keighley. Although the label had faded and the contents had curdled by the 1980s, my well-meaning parents continued to regard it as a current record of morality in their motherland. In reality, that jar offered nothing more than a moment in time, a moment from 1964, three years before I was even born. I imagine every Pakistani family had a jar like that – the saving grace of every working class immigrant parent; a device to inculcate roots and scruples, and to guard their susceptible Bradford born offspring from the intoxicating fumes of unsuitable British values which lurked beyond the threshold.

Thanks to jars like that, women like me grew up with values that were so out-dated that they didn’t even have much currency back in Pakistan’s cosmopolitan centres. Cousins imagined my British upbringing would have made me much more “westernised” than they were. I was such a disappointment to them. They mocked my Urdu because I used words they considered obsolete and which only our elderly great aunts uttered. They expected me to wear skirts but having grown up with the mantra, “We don’t show our legs”, I’d apologetically pull out a suitcase full of old fashioned shalwar kameez and mismatched dupattas. Their tales of dalliances and sneaking off to parties scandalised me. My cousins couldn’t comprehend why I hadn’t taken advantage of all the freedoms that life in Britain apparently afforded a young woman like me! In fact, it was because I treasured my hard-earned freedom so much, as well as my mother’s trust which granted me those scraps of independence in the first place, that I didn’t see sense in gambling it over a trivial liaison.

My relatives in Pakistan love a good Indian movie. You’ll know from my previous blogs (Yorkshire Bollywood and KEIGHLEY and also Yorkshire Bollywood and GEOGRAPHY) that Britain is a prominent screen location in Bollywood films. In fact, British locations as well as Brit Asian characters (NRIs they call them, non-resident Indians) have become so popular in recent years, that many Bollywood fans in India (and Pakistan for that matter) form their impression of Britain from what they see in Indian films. When VisitBritain became aware of this phenomenon, it even produced a Bollywood Movie Map to encourage film fans to visit the British locations shown in their favourite films. I’m afraid places like Southall and Bradford barely got a look in – they’re usually the preserve of proper British Asian films like Bend it Like Beckham and East is East. Southall and Bradford are probably a bit too real and rustic for Bollywood which tends to favour locations that look a little more desirable on screen.

It’s safe to say that some of the NRIs (non-resident Indians) really do inhabit a different world on screen to the one we recognise. There again, my relatives in Pakistan don’t seem to appreciate that, in many ways, Bradford’s Pakistani community also inhabits a world of its own! And here’s the problem. Some of my relatives think that watching a Bollywood saga is all the evidence they need to stoke their misguided belief that we’re all doing really well here in Bradford. But believe me, there was no consoling my neighbour’s sister-in-law when she came to Britain and realised she’d have to live in a terrace with a kitchen in the dank cellar, bedroom in the draughty attic, mouldy shower curtains and a concrete garden just big enough for a washing line, and even that floated above her husband’s beloved Toyota which was parked there.

Director Karan Johar depicts the lifestyle of the super rich who live in mansions on screen (which are often stately homes in reality), usually set in a classy London suburb. Take Kabhi Khushie Kabhie Gham (Johar, 2001) for instance, which offers completely over the top, unadulterated glamour. In the song that follows, the young couple meet at King’s College, although Blenheim Palace and its lavish grounds were used as a stand in. The rugby and cheerleading scenes were shot at the Millennium Stadium in Wales. The couple flirt beside several tourist spots, including the British Museum’s Great Court. They have access to designer gear, the shortest skirts and the fastest cars. This wasn’t my experience of university life! Since most of the protagonists in Indian films are Hindus or Sikhs, I’m not expecting to see an example of the Pakistani fashions exhibited on White Abbey Road, but my issue is this. Whilst I’m trying to keep pace with my cousins in Islamabad, Karan Johar’s depiction of Brit Asian excess not only distorts my reality but further fuels their expectations of my lifestyle!

Britain has now become one of the main overseas markets for Bollywood, with many Indian films simultaneously released in India and Britain. Indian films now feature regularly among the UK top twenty releases. When Kabhi Khushie Kabhie Gham (also abbreviated as K3G) was released in 2001, it entered the UK box office chart at number 3, only a couple of places below Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. K3G was also a forerunner for setting part of the storyline in Britain. The portrayal may have been exaggerated, but the storyline appealed to the huge number of South Asians living in America, Canada, Middle East, and of course Britain. This is an important market; the higher ticket prices paid by Bollywood audiences overseas can bring in over half of a film’s total earnings. Within 15 days, K3G recovered half the $10 million production cost. It makes sense then for Britain and Bollywood to strengthen their ties, which is precisely what Yorkshire had in mind when it successfully bid to host the International Indian Film Academy Awards (IIFAs) in 2007.

The prestigious awards, also nicknamed the Bollywood Oscars, build on Bollywood’s global reach by taking the ceremony to a different international location each year. The ceremony is watched by 400 million people in around 100 countries. It’s a way of promoting Bollywood beyond India, and thanking international fans for their support by taking the show, complete with A list Bollywood stars, to them. Bradfordian Zulfi Karim was behind the idea to bring the 2007 IIFAs to Yorkshire. As a destination marketing specialist, he attracts large scale events to the region. During a trip to Amsterdam in 2005, friends dragged him along to the IIFA Awards at the Ajax Stadium. Despite only a limited interest in Bollywood, he was mesmerised by the world-class event and returned to Bradford thinking of a way to bring the IIFAs to Yorkshire.

