Bollywood in Britain

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

Posts Tagged ‘Aishwarya Rai

11 A Suitable Husband

Of all the proposals to land on our coffee table, there was one in particular which caught my eye. It was simply too good to turn down. An educated, well respected, handsome professional, settled in Pakistan. Best of all, he had no interest in making a new life for himself in Britain. And the last thing I wanted was the burden of settling a immigrant husband in Bradford, a place where I already felt dislocated. Now, with this fine matrimonial package in hand, I felt empowered once again. This was my ticket to new beginnings in Islamabad.

I might only have spent a handful of my 23 years there, but Islamabad still felt like a home away from home. My ties with my parental homeland began in 1971, when dad convinced mum to return to Pakistan with their three children, ostensibly to give us a better quality of life and greater moral values. We moved in with mum’s extended family in Rawalpindi, arriving in the midst of the war that resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. I was four. My earliest memories are of trenches dug out in the road, nightly blackouts, and older relatives routinely handing out cotton wool to stuff in our ears when the air raid sirens rang, to prevent the sound of explosions from piercing our eardrums.

At the head of our sprawling multi-generational household was my grandfather. He’d return from his book keeping position on a bicycle laden with groceries and biscuits for the eight grandchildren that now lived with him. The warmest of souls, he was himself the eldest of 14 children, which meant there was never a shortage of takers for the woven charpois lining the walls of the veranda, which doubled up as our playground after school. Of course, the busy household meant my agile grandmother was rarely released from the stove. Two older cousins quickly became my favourite family members. The college going daughters of mum’s deceased sister, they took charge of tying a blue ribbon in my hair every morning, in preparation for my school day. Mum’s spirited older brother was an engineer with Radio Pakistan. He’d leave for work with a blue tiffin box tucked in the metal basket of his Vespa. We’d greet his return with dismay, knowing he would shortly round up all the children, including his three sons, for extra maths tuition.

It wasn’t long before we moved to Islamabad. You see, when mum began teaching before marriage, she returned home one day with information about a novel government scheme. A new city called Islamabad was being built close to Rawalpindi. It would become the new capital, being more easily accessible than Karachi (the original capital) which was situated hundreds of miles away, on the coast of the Arabian Sea in the South. Nestled at the base of the Himalayan foothills, the site for the new capital seemed isolated and unwelcoming, so the government was keenly offering financial incentives to speed up settlement. With the unprecedented lure of an 18 month salary advance, mum’s parents encouraged her to buy a plot and persuaded their son to apply too. As fate would have it, mum and her brother were assigned adjoining plots. They even asked the architect to draw up plans for identical properties. When mum began to struggle financially after dad stopped supporting us, her brother stepped in so the building work could continue.

My grandma personally supervised the construction, setting off on foot from Rawalpindi each morning immediately after dawn prayers. She was a Hafiz-e-Quran which meant she had committed the entire holy book to memory. Ever the practical woman, she preferred to invoke prayers rather than engage in idle chatter. For months on end, as she watched over the builders, she infused the bricks and mortar with her prayers, and planted the trees which still offer shade in both gardens. The houses were rented out as soon as they were built, to help clear outstanding loans. In 1975, we finally moved in upstairs at number 9, living off the rent we earned from the ground floor. With my uncle living at number 11, we remained tightknit, with everyone relying on his Vespa as the extended family’s sole means of transport.

I befriended two diligent sisters that lived opposite. The ground floor of their house was also rented out so we’d often exchange gestures from our first floor terraces. I’ll never forget the day they brought the neighbourhood to a standstill by staging a doll’s wedding. They’d accepted a proposal on behalf of their doll from the proud owner of a boy doll, from further down the street. Invitations were issued and we all dressed up to attend the wedding ceremony. The sisters had spent weeks, painstakingly stitching clothes for their doll’s trousseau which ‘the bride’ would take to her husband’s home. They proudly laid out the extensive homemade dowry on their freshly sluiced terrace, and even my uncle’s wife went along for the obligatory inspection. Nurturing the girls’ efforts, their mum even served a wedding feast in the form of chickpea pullao and cardamom infused rice pudding. The women marvelled at the efficiency with which the initial proposal had been advanced, and how smoothly the girls had negotiated the terms of marriage. The attention and respect this event garnered from the adults reiterated, in no uncertain terms, that this was precisely the sort of amusement they endorsed. I also absorbed, at the tender age of nine, that proposals of marriage must follow certain protocol.

My own marriage in 1990 took place long before the growth of Muslim matrimonial websites. Back then, when a girl came of age, her parents would put the word out among informal marriage brokers, and then you hoped the enquiries would come flooding in. I realise it doesn’t sound very spontaneous, but that was the etiquette, and in some quarters it still is. You see, it’s indelicate for a girl’s parents to actively tout for a suitable husband. So, the onus is on the boy’s family to make appointments for viewings, and it’s the boy’s prerogative to make the initial offer of marriage.

