Asian films tell the same old story

Dominic Savage's new release, about multicultural Britain, is as barren as all films about Asian experience, argues Kaleem Aftab
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The Independent Culture

Dominic Savage's Love + Hate is the latest in a long line of films that have left me in despair at British cinema's view of British Asians. As with nearly all British films featuring an Asian protagonist, Love + Hate is a predictable romance: a young Asian falls in love with his or her white counterpart; family and custom get in the way; love conquers all.

Of itself, there is nothing wrong with this tale. The dilemmas, debates and confrontations create plenty of tense moments. It's a story instantly recognisable to Asians and it seems to promote racial harmony. The problems arise because all these tales are told from one perspective. Love + Hate's central romance between Naseema (Samina Awan) and Adam (Thomas Hudson) joins a long list. Romances cut from the same cloth include Casim and Roisin in Ken Loach's Ae Fond Kiss..., Jesminda and Joe in Gurinder Chadha's Bend it Like Beckham, Parvez and Bettina in Udayan Prasad's My Son the Fanatic, and Tariq and Stella in Damien O'Donnell's East Is East. Watching the same story over and over again leaves Asians - many of whom, as I do, think of themselves as British - wondering where the other stories from the diaspora are, and what the impact of these films is on how Asian culture is viewed and understood in Britain.

In 1984, Hanif Kureishi scripted the groundbreaking My Beautiful Laundrette. Directed by Stephen Frears, the action touched upon racism, immigration, Thatcherite politics and a generational conflict between immigrants and their parents. Its riveting depiction of Asian life perfectly captured the time and it was tremendous to see the problems in immigrant communities so elegantly explored. It ends with both generations looking towards a new and different future in Britain. But instead of taking this as a point of departure to explore Asian life, it has created new stereotypes.

The stereotypes in these romantic tales consist of an older generation unwilling to give up old traditions, and their sons and daughters, attempting to embed themselves in British culture. It's a picture of the Asian community that was outdated even before the events of 7 July 2005 blew them apart. Let's only look at stories revolving around love - just like British cinema, in fact. I can't remember seeing a domestic film where the Asian protagonist decides to have an arranged marriage, as opposed to being forced into one. Nor have I seen a picture that shows someone converting to Islam in order to be accepted into an Asian family. These are just two of the more common omissions.

I was born in London, and have four siblings. My eldest brother and only sister were born in Pakistan, but raised in England from a very young age. My other two brothers, one older and one younger than me, were born in Britain. For anyone who tries to understand Asian life from cinema, the expectation would be that all of us shunned our parents' desire to give us an arranged marriage. Yet the truth is that, with five people, there are five very different stories, each as intriguing, different and complex as the others.

I believe this failure stems from the misplaced belief of many British film-makers that they are promoting multiculturalism by showing how overcoming racial barriers can result in harmony. It is misplaced because, far from breaking down barriers, it actually makes many Asians feel more disheartened and disenfranchised. A case in point is the hugely popular East is East, written by Asian writer Ayub Khan-Din, about a father wanting his kids to have an arranged marriage despite himself having a white English wife. The box office success of East is East fuelled a belief that only films telling stories in a formulaic way that include white characters will be attractive to mainstream audiences. Conversely, East is East was the movie that came under most criticism from an Asian audience in a BFI-commissioned paper on black and Asian film. The researchers found that Asians thought the film presented them as backward and hypocritical. More generally, domestic cinema failed to meet their desire for output that related more closely to their everyday lives. It's a similar story to the one told by Afro-Caribbeans in the 1980s.

Growing up, I thought that arranged marriages (it's important to distinguish these from the abhorrent practice of forced marriages) were inherently bad, problematic and loveless. Of course, some of these marriages don't work, but witnessing the successful arranged marriages of friends and family living in Britain changed my views somewhat. Only Indian-born Mira Nair's fabulous Monsoon Wedding has tried to explore the reasons for choosing an arranged marriage in a meaningful and non-condescending way.

Occasionally films try to even things up by showing that bigotry works both ways. In Love + Hate Adam is part of a family of BNP sympathisers. He even helps his brother to beat up a Pakistani taxi driver. The taxi driver turns out to be Naseema's father. In Ae Fond Kiss, Roisin is refused a teaching job because a Catholic priest feels that she is compromising her religious standing by dating a Muslim. This balancing act, though, fails to challenge the central premise that arranged marriages and other elements of Asian culture run counter to the British way of life and its more "liberal" traditions. These stories often misjudge the condemnation of fanaticism so that the message is anti-religion. British cinema and life in general has become more secular in recent years and Loach's attempt to counter Islamaphobia is undermined because of this.

The nature of the romance ensures that the villain of the piece must oppose the multicultural relationship. This is normally the cue for a generation conflict that sees the traditional Asian parents at odds with their more liberal child. The irony is that in many cases the generation who came to England actually saw the English as superior. To be an Englishman was a big deal for them. It is often their children, the generation born in Britain, who feel lost and want to be identified as being Asian.

The idea of multiculturalism being promoted in cinema is a misnomer. It supports a single view of the world that promotes assimilation into the mainstream rather than a celebration of cultural diversity. These films taken as a whole give out the message that Asians must learn to adopt the British way of life. This type of assimilation is the destruction of difference rather than the promotion of acceptance.

In Love + Hate two romances are on show. The principal story of two 17-year-olds falling in love ends with the couple riding into the sunset on a train. The second features an Asian boy who ditches his white girlfriend. He is painted as a pariah and gets beaten up by the girl's racist father. The director Savage means the audience's sympathy to lie with the father doing the beating.

I recently asked Kureishi about the unwieldy depiction of Asians on our cinema screens. He replied: "It is really banal. We need writers and artists who are looking at the whole experience of multiculturalism. It is frightening, because producers are nervous, they don't know whether they are getting it right; it ends up being tokenism, which is a complete waste of time. There is no real engagement with the concept of multiculturalism. This is especially true of the so-called leading white writers who avoid race as an issue." Yet figures show that racism is on the increase and it's something that I've witnessed first-hand.

But it's not just white writers who are failing to tell the full story. The novelist and, more famously, husband of the columnist Liz Jones, Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal, recently questioned the credentials of leading Asian voices in the arts because so many of them have mixed-race backgrounds. The big problem is not the backgrounds of the artists but the one-dimensional output. Take the leading British director Chadha. Along with her partner, the writer Paul Mayeda Berges, she has made four films - Bhaji On The Beach, Bend It Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice, and The Mistress of Spices - with the same storyline: girl meets boy before abandoning tradition for love. Their interest is in genre clichés and box-office rather than in reflecting life in Britain.

The situation as it stands is putting off the next generation of film-makers. The 33-year-old Asif Kapadia, who helmed The Warrior, argues: "For people like myself there is a much wider experience in Britain then just going on about arranged marriages. The danger is that it will breed tedium and films representing Asians will stop getting made." Kapadia struggled to get a film make in Britain after his award-winning The Warrior and has just completed a Hollywood genre movie, The Return.

The films desperately trying to bridge the gap between cultures are failing to do so. Different stories need to be told that try harder to show how communities of different races and creeds adapt and live in modern Britain - something British cinema seems to have no interest in doing.

'Love + Hate' opens today

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