I’ve explained in previous blogs (Yorkshire Bollywood and KEIGHLEY and also Yorkshire Bollywood and GEOGRAPHY) that Yorkshire is one of Britain’s most sought-after filming destinations, although still relatively unknown to Indian film directors. This was the perfect opportunity to woo them with Yorkshire’s stunning abbeys, great houses, castles, gardens and legendary landscape, which could offer an impressive backdrop to song and dance sequences. But how could Zulfi Karim and his team shine the spotlight on Yorkshire? How would they pitch a county in the north of England against cities with international repute such as New York, Marrakesh, Barcelona and Sydney? I should explain that just like the majority of tourism from India, filming for Bollywood tends to be concentrated in London and the South. Clearly it was time for Yorkshire to overcome this prejudice and showcase its unique identity. The following song from Salam-e-Ishq (Advani, 2007) illustrates all too well the way films often focus on the grandeur of distinct British architecture (Oxford University in this case) as well as the capital’s landmark tourist spots (Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge). In fact, it’s often the case in India and Pakistan that the words ‘London’ and ‘Britain’ are used interchangeably!

In the end, it was the “quirky” nature of Yorkshire’s proposal which swayed the IIFA officials. When they arrived for a recce, the Yorkshire team exploited Bollywood’s current love affair with Britain by showcasing Yorkshire’s distinctive heritage and presenting a quintessentially British experience. There were trips to the North Yorkshire Moors, Bolton Abbey, visits to great houses such as Harewood and Chatsworth, as well as breakfast laid on by the Duke of Devonshire.

The bid team had to demonstrate that they had infrastructure in place to cope with an event of this scale. The IIFAs typically take place over a long weekend, incorporating a film premiere, workshops, a business forum, a charity sports match, as well as the green carpet awards ceremony. Along come 2,000 of Indian cinema’s glitterati expecting direct flights from India (preferably British Airways!), chauffeur driven limousines, fine Indian cuisine, 5 star hotels, media entourage, and security and so on. The sheer scale of the event and the logistics meant that one Yorkshire city alone couldn’t cope. The only arena large enough to accommodate an awards ceremony was in Sheffield, while Leeds had the region’s smartest hotels. Also keen to be involved was the Bradford based National Media Museum which has regularly attracted Indian stars to its film festivals over the years. So, it would take the combined infrastructure of Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, York and Hull to sell Yorkshire to the IIFA bosses in India.

Yorkshire’s bid also drew on Bradford’s long standing relationship with Bollywood. Remember that famous scene in East is East where George Khan’s family drove from Salford to Bradford just to watch an Indian film at the cinema? Well, they weren’t alone. During the 1950s and 60s, migrant mill and foundry workers from as far away as Newcastle and Sheffield came to Bradford to catch an Indian film on their day off. Bradford was in the enviable position of having several exclusively Indian cinemas after Asian entrepreneurs bought up cinemas destined for closure. It wasn’t uncommon to catch a film at noon at the Western Talkie Theatre in Little Horton, perhaps moving onto the Kashmir Cinema in Wakefield Road for the 3pm show. Visitors had to make the most of their long trip! There was no professional circuit of distributors then. Cinema owners contacted Indian businessmen in London or Birmingham who had connections with film companies in India so they could get a print. Many of Bollywood’s legendary actors, such as Dilip Kumar, Dharmendre, Sunil Dutt and Vijayanthimala came when their film was screened for the first time in Britain, which was often in Bradford. I suppose you could call it a film “premiere” although it wasn’t exactly a red carpet set up; it was billed as a “personal appearance”. The distributor would call the star up on stage to say a few words at the start of the film, and then they signed a few autographs.

Many folk can’t grasp why Bollywood films are as popular among Pakistanis as they are among Indians. Perhaps they forget that India and Pakistan were one country until independence in 1947, so they share the same rich history. Sadly though, the popular British imagination holds contrasting and often mistaken impressions of India and Pakistan. India, perhaps because it retained the original name, is lauded as the repository of all things historical, mystical and cultural. Pakistan meanwhile is berated as nothing more than the land of fundamentalists. In fact, as Empress of India, Queen Victoria also ruled what is now Pakistan. On her way to college each day, my mum walked past a statue of Queen Victoria, standing high on a plinth located at one of Rawalpindi’s most prominent junctions, looking down majestically upon her subjects. Ironically, Rawalpindi got its statue of Queen Victoria four years ahead of a similar statue being erected in Bradford city centre!

Those statues are all that remains of imperial power now, along with a sense of nostalgia, and a heritage shared between Britain and India. Possibly one of the greatest British bequests to India was the game of cricket. And what better way to woo a world-class cricketing nation to Yorkshire (for that award ceremony, remember!) than the promise of a charity sporting fixture at Headingley, the home of Yorkshire cricket. And who better to endorse Yorkshire as potential hosts of the Bollywood Oscars than “Sir” Geoffrey Boycott and Sachin Tendulkar, one of India’s finest batsmen. You don’t need me to tell you how passionate Indians (and Pakistanis!) are about cricket. Actor/producer Aamir Khan even made an entire film with the beautiful game at its centre – the match itself took up almost half of the near four hour film! Set in British India in 1893, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time (Gowariker, 2001) takes its name from an agricultural tax levied by the British. A drought ridden village tries to rid itself of the oppressive tax after being challenged by the British masters to a game of cricket. But the village must first unite and learn to play the game, as this song clip shows. Several British actors starred in the film, even delivering dialogues in Hindi. Lagaan went on to earn a best foreign film Oscar nomination in 2002, only the second Indian film ever to do so.

