Mystery of the missing Muslims in the movies
'West is West' is a witty and authentic film, says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, but it's a lone star in an industry devoid of Muslim life
Friday 25 March 2011
West is West, the sequel to the phenomenally successful film East is East is in the cinemas. Fans have had to wait a long time for this moment. The first film blew us away. It defied cultural precepts, evaded "ethnic" borders, made us laugh and cry, even changed lives.
Munir Khan, an 18-year-old Muslim, wrote to me just after East is East won the Bafta Alexander Korda Award for the best British film in 2000. The young man was so, so excited. At last, he wrote, people could see a popular movie about Muslim life. It had inspired him to go to drama school.
All this was a year before the ruthless Islamist suicide attacks on the US and the start of an endless war on terror which has split the world asunder.
The scriptwriter Ayub Khan-Din was an actor. In 1997 he turned his eventful life into an exuberant play. Co-produced by the Tamasha theatre company and the Royal Court, it was a comedy with an undertow of pain. An authoritarian yet vulnerable Pakistani Muslim man in Oldham tries and largely fails to impose his will on his white Catholic wife and large brood of dysfunctional but smart kids. From a small stage it went to the big screen. Author and culture critic Ziauddin Sardar thought the film – directed by Damien O'Donnell – reinforced the worst prejudices about Pakistani men. Maybe so for some people, though I have never thought that, having watched it over 15 times.
Until East is East, no one knew nor cared about the early Pakistani migrants in Northern towns – almost all men – and what many of them did next. They were numbers, not names. Din humanised them – just as Andrea Levy's novel Small Island humanised Caribbean incomers to Britain in the Fifties. Both became major hits. Success, however, does not always nudge the gatekeepers to open their minds and eyes. In general, the British film and TV drama industries are deeply uninterested in most stories by and about British Muslims – a term I use broadly to mean all those from that background, believers and not.
Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette came out way back in 1985. It was, I believe, the very first time mainstream audiences saw a Muslim co-hero, a young, gay man in Thatcher's alienated Britain. Many Muslims hated it because homosexuality is haram and western, but it was a breakthrough. So we thought, somewhat naively. The list of non-stereotypical Muslim-themed movies made since then is disappointingly short, but nevertheless impressive.
In Kureishi's fresh moral tale My Son the Fanatic (1997), the main character is a Pakistani taxi driver – liberal, not obsessively religious – whose confidante is a white prostitute with a good heart. His son embraces a self-denying and judgemental form of Islam, a youthful rebellion against liberty, prescient then, now widespread. In the end the "sinful" father is shown to be more humane than his righteous son. Again, shouty Muslims protested. So too many Bangladeshis living in the East End ten years later when the film of Monica Ali's Brick Lane was released. It is a tender story about Nazneen, married to Chanu, twice her age, whose big boasts and useless dreams make him pathetic; who doesn't beat her, but demands total respect. She has an affair with a younger Bangladeshi man, and though that has to end, she does "find herself".
That was an exception. After 9/11, powerful white producers and directors have calcified their creative minds when it comes to Muslim characters and stories. If they feature at all, most males are terrorists, potential terrorists or nefarious characters, says Sardar. Women, I find, are silent or veiled and sinister. Alarmingly, there is now a belief among Muslims trying to break through that there is a Jewish conspiracy to exclude them.
Nobody should object to the making of films on the ongoing traumas of the 21st century – and some docudramas have been nuanced and even poetic. The Hamburg Cell stands out. Written by Ronan Bennett and directed by Antonia Bird, it is an exploratory journey into the heads of three of the 9/11 bombers. Impressive too was Peter Kosminsky's Britz (Channel 4), about two highly educated British Muslim siblings, a brother and sister, and how anti-terrorist legislation devastates them. The problem is, there is almost nothing else. When the IRA were terrorising the UK, Irish characters and storylines weren't restricted to that one political conflict to the exclusion of all else.
Where is the soulful, female Muslim singer, the wily, kebab millionaire, the two-timing Pakistani cricketer, the Arab heartthrob? They do all exist, but these roles are not written into scripts. The industry does not admit or nurture Muslim talent either – writers, actors, directors, producers, editors – and cannot see them as worthy professionals.
