What's The Future For Asianmania: Meera Dattani takes a look at the British Asian film scene and talks to leading British Asian actress Preeya Kaladis.
If you thought Bollywood In Blighty was a passing fad that reached its peak last year with the release of Bend It Like Beckham and the opening of Bombay Dreams, you could be a little bit wrong!
New release Bollywood Queen is the latest cross-cultural tale to hit the silver screen, depicting the story of a British Asian girl, Geena, (played by Preeya Kalidas) who falls in love with Jay (James McAvoy), a white working-class boy. Director Jeremy Wooding describes the film as a 'cross-cultural young London romance set in the East End against the backdrop of the clothing trade,' drawing once again on the common themes of identity and culture fusion, so prominent in major British Asian productions.
And it has certainly been a productive few years for the British Asian arts scene. In film terms, it was 1993's comedy drama, Bhaji on the Beach, written by Meera Syal and directed by Gurinder Chadha, that began the rollercoaster as well as paving the way to success for these two women. Focusing on a group of Asian women on a day trip to Blackpool, it addressed common Asian issues of mixed race relationships and domestic violence amongst others. The next big one was East Is East which found new acting talent in Jimi Mistry, (who then went on to star alongside Hollywood actresses Heather Graham and Marisa Tomei in US movie The Guru) and in Archie Punjabi who found further success in smash hit comedy, Bend It Like Beckham and is now the lead in The Potter's Daughter, the tale of an Indian girl in love with a white boy, whose parents send her to India to find someone more suitable. Bend It Like Beckham is probably the most mainstream of the lot, winning over American audiences and ending in a lucrative contract in American drama ER for its lead actress Parminder Nagra. Bend It Like Beckham portrayed a young Asian girl desperate to play football, against her parents' wishes. Adding to this was the fact that she had fallen for her coach, obviously a non-Asian, and culminating in a series of lies and deceit until her family realised that it really was OK to do this. Funny yes, but also predictable in its characters and plotline.
Whether these films depict reality is another story altogether. Every British Asian has their own idea of what it means to be British Asian. The poor housing and grey locations of East is East or Anita and Me, (based on Meera Syal's book) is something many can relate to when they first arrived. But it is the success story of British Asians that is rarely depicted, films focusing either on the grim start they had in the Seventies or on mixed race relationships and rebellious children, as shown in Bend It Like Beckham. What of the modern British Asian who doesn't mind culture fusion and a son who wants to be an actor? What about storylines that focus on issues other than race, culture, identity - issues that don't sound like they're part of a Masters Degree in Cultural Studies? These films cannot be a long way behind but we're still waiting. Ironically, Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, an English-language film made in India, was more successful at handling new issues such as child abuse, sex in relationships and family problems. And while Bollywood films hardly depict reality, they are attracting an increasing number of non-Asian cinemagoers, which is another positive sign for the British Asian arts scene.
TV on the other hand, has had more opportunity to show a different side to the British Asian culture. Dramas such as the recent Second Generation and White Teeth have attempted to show young British Asians in Western society in a more realistic way, as normal kids living normal lives, while comedies such as Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42 have used stereotypes to explore its comedic elements, such as the Indian couple who strive to be English or the father who claims that everything originates from India, including the British Royal family.
Another key contribution to the British Asian scene is theatre. Andrew Lloyd Webber's West End musical Bombay Dreams, which burst onto the stage in June 2002, is the first musical in London to have an all-Asian cast. And its popularity is confirmed by talk of both Monsoon Wedding and Bombay Dreams moving to Broadway. And the music scene is also catching up, Cornershop,
Punjabi MC, Nitin Sawney, Talvin Sing, Trickbaby (who enjoyed recent UK success with debut album 'Hanging Around'). the lists are endless.
But at the end of the day, there's only so much mileage in films, dramas and comedies which focus on being Asian. That's where TV dramas This Life and Teachers are one step ahead, using Asian actors in storylines which do not revolve around the fact they are Asian, but around the fact that they live in Britain and just happen to be Asian. EastEnders and Coronation Street have also attempted to bring Asian characters into everyday life with varying success rates.