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5 Yorkshire Bollywood and Me (Geography)

In the previous instalment, I explained that Yorkshire is one of Britain’s most sought-after filming destinations: scenes from The King’s Speech and several Harry Potter movies were filmed here, not to mention TV stalwarts like Emmerdale and Heartbeat. It was with this legacy in mind that the region decided to bid for the International Indian Film Academy Awards (IIFAs). If the team behind Yorkshire’s bid could pull it off, the ‘Bollywood Oscars’ would offer a massive boost to the region’s economy and tourism. It would give Yorkshire the perfect opportunity to inspire Indian film directors with its stunning landscape, castles and abbeys. But in order to understand Yorkshire’s offering, and the strength of its case, you first need to appreciate how love works in Bollywood.

If you know only one thing about Indian films, it’s probably that they feature several song and dance sequences. Songs create a spectacle but also have an important function; they are often used to declare love and emotion in the narrative so it’s vital that the backdrop matches the romantic sentiment. Nowadays, most protagonists in Indian films expect to choose their own life partners, yet their behaviour still endorses strong family values. The age old technique is to show the unmarried couple cavorting outdoors rather than confining them within four walls. This is Bollywood’s answer to damage limitation: if the couple are in a public space, no matter how remote, they won’t be tempted to indulge in physical intimacy. Being outdoors somehow dissipates sexual tension.

Most settings are chosen purely for their visual beauty. The priority given to aesthetics over any sense of continuity actually gives the director a great deal of freedom. He can use a song and dance sequence to display exotic locations without the background being part of the story. As long as the backdrop contributes to the mood of the scene, it doesn’t matter if the protagonists were travelling in a dusty rickshaw seconds earlier; they can be suspended on the Swiss Alps long enough to frolic gaily in the snow with multiple costume changes. We don’t need an explanation about how the characters got from A to B because we know they’ll go back to reality as soon as the song ends.

Songs also act as a key marketing tool. The sequences are a bit like mini pop promos, and they’re aired on Indian music channels before the actual film hits the big screen. Songs offer audiences a real flavour of the film and they’re critical in determining the film’s popularity. No wonder that filming the song and dance sequences in glamorous foreign locations eats up a huge chunk of the budget. While foreign locations bring a sense of excitement, escapism, adventure and aspiration to the film, they also have a practical purpose. Having all the cast available in one location away from home can minimise disruptions sometimes caused by an unpunctual or absent diva!

Film makers are permanently on the quest for the perfect romantic backdrop. During the 60s and 70s, exotic meant snow. In fact, the first time I saw snow was probably in Junglee (Subodh Mukherjee, 1961). However, having endured my share of severe British winters, it’s difficult to see how sliding down a snow clad mountain on your front can inspire romance, particularly when you’re inappropriately dressed in a flimsy shalwar kameez and court shoes!

This scene was shot in Kashmir in India, which was widely regarded as ‘heaven on earth’. The pure white snow, crystal clear lakes, the spectacle of snowy mountains presented idyllic surroundings for falling in love on screen during the 50s, 60s and 70s. In fact, Kashmir’s scenery and landscape became so popular that lakes, trees and mountains became synonymous with romance in Bollywood. So much so, that when the militancy and terrorism threats of the late 1980s made the place inaccessible to film makers, substitutes for Kashmir had to be found overseas. This was a move that did wonders for my geography. Somewhat shamefully, I must admit that my initial knowledge of Europe’s beauty spots was probably culled from repeat viewings of favourite Indian films.

Switzerland and its lakes, snow-capped mountains and impossibly green alpine valleys quickly became an obvious replacement for Kashmir. Actually, you could argue that film director Yash Chopra (nicknamed the godfather of love because of his contribution to the romance genre), has single-handedly placed Switzerland in the Indian consciousness as an aspirational place to visit. Seriously, he has filmed so often at a particular lake that the Swiss Tourism Board has unofficially named it The Chopra Lake. Now, remember those relaxed rules of continuity? The heroine in Chandni (Yash Chopra, 1989) is fast asleep in her bed in India, and probably doesn’t even have the means to fly to Switzerland. Yet she is conveniently transported to the idyllic location, after a detour to the beauty salon it would seem, as she dreams about the man she loves.

I’ve never been to Switzerland, and to this day, what I know about the country is probably scraped together from Indian films I’ve seen that were shot there. You see, we were taught to look to Pakistan for inspiration. Pakistan was the ideal and we were leading second best lives in Bradford; there were times it felt like mum’s heart was still beating in Rawalpindi. Circumstance had brought us to Britain. After my father took another wife, mum didn’t want to depend on her parents. Thankfully, our British passports meant we could return to Bradford and the council quickly put a roof over our heads. It’s easier to make a life for yourself on your own in Britain. It’s less judgmental and more forgiving. And the distance allowed mum to pretend to her family that life here was much better than it actually was. It also meant she could indulge us in a love affair with her homeland. It became the place where everything was good, where the sun shone brighter and where the mangoes were sweeter. And so, I was conditioned to believe that my family’s dream destination could only ever be Pakistan, traipsing after mum who’d be diligently catching up on 10 years’ worth of births, deaths and marriages among her extended family.

I didn’t know much about The Netherlands either. It was only after watching Rekha and Amitabh Bachchan in Silsila (Yash Chopra, 1981), running through endless stretches of tulip fields that I linked the flower with the country. Actually, I doubt I’d ever seen a tulip until I watched Silsila. If I was to recreate this scene, my heroine would be running through pots of red geraniums because that’s the only blessed flower we had growing in our house throughout my teens. Mum wanted to grow something pretty on the window sill in front of the net curtains. Being the cheapest of all pot plants, and the only ones available in Morrisons anyway, even we could afford them on our budget. Not only were geraniums easy to grow meaning results were guaranteed, they came in a variety of colours and proved to be incredibly good value. If one of the long stems broke off accidentally, you simply buried it in moist soil and it would soon take root, without any fuss. So with her initial investment, mum soon had geraniums lined up all along our window sill.

