Bollywood in Britain

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

Posts Tagged ‘Weddings

7 The Wedding Day

My wedding day was probably the closest that my life has ever got to resembling an Indian film. The year was 1990. At 23, I was at a good marriageable age. A bit like a graduate trainee who has all the potential to excel with the right sort of guidance, I was still pliable enough for my in-laws to mould me to their requirements. It’s not a decision I took lightly. Throughout my teens, I was conscious of two conflicting paths laid out before me, and I would have to choose one or the other. There could be no in-between. Could I see myself waltzing down the aisle in a big white marshmallow dress? For this option to ring true, I realised I would need to date an English fellow, and this could surely only happen by defecting. I could see myself marrying an English gent if only in my fantasy world. Let’s gloss over the backlash that might have ensued. I imagined having an English husband would make me seem alternative. He would be the ultimate accessory. Such a marriage would speak volumes about my degree of integration. I would leap several social classes overnight, and people would marvel at my confidence to be able to maintain my culture whilst also taking on someone else’s. That’s what I thought.

The reality was quite different. On a practical level, I could never see myself being with someone who didn’t speak my mother tongue, even though I mostly spoke in English. I couldn’t imagine having to explain the machinations of every Indian movie we watched together. There were plenty of minor headaches too that my dream somehow glossed over – the minefield of behavioural do’s and don’ts when sitting with the family. We might even have overcome the whole alcohol, pork and halal hurdle if my Mr Darcy miraculously turned out to be teetotal and vegetarian. But, the reality was that in the absence of anyone sweeping me off my feet, English or otherwise, my options were limited. I didn’t want the headache and the hassle of all that cultural intervention anyway – telling my husband to hide his beer cans in case my family turned up unannounced, and making him use a dedicated frying pan and separate washing up sponge for his un-Islamic bacon breakfasts.

I knew I had to marry someone. There’s no such thing as being single in my culture. In fact, marriage is so critical that we refer to the state of being single as being unmarried. And so, I was really happy to take the traditional route, even though it wasn’t so much a “yes please!” as a “well, why not then.”

And love? Well, despite my 23 years I was inexperienced, just as I was expected to be, in matters of romance. Therefore my decision was quite pragmatic really. I realised it wasn’t an affair of the heart or even a meeting of minds, but I hoped it might be once we got to know each other. I did have a serious talk with my mum about it. “You know I don’t love him,” I started tentatively a few months before the wedding. “Of course you don’t,” she reassured me. “You see, English people do things the other way round. They marry the person they love, but we grow to love the person we marry.”

So that’s how I found myself on that September evening, wearing an exquisitely embroidered gharara (bridal outfit), sitting on a purpose built stage inside the marquee erected on our front lawn in Islamabad. My neck was stooped forward with the weight of the chunky gold necklaces around it and my eyes were demurely downcast, with dozens of aunts, cousins and neighbours clucking around me. Mum had done well to stretch that savings plan she’d taken out with the Prudential when I was in my early teens. She must have felt like she was throwing money into a bottomless pit: yard upon yard of fabric from Bombay Stores; jewellery from the goldsmith working out of his lounge just off Horton Grange Road; extravagant gifts for the groom and in-laws; our flights from Bradford to Islamabad; household items and new furniture for the bedroom I would share with my husband at his parental home; bedding for my new bedroom; catering for hundreds of guests; the fairy lights that adorned our house; as well as the stage that I was now shyly sitting on.

I was merely emulating the blushing brides I’d conscientiously observed at the countless weddings I’d attended over the years in Bradford. We didn’t really know the sorts of people that held receptions in the Holiday Inns and the Hiltons. The people we knew hosted weddings at the Pakistani Community Centre off Lumb Lane, or the Manningham Sports Centre, although I’d been lucky enough to attend a number of upmarket affairs at Rio’s nightclub near the university. I think the best time to go to weddings is in your innocence, when you care enough to notice every detail of the bride’s outfit and demeanour. That’s what us Asian girls did. How unhurriedly did the bride walk? How large did the earrings have to be before they looked tawdry? How big was the clutch bag she carried? How dark was the stain of the mehndi? I also lapped up elaborate wedding scenes in the Indian films I watched. The best films were the ones where the wedding was central to the storyline because that’s when you were treated to several song sequences, each dedicated to a different element of the wedding. There might be a mehndi song to mark the eve of the wedding, where the bride and her friends decorate their hands and feet with elaborate henna patterns, and where one of the bride’s friends might perform a celebratory dance before the gathered crowd.

Then there was the baraat song, another opportunity for a jovial dance sequence, where the groom’s wedding party arrive at the bride’s house (or wedding venue) to take her away. This song from Kaala Pathar (Chopra, 1979) was featured on my own wedding video, when my groom’s procession arrived at our house by car. Although I was already dressed in my finery, I concealed myself with a huge chaddar so I could stand on the balcony to watch their arrival. I was quickly ushered back inside but later watched the video with pride as my family formally welcomed the groom’s party with garlands of marigolds and roses, and scores of young cousins lined up to shower them with rose petals. After the religious formalities were conducted and food had been served, I was finally brought out to take my place beside the groom on the stage. My face was as expressionless as the bride’s in the following song. It wasn’t misery, I assure you. Think of it as a sort of cultural coyness.