Whilst we sat tight, waiting for viewings and offers, both mum and I continued to work on our shopping lists. I wanted a suitor who was well educated; broad minded, with an exciting career, a few stamps in his passport and first class people skills. I hoped he’d be at least moderately good looking and taller than me. There was a supplementary checklist which I’d accumulated through hearsay. I knew, for instance, that it was preferable to make a match where you could live independently, to limit day to day interference from the in-laws, but this wasn’t always possible. I knew it was important to consider the size of the new household. There might be a lot of in-laws to please which might also require extended spells in the kitchen. The mother-in-law’s disposition was also worth mulling over since her willing support could make your new life so much easier. Some of my friends had fretted that a potential suitor might not permit them to work, or he may wish to modify their dress code. As far as I was concerned though, such prerogatives were not even up for negotiation. Besides, I reasoned that these issues wouldn’t matter to the sort of well educated, broad minded suitor I had in mind.

Meanwhile, mum was set on a wholesome son-in-law with a solid family background, a good degree, a strong sense of responsibility and the sort of traditional career that would always pay the mortgage. We also had to give due consideration to the suitor’s social class. You see, our unions aren’t just marriages; they’re family mergers, so it’s vital to ensure that a lasting bond is truly sustainable. We couldn’t possibly marry beneath us. Nor did we want the pressure of keeping up appearances by securing a match with people way above our station. Mum has several cousins in her ancestral village who never married, because their families were unable to identify men of a suitable social class for them. In a couple of cases, I know that property was also an issue. Promising their daughters outside existing kinship networks, would have resulted in the unwelcome division of the family’s property. You see, the daughter takes a share of her father’s property to her new family. Little wonder then that marriage within the extended family is still so popular.

The Indian films I grew up with often reinforced the tribulations of finding an ideal suitor. Yet, there were occasions where people became love-struck before even exchanging a single word. “But how could they know whether or not they have a deeper connection?” I would wonder. Ever the realist, I worried that they hadn’t discussed expectations or joint bank accounts. Indeed, the lovebirds faced many hurdles after it was too late for them to evaluate their differences objectively. With our respective lists, mum and I were simply trying to iron out these obstacles in advance. This exquisite A R Rehman song from Bombay (Mani Ratnam, 1995) eloquently captures the initial exchange between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman. In amongst the wedding crowd, a single glimpse of the beautiful girl leaves the protagonist mesmerised. He follows her furtively in the crowd. The girl, the epitome of innocence of course, initially hesitates to return his gaze. She becomes uneasy, tormented by her inability to reject his attention in the largely segregated assembly, and before long her eyes begin to seek his.

Even in Bradford, weddings are regarded as the perfect opportunity for eager mothers to parade their young daughters. So it’s not surprising that the men in films like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 1999) so willing chaperoned their sisters to weddings, particularly since the caring sister was only too happy to intervene on behalf of her distracted brother. As Aishwarya Rai performs ‘Nimbooda’ (which means lemon or sourness, hence the prop in her hand!) with her dance troupe, she’s oblivious to the decent gent in the crowd who has already selected her to be his bride. What makes this a little more plausible, at least to me, is that Aishwarya’s jovial performance showcases her exuberance, and I like to think it is this which makes her so irresistible to Ajay Devgan.

I, on the other hand, was very level-headed about choosing a suitable husband. There was no hesitation when the option of marrying my uncle’s youngest son was put to me, despite the irony that I knew my uncle better than I knew his son, whom I’d seen fleetingly five years earlier at a family wedding in Islamabad. Naturally, his profile came with a good character reference, but I knew little about his daily routine, and nothing about the workings of his mind and heart. I knew him from afar, in the same way I knew my neighbour, with nothing more between us than the occasional inconsequential exchange. The solitary spark of romance in this merger was the nostalgia of a childhood in Pakistan, although that seemed a lifetime away now, and my grandparents, the glue that bonded us all, were long gone.

Rationally though, the arrangement went well beyond the usual union of two individuals, making me something greater than just one half of a couple. Our families shared the same history and I felt relief in such a sense of belonging. I knew that marrying within the family would grant me more security than marrying an outsider ever would. We could also dispense with the usual protracted enquiries since we already knew these people were of good stock. You see, it’s not unheard of for men to have to produce certificates as proof of their qualifications, and wage slips to confirm they really earn what they say they do.

It was reassuring to be stepping into a familiar arrangement. I would effectively be moving next door, from house number 9 to 11. I liked to think I’d be favoured over the other daughter-in-laws since, unlike them, I already belonged to the family. I could be the daughter my uncle never had, and I would gain a much needed father figure. My uncle was now a widower and there were no interfering sister-in-laws living with him. As the only woman of the household, I would automatically assume a rank which most daughter-in-laws wait a lifetime to ascend. And so I accepted their offer, confident that I was the best candidate for the position.

THE NEXT INSTALMENT: ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST

PREVIOUS: LOST IN BRADFORD

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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.

THE NEXT INSTALMENT: YORKSHIRE BOLLYWOOD AND HISTORY

PREVIOUS: YORKSHIRE BOLLYWOOD AND KEIGHLEY

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