Thanks to their glossy portrayal in Bollywood blockbusters, many overseas destinations have enjoyed a real boost from Indian tourists. Although the story of Fanaa (Kunal Kohli, 2006) was set in Kashmir, the snow clad terrain of the Tatra Mountains in Poland was used as a Kashmir replacement. This created a lot of interest from Indian tourists wanting to walk in the footsteps of Kajol and Aamir Khan. Singapore Tourism Board launched a tour package to coincide with the release of the superhero film Krrish (Rakesh Roshan, 2006) which was shot there. In her debut film, Jeans (Shankar, 1998), Aishwarya Rai managed to complete a round-the-world trip in just one song, taking in The Great Wall of China, Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Taj Mahal, Pyramids, Roman Colosseum, as well as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Unsurprisingly, filming for the song Poovukkul (Tamil) involved a budget breaking 30 day round-the-world trip with the cast and crew.

Britain too has become a very popular screen location in Bollywood films. So much so that VisitBritain produced a Bollywood Movie Map to encourage Indian film fans to visit the British locations shown in their favourite films. The map highlighted old and recent Bollywood productions and included Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Karan Johar, 1998), whose title track was filmed at Glencoe, Ross Priory and Loch Lomond in Scotland.

Thanks to the casual approach to continuity, Scotland’s diverse landscape could provide the backdrop for the song even though Scotland had nothing to do with the storyline. However, recent Bollywood storylines have featured non-resident Indians (NRIs) to appeal to the huge number of Bollywood fans living outside India. It’s well worth keeping them happy because the higher ticket prices paid by audiences in Canada, USA, Middle East and Britain can recoup more than half the total earnings of a film. For instance, my cinema ticket guarantees a higher return because I probably pay twenty times more for it than someone in India! With all this in mind, it makes sense for Britain and Bollywood to strengthen their ties, which is exactly what Yorkshire had in mind when it successfully bid to host the prestigious International Indian Film Academy Awards in 2007. It goes without saying that the region would offer an impressive backdrop to song and dance sequences. However, in my next blog post, I’ll reveal Yorkshire’s other unique selling points which convinced the organisers to bring the Bollywood Oscars to our doorstep.

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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.

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PREVIOUS: RISHI, RAJ AND ROLF HARRIS

3 Rishi, Raj and Rolf Harris

There weren’t many memorable romantic heroes in Indian films to choose from back in the 1980s. There was Amitabh Bachchan of course – hugely popular, but not conventionally good looking. I ruled him out on the grounds that he was too intense, too moody and frankly too old. Besides, he was in the midst of his angry young man phase and those films about factory politics just didn’t appeal to me. There was the rugged Anil Kapoor (the quiz master in Slumdog Millionaire) romancing Madhuri Dixit in Tezaab (N Chandra, 1988) and Ram Lakhan (Subhash Ghai, 1989), but he seemed too cool and handsome for his own good. Then there was Rishi Kapoor, my favourite romantic hero. He looked sincere and had a playful glint in his eye. He may have lacked Amitabh’s stature and swagger, nor could he dance like Anil Kapoor, but there was something accessible and non-threatening about him, like the boy next door I suppose. He seemed like a decent chap, and I felt genuinely sorry for him if he didn’t get the heroine, although of course he usually did. Some of his outfits were so awful that he couldn’t possibly have had a stylist. And yet, my enjoyment couldn’t even be dented by the dreadful thought that Rishi might actually own the unflattering jumpers and tight white trousers he often paraded in. There were times I thought his hair could benefit from a slap of Brylcreem, but honestly, I didn’t even mind that. As much as I liked Rishi Kapoor though, I didn’t deliberately seek out his films in the way that I might do now with Shahrukh Khan. It was much more organic than that. Rishi Kapoor just happened to be the hero in the films that struck a chord with me. These tended to be romantic blockbusters, with minimal gratuitous violence, lashings of glamour and superb soundtracks – films like Prem Rog (Raj Kapoor, 1982), Chandni (Yash Chopra, 1989) and Kabhi Kabhie (Yash Chopra, 1976):

I suppose my interest in Indian films back then was quite superficial. It wasn’t like my interest in say Duran Duran, which was actually an obsession that involved, for a number of years, keeping up to date with the hairstyles and girlfriends of all five band members. My knowledge of Indian films was much more abridged. In our household, we watched the film but didn’t really talk about the celebrity of Bollywood, who’s who, or who’s dating who. I certainly didn’t discuss Bollywood films with my mostly English classmates. So I remained oblivious to an entire subtext that was at play in the films I was watching. I didn’t realise Rishi Kapoor had married one of his leading ladies, Neetu Singh (see the second song clip from Kabhi Kabhie above, the one with the snow).  Neither did I know that Rishi Kapoor hailed from Bollywood royalty, or that some of his best known films were made by his celebrated father. I’d heard of Raj Kapoor but only in the same way that I’d heard of Chuck Berry. He was some sort of legend apparently but I wasn’t sure why. In the back of my mind, I had a hunch that there must be some link because every other Bollywood actor seemed to go by the surname ‘Kapoor’.

