Thousands of Indian immigrants take the perilous leap to British shores every year. Many have been fed on the glamorous images of London portrayed in Indian movies. In the editing rooms of Bombay, there is no racism or low-paid misery, only big houses and big cars, with Big Ben as a picturesque backdrop.
It was the disparity between this polished image and the dirty truth that lead British-born Indian Puneet Sira to write and direct I – Proud to be an Indian. This is Puneet’s first Bollywood movie, having previously made films for the BBC. ‘A lot of the work we did was, unfortunately, about the stereotypes of arranged marriages, illegal immigrants, or the inter-racial tensions’, he told the LIP in New Delhi.
Released on February 13 this year,I – Proud to be an Indian describes the experiences of an Indian immigrant in East London, battling racist attacks on his family. ‘If you ain’t white, you ain’t right’ is the message printed across the publicity posters. Three muscle-bound, tattooed skinheads grimace alongside Sohail Khan, the Indian actor and producer who plays the protagonist. ‘It deals with the problems every Asian faces away from his motherland’, says Sohail, ‘It is a very sensitive film’.
With no lip-synched musical numbers, the life-blood of any Indian movie, the film certainly attempts to handle the emotive issue of racism with honesty. Filmed entirely on location, the cast is a mixture of British and Indian actors, with a Pakistani actor playing alongside Sohail. This in itself is an unprecedented event in the Indian film industry, which is heavily influenced by Indo-Pak hostilities.
Despite challenging the Bollywood film industry in these respects, Puneet admits that his offering still caters for the masses. ‘This is a commercial Hindi film. It’s got romance and it’s got drama’, he said. ‘But though the script is fictional, the incidents that happen in the film are based on actual events’.
The events Puneet refers to include his own experiences of growing up in seventies Leytonstone in East London, the victim of continual racist violence. ‘At that time the National Front was a very powerful movement. This was the time of the Leytonstone riots and the Southall riots’, he said, ‘The crap that my parents went through, and I suppose eighty percent of the Asian community, was a story that hadn’t been told’.
These negative experiences were especially kept from relatives back home, contributing to the maintenance of an idealistic image of Britain. ‘Indians have a tendency to make up stories about Britain’, he admitted, ‘When people see their son leave the motherland to go abroad, they have this idea that he probably lives in a mansion and drives a sports car, little knowing that he probably ended up with a job in McDonalds. There is an element of being ashamed. So the truth is never told.’ When he explained to people in India the premise of his film, ‘They were absolutely horrified’, he said, ‘They didn’t believe that people like skinheads exist’. But during the month that the film was shot, a real BNP rally was held – bringing home to many of the Indian actors the issues they were portraying.
Although he draws heavily from his own life, in trying to appeal to a mainstream Indian audience Puneet runs the risk of trivialising the problem of racism. There are also suggestions of a jingoistic confrontation between East and West, especially since Indian attitudes towards Britain are coloured by the memory of colonialism. Indeed, the title itself lends the viewer to expect a violent display of patriotism, which has been common in recent Bollywood films. Whether he has escaped this trap and truly captured the suffering of immigrants will be judged by the Asian communities in Britain, some of whom were once captured by the false promises made by Bombay’s silver screen.