Thankfully, brides I’ve seen at real weddings lately as well as in Indian films don’t look like that anymore. But when I got married back in 1990, that look was part of the behaviour expected of the bride, at least among the Pakistani branch of my family. Even though I knew the guests were judging me purely on ornamentation rather than personality or my computer literacy skills, I adored being the centre of attention sitting up on that stage with all eyes on me, my dress and my jewellery. Senior female relatives expressly reminded me not to smile or speak too much, not even for the official photographs. And speaking to the groom was out of the question. I wasn’t even supposed to acknowledge him. It was unbecoming. People would think the bride was shameless, openly looking forward to her wedding night rather than silently squirming with apprehension!

In fact, I was much more excited about unpacking my magnificent trousseau which mum and I had spent a number of years assembling. The furniture I’d chosen for my new bedroom had already been sent on, awaiting my arrival. Mum and I hadn’t seen the bedroom and we didn’t know the room’s proportions, but that’s just how it was then. Little did it matter whether the goods would fit or match the rest of the house, or indeed if they were required at all. My mum had to be seen to have done her duty by providing her daughter with everything she would need to commence her new life. And I wasn’t complaining. I was rather looking forward to arranging my newly purchased lipsticks and nail varnishes on my shiny new dressing table. I’d also finally get to use the various pots, pans and pressure cookers we’d bought, the set of dishes and my new red whistling kettle from Marks & Spencer. I had enough newly stitched shalwar kameez outfits, most of them with matching shoes and handbags, to be able to wear a new one every single day for at least six weeks. In hindsight, shopping for matching bags and shoes was probably a constructive distraction and offered the thrill that was alas absent elsewhere. At the time though, I felt like a very lucky girl, with a wonderful incentive to get married.

Call me materialistic but let me assure you that all this shopping was entirely necessary. In fact it was actively encouraged. My mum was much happier for me to spend my secretarial earnings on yet another evening clutch from BHS than fritter it away on vinyl at the HMV shop round the corner. You see, people of my mum’s generation expected to see a physical transformation in my appearance after marriage. I was taught that women should only adorn themselves after they have a husband to appreciate their efforts. As was tradition, I gave away my old outfits, shoes and Top Shop bangle collection to my friends because these items represented my old life. I’d be delving into my new wardrobe every day to wear embroidered outfits and high heeled shoes befitting a new bride. There’s a famous story about the legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan and his wife Jaya. They married in real life midway through the filming of Abhimaan (Mukherjee, 1973) in which their characters also became man and wife. Audiences flocked to the cinemas because they wanted to see Jaya transformed from a simply dressed young woman to a dazzling bride. To add to the hype, her married character in Abhimaan was much talked about for her stylish silk saris, radiant make-up and jhumka earrings.

The rukhsati scene, the bride’s ceremonial send-off, marks the most poignant part of the wedding ceremony in any Bollywood film. Featuring a sombre song with tender lyrics, it’s a time of high emotion for the bride’s family as they bid their tearful farewells. It’s also in the rukhsati scene that the spotlight shines firmly on the bride. This is where she stops behaving like a mannequin and becomes animated with emotion. I loved these touching scenes and I would spend ages rewinding the video so I could study the bride closely. How many tears? How prolonged was her pain? Did she still look graceful? I remember being particularly awestruck by a bride at a wedding I attended in Islamabad. When the time came for her rukhsati, she dramatically fainted. As an impressionable young teenager, I looked forward to the day when I might have such a remarkable rukhsati of my own.

And so, the moment came for me to leave the stage. In that short walk through the marquee erected on our lawn out into the street to the waiting car, I bade farewell not only to my family but also to my life in Bradford. With each step, I moved closer towards the unfamiliarity of new people and a new home in Islamabad. My sister and cousin led me slowly and ceremoniously. While the groom’s party trailed behind us, my family solemnly lined up on either side. The celebrations for the groom’s family were just about to begin since they were gaining a family member. My family were losing one. Every few steps, a much-loved aunt, uncle or cousin would step forward to kiss me tenderly on my forehead – everyone but my mum who intentionally kept her distance. An embrace from her at this hour would have made my departure more difficult. In one of the loneliest moments of my life, those were some of the heaviest steps I have ever taken. I didn’t know my new family all that well, nor did I know the groom well enough to seize his hand for comfort. Besides, can you imagine the scorn from the assembled crowd! As we reached the send-off car, with the groom waiting pathetically at one side, my sister and I, both of us by now inconsolable, held on to one another so tightly and for so long that someone eventually had to wrench us apart.

It wasn’t until my own rukhsati that the significance of those tears really dawned on me. I realised then that the merriment of the wedding was over and the drudgery of marriage was about to begin. I cried for my mum and I cried for myself. I realised my mum had been preparing me for this day for a long, long time. As I began my new life with the in-laws, I’d be her little representative, clinging on to her values to help me to assimilate. I cried for the weight of expectation on my shoulders but I hoped I wouldn’t let her down. I cried for what I was leaving behind and I cried for what I hoped I’d find ahead. I cried like the bewitching Waheeda Rehman did in Neel Kamal (Maheshwari, 1968), as her distraught father bids her farewell with these heartfelt lines:

Take my prayers with you as you leave
May you find happiness in your new life
May you find so much love with your in-laws
That you never think about those you leave behind


THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE WEDDING NIGHT

PREVIOUS: YORKSHIRE BOLLYWOOD AND HISTORY

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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

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