In fact, the Kapoors are to Indian cinema what the Redgraves are to British acting or the Kennedys to American politics. Raj Kapoor’s father, Prithviraj, was himself a revered actor. Prithviraj’s travelling theatre company became the training ground for his three sons. While Shammi and Shashi enjoyed considerable success in Indian cinema, Raj Kapoor set up his own film studio and dominated the industry for almost forty years. He produced, directed and starred in some of Indian cinema’s most enduring classics. His films were renowned for their social themes, romance, timeless songs, and Nargis, his favourite leading lady on-screen and allegedly in real life. Thanks to the phenomenal success of his films, Raj Kapoor became something of a cultural ambassador for his country. To this day, he holds a unique place in Indian cinema. When his son Rishi was a teenager, Raj Kapoor decided to launch him in a teen romance (Bobby, 1973). Rishi remained a major romantic hero for two decades. He is still appearing in films today and according to the rumour mill, is being considered as a judge for the Indian version of the X Factor.  Rishi’s son (Ranbir) and niece (Kareena) are dominant stars of Indian cinema today; their distinguished lineage is such common knowledge that it precedes their on-screen roles.

I, however, remained oblivious to Rishi Kapoor’s real life credentials for years, and grasped the significance of his legendary father in the most surreal circumstances. The year was 1994. I had bagged a dream job that involved making tea for Rolf Harris on the TV programme, Animal Hospital. Rolf would encourage me to make two mugs of tea from the same teabag. One day he asked, “Do you know any Hindi songs?” “A few,” I said, a little taken aback. I was completely gobsmacked when he got down on one knee, threw open his arms and serenaded me with the chorus of a famous song I knew:

Mera Joota Hai Japani
Yeh Patloon Inglistani
Sar pay laal topi Roosi
Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani

Which roughly translated goes something like this:

My shoes are Japanese
These trousers are British
On my head I wear a Russian hat
Yet my heart belongs to India

It turned out Rolf had travelled around India as a young man. Not knowing any Hindi, he was looking for an alternative way to break the language barrier, so someone taught him this song. “Mera Joota Hai Japani” comes from Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 (1955), one of the most iconic Bollywood films of all time. It tells the story of a poor country boy who travels to a big city dreaming of a better life. The character’s tramp like appearance was heavily influenced by Charlie Chaplin. The film attained cult status in Russia and apparently, it was one of Mao Tse-tung’s favourite films.

Rolf knew nothing about Indian films and hadn’t even seen a clip of the song until I rented the film for him. But he had recognised the song’s popularity by the reaction it had garnered during his travels in India. You see, film songs are the equivalent of pop music in India – the soundtrack can make or break a film, and is usually released before the film as a marketing ploy. So it’s not unusual for songs to take on a life of their own beyond the films they feature in. Also, in a country of many languages, religions and ethnicities, Bollywood films act as a universal language. This is because irrespective of mother tongue, most people can understand the language used in films. For instance, Hindi and Urdu are sister languages, sharing a large common vocabulary, so it’s easy for speakers of both languages to understand Bollywood films [thanks Vandana for prodding me to make this point!]. This also explains the popularity of Bollywood among British Asian audiences; whether they’re Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi, and regardless of mother tongue, the language of Bollywood brings them together in the cinemas. So whoever taught Rolf Harris that iconic song did him a huge favour – it came from one of Raj Kapoor’s most famous films, and the lyrics were highly patriotic. By singing those four lines alone, Rolf was able to say more about his appreciation of Indian culture than he could have done in any other way.

I have my mum to thank for many of these insights. It turns out that Raj Kapoor was the actor of the day when mum was growing up so it was his songs which formed the soundtrack to her life. 1964 was the year Raj Kapoor released his first colour film, Sangam. It was also the year mum left Rawalpindi to begin married life in Yorkshire. It must have taken some courage for her parents to marry off their daughter to a Pakistani settled so far away. In the days leading up to mum’s departure, my grandmother would repeat a sobering Punjabi saying: “Off you go, my beloved daughter, to the other side of the River Ravi, to where no-one goes and from where no-one returns”. And so mum left Rawalpindi for a 2 up 2 down in Keighley. She was used to houses with terraces and courtyards so the novelty of stepping outside the front door to see the sky quickly wore off. Dad slept all day and worked six nights a week as a wool comber in a spinning mill. It’s difficult to believe that there was only one halal meat shop in all of Keighley. What’s equally implausible is that Pakistani women were a rare sight; the trend among migrant mill workers to call over their families was only just beginning. Mum once chased after a woman she spotted in a shalwar kameez, just to have the chance to speak to someone like herself. One of mum’s favourite uncles, himself a fan of Prithviraj Kapoor, telephoned one day to see how mum was settling in. She reminisced about hearing the latest Indian film songs on Radio Ceylon and asked him to send her the Sangam soundtrack. Sure enough, a few weeks later, a bubble wrapped package arrived at 1 Alpha Street containing a bundle of vinyl LPs.  And so it was that songs like this one, from the films of Raj Kapoor – the father of my number one romantic hero, Rishi – sustained mum as she adjusted to her new life in Britain.

THE NEXT INSTALMENT: YORKSHIRE BOLLYWOOD AND KEIGHLEY

PREVIOUS: JOSIE THE DANCING GIRL

2 Josie the Dancing Girl

It was the early 1990s and my marriage was looming. The wedding was in Islamabad which would also become my new home, so mum said I could have a leaving party in Bradford. I think she didn’t want to miss out on return gifts from all the weddings we’d sat through, forking out the customary £20 cash gift at each one. It would be great to gather friends to say goodbye but it would be a strange party – without an actual ceremony for guests to witness, I had nightmares about hosting a party where the chicken tikka would be the main attraction. We couldn’t even have much of a sing song since all the ceremonial stuff and the mehndi (the pre-wedding rituals especially for the bride) were reserved for our arrival in Pakistan.