In the Sixties, the amber-eyed Omar Sharif played Sherif Ali, a tough and complex man in Lawrence of Arabia, for which he won an Oscar. He was later chosen by David Lean for the lead role in Dr Zhivago. The admired producer Ismail Merchant made it to the top, as did the versatile actors Art Malik and Saeed Jaffrey, also of Muslim ancestry. Wouldn't happen today. Their names would be the first turn off.
Waris Hussein has directed for years in Hollywood and worked with all the big stars of yore. His A Passage to India gave us the most dignified and memorable Dr Aziz ever. When 9/11 happened, he says: "My professional life was shadowed because of my surname – same as Saddam's." The director's chair with his name on it was suddenly a threat. Thankfully Barack Hussein Obama has helped ease things.
Mohammed Khan, 23, went through drama school while working in all-night petrol stations. He's never had an audition and is off to Canada: "I am changing my name to Mo and my surname, too." Why should he have to? Three of the top male Bollywood stars are Khans. Indian Muslims write songs and scripts, sing, act, direct and win awards. Pakistanis love TV soap operas almost as much as Brazilians. There could be problems with sex scenes, but not violence. A Muslim Rocky! Why not?
Tariq Anwar has had a glittering career as a film editor and was Oscar-nominated for The King's Speech. I asked him if he could name modern films with credible and rounded Muslim characters, or other players in the business. He confessed he couldn't. Bird consciously sought out newish Arab actors for her film – and they were truly remarkable. Where are they now? In My Beautiful Laundrette and East is East, non-Muslims played the main parts. Perhaps then there weren't many aspiring Muslim actors. There are now – Like Riz Ahmed from Britz for example, or Aqib Khan, who stars as the youngest son in West is West. He's at war, as ever, with his Dad, played by the watchable Om Puri (from East is East), not a Muslim. Mariam Haque is an emerging young actress who deserves a screen break and there must be others who would just love to be Brazilian plastic surgeons and Hindu gurus or princesses and cowgirls.
A series of assumptions lock arms and prevent entry to Muslims, perhaps because Muslims are thought too dangerous – fatwas and all that – or too touchy. And many are. So what? Most of us would like to see our diverse lives and dreams reflected, frontiers pushed out.
One such film, Life Goes On, arrives in March, directed by an Indian academic, Sangeeta Datta, who now lives in London. It is a cinematic essay on the losses and gains of migration and the predicaments of middle-class British Asian life. It also stars Om Puri and Sharmila Tagore, a Sixties Bombay screen queen, married to a Muslim Nawab and their daughter, Soha Ali Khan. The fictional family is Hindu, but one daughter – played by Soha – loves a gentle and devoted Muslim man and is expecting his child. Her father cannot accept him because of his memories of partition. I won't spoil it – go see for yourself. It took an outsider to break social taboos and without falling into cheap provocation or sensationalism. I hope Muslims love it as much as I did.
Anwar gets approached by young Muslims who are keen on learning his craft – great news. However, we need more of them determining who gets to make films, be in them, and most importantly, which scripts are given the green light and the professional input that can make or break a movie. Sardar sees some progress towards enlightenment. The TV series Spooks has Muslims loyal to Britain – and what's more played by Muslim actors, the gorgeous Raza Jaffrey and Shazad Latif. Chris Morris's The Four Lions and The Infidel starring Omid Djalili were hilarious and fabulously innovative. When I went to see the former, six men with long beards and virtuous white caps were juddering with laughter. Movies like these help lighten up the faithful who seem only angry and paranoid these days.
But back to West is West, which takes Om Puri back to Pakistan, to his first, abandoned family, five years on from East is East. Like any sequel it cannot reproduce the thrill of the first film. But it is authentic and speaks to many of us from faraway places where we once belonged. The Guardian critic, though, is unimpressed because Din doesn't deal with the "current turmoil" of British Muslims or Pakistan's problems today. No – and no mention of Iraq either, as it is set in 1977. What do you do with such blinkered "experts"? And what hope is there for more Muslim talent to come up in a habitat of such ignorance?
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