Bollywood in Britain

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

Archive for the ‘South Asians in Britain’ 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.


THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE WEDDING DAY

PREVIOUS: YORKSHIRE BOLLYWOOD AND GEOGRAPHY

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):

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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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