The mehndi parties I’d attended in Bradford were the perfect opportunity for eager mothers to parade their young daughters, potential brides now, hoping to bag a handsome professional, preferably one that owned a semi. So you graciously said salaam o alaikum to numerous ‘aunties’ because you never knew which one was checking you out for a son, a nephew, a neighbour or a colleague! They all had a similar shopping list of course – young, virginal, courteous, respectable family background, a brilliant cook, fair skinned preferably, and still pliable enough for them to mould to their own tastes. All said and done then, weddings just weren’t the place to let rip on the dance floor! Some girls – the bolder and younger ones usually – could get away with doing a few improvised steps to an Indian filmi song, although usually only in a women only setting. The rest of us did the luddi – well, ours was a pared down version of the traditional Punjabi folk dance, very restrained by all accounts. It involved a group of self conscious girls moving primly in a large circle, with lots of innocent hand clapping and not much else!

The place to let rip was on the dance floor at the bhangra nights in Bradford, where you could be sure that your bhangra moves wouldn’t jeopardise a reference for marriage. I was careful to get permission for a bhangra ‘concert’ rather than a bhangra ‘disco’. I hoped mum imagined me sitting gaily in the audience (probably on the female side) clapping along placidly to my favourite tunes, like they did on variety shows on Pakistan Television. My best mate Josie was my partner in crime at the bhangra nights. We would go to St George’s Hall or Queens Hall in the city centre. We’d be boogying away to Golden Star or Alaap, and with me being the Asian one, the crowd on the dance floor would assume I’d taught Josie, while I actually spent all my time trying to mimic her fancy footwork! In fact, Josie had professional training in ballet and was a natural at picking up dance styles. Come to think of it, she introduced me to bhangra in the first place! She’d grown up spending a lot of time with a Sikh family who were friends of her parents, so she’d picked up some old fashioned bhangra as well as a smattering of Punjabi, not to mention swear words!

With the countdown under way towards my imminent departure, I needed some entertainment at my leaving do; something to make it memorable. I couldn’t ask any of my Muslim friends to do a solo dance because people would have found it vulgar. It was one thing for them to have a good boogie in the privacy of our living room, but good Muslim girls, especially those with husbands still to find, do not dance in public. It’s immodest. Dancing in public is akin to dancing for entertainment. Some might even view it as an expression of sexuality, something which we weren’t even supposed to be aware of!  I suspected though that our Asian double standards meant nobody would mind if an English woman got up to dance because – well, English women are deemed to have different (lower) moral standards!  So I played Josie a clip of ‘Inhi Logon Ne’ from Pakeezah (Pure of Heart, Kamal Amrohi, 1971) and asked if she could copy the choreography. She said she would and promptly sat down with a piece of paper to convert the moves into dance notation, something she’d learnt to do at dance school. We bought some cheap fabric from Bombay Stores and my mum and her friend did their best to replicate Pakeezah’s outfit from the film. We even bought some cheap Indian jewellery to complete the look. On the night, Josie’s dancing was a massive hit. There were so many requests that she ended up performing the dance routine from Pakeezah several times. Of course Josie didn’t believe her values were being compromised in any way. It bemused her that popular dance in a family setting could even be a moral issue.

Josie’s first letter from Bradford reached me a few weeks after my wedding. Someone from my leaving party had recognised her in Bombay Stores, Josie wrote. The girl had asked Josie to perform at her wedding – and best of all, she’d offered to pay £100 for three filmi dances! By the time I returned to England 18 months later, Josie had become quite a celebrity in the north of England. She was so heavily booked up with performances at weddings, parties, melas and variety shows up and down the country, the only way I’d get to see her was to travel with her to the performances.

Josie had built up a repertoire of lively songs with memorable dance routines from Bollywood blockbusters. The majority were golden oldies where the routines were inspired by semi-classical Indian dance, rather than modern day tacky numbers which lacked poise and grace. That’s why we relied on recommendations for films of yesteryear from friend’s mums. Remember this was the early 1990s, an era before iTunes, so if an ‘aunt’ suggested a song, Josie and I would head down to Bombay Stores to hunt for a cassette compilation that included it. If Josie felt the song had potential, we would hunt for the film on video. Sitting through a film like Pakeezah, on the lookout for potential dance sequences was effortless. The entire film was so sumptuously colourful that you barely noticed when a song interrupted the narrative. We also sat through some real clangers, only releasing the fast forward button when someone broke into song. And so it was that an ‘aunt’ suggested a dance from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (Master Mistress and Slave, Abrar Alvi, 1962). Knowing now that this film is an absolute masterpiece of cinematography, I’m ashamed to admit that on first viewing, I couldn’t understand how such a sober looking film could possibly feature a gem like ‘Saaqiya Aaj Mujhe Needh Nahin Ayegi’, let alone an unforgettable dance routine to accompany it!

The song was featured as part of a mujra recital in the film, and over time, these were the dances that became our favourites. Mujra recitals took place during a mehfil, an aristocratic gathering of fine poetry and music, with the dance being performed by a courtesan. The courtesan or dancing girl is a popular character in Indian cinema. She usually has a minor role in Bollywood films (as in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam above) and tends to be Hindu. There have only been two celebrated films to feature a courtesan as its lead heroine and ironically in both of these, the courtesan was Muslim. One of these was Pakeezah and the other was a film based on a very famous Urdu novel called Umrao Jaan (Muzaffar Ali, 1981). Both films provided Josie with a number of mujra staples for her repertoire.