When Asian culture makes it to the mainstream, that will be the breakthrough. Indian materials and designs might be the latest fashion and yes, there's been a banghra tune in the Top Ten, but there's still a way to go before films and dramas stop solely focusing on parent-child disputes over career choices and mixed race relationships .
The latest offering in the pipeline is Bollywood Queen, based on director Jeremy Wooding's short film, Sari & Trainers, which was made back in 1999. We interview its lead actress, Preeya Kalidas, who made her name last year as the lead in Bombay Dreams, and ask her about the movie, its message and what she thinks is the future of British Asians on screen.
Preeya, did you ever think the short film Sari & Trainers would become a feature film?
Not at all. Once you've made a short film, you think that's it, end of the project. But Jeremy [director] did say he wanted to make it into feature and that's the great thing about him - he means what he says!
Obviously the film deals with culture, economics, education, sexuality etc. but does it reflect reality?
Everyone keeps thinking it's this Bollywood film, but it is a British film. There are elements of Bollywood fantasy, but really it mixes London's East End with the West Country!
I guess it's a kind of tribute to the Bollywood musical, but incorporating Western influences - the Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story plotline, and mixing Motown, rock and country & western to the Hindi music.
Yes, absolutely. Jeremy's a great fan of Bollywood as well as soul and Motown, which I love too. And things like the R&B number in the film are very much my type of music too. To be honest, Jeremy actually knew more about Bollywood than I did. what films were coming out and all that! But he was ahead of the game, he was into all that before it got trendy.
Have you watched a lot of Hindi films?
I used to watch them during the summer holidays as a kid and I still do occasionally now. They appeal to the masses as they're usually family films and everyone gets quite involved. But it's not really a big passion of mine to be in a Bollywood film, my main thing to be here.
It's great that the film also shows Jay's family not accepting your character, Geena. Usually it's just the Asian family that has the problem.
Exactly. In the short film, Jay's character's brother was the pessimistic one but in the feature, this side of the story is developed further with Jay's family coming into it and not agreeing to the relationship.
Do you think the characters are stereotypical in any way?
Not at all. The fact that my character respects traditions, but also follows her heart, is not that typical. She's independent and honest so her parents can't do anything but love her. Plus the fact that she doesn't hide or run away without ever coming back, which she could have done. Instead, she communicates her feelings to them which, in my personal opinion, the best way to deal with the situation.
There's been a sudden rise in the number of British-Asian films over the last few years. Is this genre here to stay or is it just riding a wave? Do you think casting directors are just more aware of British Asian talent?
I think they're definitely more aware. I also think Western society is more into the Asian culture, they're intrigued and they enjoy it which is great to see. This means that directors are opening their eyes and writers are producing more interesting pieces - which, in turn, mean more opportunities for actors and everyone else in the industry.
Do you think films like Bollywood Queen help parents understand the concept of being caught between two cultures?
I hope so. You do get young Asians hiding these things as they're terrified of their family's reactions. Again, it's all about communicating as the worst thing is hiding feelings. It stems from where our parents grew up, back home in Africa or India, living in a close-knit tight community where everyone else's business was yours and vice versa. Some of them tried to maintain this when they settled in the UK, lots of gossiping, 'she was with so and so' etc. This also comes up in Bend It Like Beckham and Second Generation.
Do you think there'll be a time when characters just happen to be Asian rather than the film revolving around Asian themes all the time?
I do think this will happen. I've been up for parts where they just want, for example, a girl with a fiery character, no race element involved. Right now, I'm playing a young English woman in a Renaissance piece!
Who would you say has influenced you in your career so far?
Steven Pimlott [director of Bombay Dreams] was amazing, a real inspiration. He has a real way of getting the best out of you as a performer and I learnt a lot from him. Jeremy Woods [director of Bollywood Queen] was also an inspiration. In terms of actresses, I love Audrey Hepburn, she has so much charisma. And Penelope Cruz too! She has an amazing accent and beautiful screen presence.
You seem to have done a number of musical roles. Do you prefer the singing/dancing to the acting?
I'd like to do everything really, I just love performing! Well, maybe not all three at the same time though!