Bollywood in Britain

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

Posts Tagged ‘Bollywood Oscars

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.

THE NEXT INSTALMENT: YORKSHIRE BOLLYWOOD AND HISTORY

PREVIOUS: YORKSHIRE BOLLYWOOD AND KEIGHLEY

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