You can see from the clips how sophisticated the courtesan was, with a lifestyle far superior than the word ‘prostitute’ implies. In fact, the courtesan had refined tastes, and dressed exquisitely. In her heyday – one hundred and fifty years ago in Northern India, during Mughal rule – she was regarded as an intelligent artist and associated with fine society. She was trained in semi-classical singing and dancing. She earned fame and wealth through her beauty and talents – she wrote poetry and sang lyrics she had penned herself, accompanied by a group of highly accomplished male musicians.  She was a cultural geisha I suppose, offering something of a ‘finishing school’ for sons of the gentry – they’d be sent to the courtesan quarters to learn, among other things, poetry and etiquette (for more on this, see ‘Filming the Gods’ by Rachel Dwyer). Far from being a seedy spectacle, the mujra involved the courtesan paying her respects to the gathering of male aristocrats in the form of song and dance. The courtesan would take centre stage, and her male admirers would watch the performance whilst lounging around on beautiful Persian carpets and silken bolster cushions, and smoking Shisha style hookahs.

Admittedly, these accoutrements were in short supply at the weddings Josie was invited to perform at. Alongside the grander occasions in Bradford’s smartest curry houses, many were held in makeshift wedding halls – perhaps a community centre or sports hall in Manningham or Great Horton. Here, the only decoration was the mismatched plastic chairs or posters promoting English and sewing classes peeling off the walls. Yet, it was such a visual feast to see these classic dance routines being performed live, just as I’d seen them in the films. Although her foray into Bollywood dance began as a novelty, Josie’s commitment to the craft transformed her into a credible artist. She imitated the choreography perfectly, matching every twirl or hip swivel, noting the slightest inclination of the head, appreciating the subtlety of each hand gesture, bosom lift and eye movement. When she found certain moves didn’t have a notation mark, then she made up her own language. Where the main dancer was out of camera shot, Josie would improvise, always with the same speed, grace and quick footedness as the dancer on screen. As Josie recognised that filmi dances were influenced by different classical dance forms, each with its own unique mannerisms, she undertook intensive training in Bharat Natyam and Kathak. She would tell me: “It’s like speaking with the wrong accent. You have to be able to dance with the right accent. The normal western way of moving doesn’t fit. The whole pattern of movement has to be in the same culture as the dance.”

Of course it helped that Josie was built like a sturdy South Asian woman, with enough curves in all the right places to amply fill out the closely fitted bodice of her long silk dress that she wore with a churidar pajama.  And just like the dancers in Indian films, Josie would couple this with a tight fitting bolero jacket to nip in the waist and further accentuate the bosom. She would use mehndi to stain the palms of her hands and had even learnt to bind her long golden hair skilfully into a matching tasselled paranda (hair accessory), visible through the diaphanous dupatta pinned to her hair. She cast an alluring figure with the ghungroo (bells) tied around her ankles chiming evocatively as she stepped onto the dance floor. The irony was that Josie’s popularity soared because she was ‘a gori’ (white woman).  Of course she had a natural talent and she worked bloody hard, but the fact remains that Josie’s English background helped to distance her from the traditional dancing girl taboos. While my community might have frowned upon a Muslim woman earning a living through dancing in public, they respected Josie for embracing their culture, and for offering them a piece of home that they sorely missed in Yorkshire. Whilst this career choice would most likely have diminished a Muslim woman’s marriage choices, Josie was in the enviable position of turning down several marriage proposals from enthusiastic Asian men!

THE NEXT INSTALMENT: RISHI, RAJ AND ROLF HARRIS

PREVIOUS: BRADFORD PAKEEZAH AND ME

1 Bradford Pakeezah and Me

This isn’t a blog about Bollywood films; it’s a blog about the history of Bollywood’s relationship with Britain. I won’t be reviewing the latest films. I’m hoping to uncover the behind-the-scenes stories which have helped to make Bollywood films so popular in Britain today.

Bollywood films have been shown in Britain since at least the 1950s when South Asian migrant mill workers in cities like Bradford and Coventry sought entertainment on their day off. Asian entrepreneurs began to hire cinemas to show Bollywood movies on Sunday afternoons. Demand was so high that some even bought cinemas and established Indian film societies. British locations have featured in Indian films for decades, with the rolling landscape of the Lake District and Scottish castles acting as ‘exotic’ backdrops for numerous song and dance sequences. Britain featuring as part of the storyline is a relatively recent phenomenon. I’ve noted mounting interest in Indian films among my English friends. There was a time when my mates would consider watching a subtitled French film as a valuable cultural experience, yet Bollywood was strictly off limits. I sensed a shift after Shilpa Shetty’s run in with Jade Goody on Big Brother at the beginning of 2007. There was more mainstream exposure for Bollywood later the same year when Yorkshire hosted the IIFA Awards (Bollywood Oscars). Now we’ve reached the stage where credible Kylie has starred in a Bollywood song and dance sequence (‘Chiggy Whiggy’, Blue, D’Souza, 2009).

So here’s what I’ve got in mind. I want to talk to people who’ve been involved in bringing Bollywood to Britain. I want to track down some of the pioneers that screened the first Indian films in this country. I want to find out how the Bollywood Oscars ended up being held in Yorkshire. I’ve heard the offer of a friendly match at Headingley (Indians love cricket!) sealed it for the organisers, but is this really true? Another story I want to check is that Andrew Lloyd Webber apparently had a habit of watching Bollywood music channels with the volume turned down. The story goes that he was inspired to work with composer A R Rehman on a Bollywood style musical (Bombay Dreams, 2002) after seeing a clip of ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’, which features a woman dancing on the roof of a moving train with Shahrukh Khan (Dil Se, Ratnam, 1998).

I want to share my love of Bollywood films, especially the old classics, and make them accessible to Bollywood beginners. So if you’ve never seen an Indian film, this blog might sway you, and may even help you decide which films to watch. I’m also hoping this blog will help me to think about my own relationship with Bollywood, and the part these films have played in my life. I wasn’t raised on a pure Bollywood diet, but the increasing availability of Indian films in early 1980s Bradford certainly helped me to come to terms with my cultural identity. Let me explain.

I was born in Keighley (where the Railway Children was filmed) but we went to live in Pakistan when I was four. We moved back in 1977 when I was nine. It was the year Elvis died, only I didn’t know who he was because my terms of reference were based on my convent schooling in Rawalpindi. We’d left behind a massive extended family – grandparents, uncles and cousins galore. We had no family in England. We settled on the mostly white Canterbury council estate in Bradford. Mum was now a single parent to three children, holding down three jobs in order to keep a roof over our heads. She worked as a machinist by day and took in piece-work from factories at night because the Brits wouldn’t recognise the teaching qualification she’d gained in Pakistan. Socialising involved changing two buses to visit an ‘aunt’ (usually one of mum’s work colleagues, and always Pakistani).  Our sole entertainment was watching TV. Mum got really excited on Sunday mornings when a (now iconic) magazine programme, Nayee Zindagi Naya Jeevan (New Way New Life), would be shown on the BBC. It featured a news update from back home, chat with a special guest and an entertainment slot. It was especially for Asians like us and best of all, it was in Urdu. It was probably the only programme we could watch without the fear of a mildly explicit scene making us squirm with discomfort!

School was difficult. I had little in common with my mostly white classmates – we hadn’t yet embraced the concept of multiculturalism! So they discussed boyfriends and mocked me because I wasn’t allowed to have one. They went to discos and parties but I wasn’t allowed to. They went into town on a Saturday afternoon while my mum escorted me and my siblings to the library. Eid was a bit of a non-event really. We got a day off school but we’d be all dressed up with nowhere to go. We didn’t celebrate Christmas although I began fabricating a list of presents from Santa, to make me sound normal in class. Nowadays, we Pakistanis in Bradford seem to have developed a cockiness that has even earned us a degree of notoriety. Back then, we still walked around apologising for being different. If they weren’t calling me “garlic breath” in the school canteen, then my classmates would be sharing a particular joke with me in the playground. It was based on a TV ad for a popular mint with a hole in the centre: “What’s the difference between a Paki and a Polo?” And the punch line went: “People like Polo!”

I think it was in the early 80s that Channel 4 began to screen a Bollywood season, showing an Indian film around 2am on a Friday or a Saturday night. I was in my early teens. I would religiously record the films on our VCR so I could play them back over and over again. Mostly the films were classics I think, many black and white, with traditional tales of romance. And even if they were a bit racy, at least they were doing it all in our mother tongue which somehow made it more acceptable. I didn’t even know what a courtesan was when I first watched Pakeezah (Pure of Heart, Amrohi, 1971). I was mesmerised by the bewitching Meena Kumari performing ‘Inhi Logon Ne’ in a magnificent red costume, so the notion of her singing about losing her honour whilst dancing in the courtesan quarters for prospective clients, went completely over my head! To be fair, it was all done so poetically, in typical Bollywood style.

This was also the first time I actively listened to Bollywood music, usually just recording the songs off the TV manually, by holding a cassette recorder near the TV speakers. These songs felt special because they were in my language which I rarely got to speak outside our house. I suppose I sought refuge in those early Bollywood classics like Pakeezah and Taj Mahal (Sadiq, 1963). Whilst I knew the words to every Duran Duran song ever recorded, it was probably the first time I hummed or listened to a pop song that wasn’t in English. They infused in me a sense of pride, and a sense of belonging. They made me feel that our language, our music, our clothes, and our culture were worthy of appreciation.

Mum had watched some of the older films and heard the songs when she was growing up in Pakistan, so they evoked a sense of history that we yearned for. Our new life in Bradford meant there was no history of mum around us; no pictures or mementoes of her life before marriage. We’d arrived in England with our clothes bundled in a few suitcases and not much else. Christian Housing Aid had kindly sent a truck to furnish our council home. Now, everywhere we went was new, as were our relationships, so there was no link to mum’s past. In a sense, classic Bollywood movies helped to bridge that gap. I remember those films gave mum some scarce moments of relaxation on the sofa. Mum would translate for us if the language proved difficult, or she would explain if we couldn’t follow the plot – which was usually a complicated love triangle. She would reminisce about her father’s fondness for music. He was a clerk in the British Indian Army when mum was a little girl. This was around 1945 before mum was even ten years old. Her father brought back a gramophone from one of his postings. Every time he returned to the village on vacation, he’d be clutching the latest records – qawwalis, naats (religious songs) as well as filmi songs. When the family slept on the roof on hot summer nights, he would ceremoniously set up the gramophone on a table on the rooftop, laying out a table cloth underneath. The sound of music travelled far, and attracted villagers to congregate on the charpois (beds) laid out on the roof. There they would sit and marvel at this new contraption. Years later, when mum started college in Rawalpindi, trips to the cinema were endorsed as long as she was up to date with her studies and prayers. Mum’s favourite films featured the classic pairings of Dilip Kumar and Noor Jehan, or Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Looking back, reconnecting with those films in 1980s Britain probably offered mum a rare distraction. More importantly, they gave all of us a valuable link to her childhood in Pakistan.

THE NEXT INSTALMENT: JOSIE THE DANCING GIRL

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