No hurrays for Bollywood

Who Do We Think We Are?
April 28, 2000

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and writer who came from Uganda to England in 1972. Her book is an attempt to "raise consciousness" about the representation of minorities (especially Asian) in the politics and culture of contemporary Britain. As this is an important and topical issue, the book will be of interest to a wide range of people studying politics and culture - both academics and policy-makers.

For who can doubt that there has been a tremendous change in the identity of this country during the past few decades? Large-scale immigration has imported ideas, values and customs that have significantly and permanently altered British life. So far, neither the politicians of new Labour nor the culture gurus of the media have given this phenomenon due consideration, although they are getting better at generating sound bites hailing Britain's cultural diversity. The Race Relations Acts from 1965 to 1976 may have made racial discrimination unlawful, but the legal system has proved ineffective, for example, in attempting to bring the murderers of Stephen Lawrence to justice.

A year or so after the Macpherson report, racial incidents have increased at a rate that should concern everyone. The picture on the cultural front is almost as dismal. Bollywood movies are now playing successfully at the British box office, but serious Indian films such as Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy are fast vanishing from British consciousness, including that of second and third-generation British Asians. Even Alibhai-Brown makes no mention of Ray. It would appear that today's Bollywood films fit well with a general British perception of modern Indian culture as consisting of cheap diversion and fantastically idiotic stories of romance and villainy. A Ray film, on the other hand, requires a willingness to empathise with something unfamiliar and some degree of humility, an abandoning of implicit assumptions about western cultural superiority.

Instead, the applause is for Hanif Kureishi's writings and screen adaptations and Meera Syal et al 's television series Goodness Gracious Me (both unappealing to the vast majority of those they depict), while Kathakali - Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre - a sincere and vital attempt at cultural synthesis - suffers from poor audiences.

The fact is that people of influence in politics and the media have elected not to enter into a real cross-cultural dialogue because they do not really believe in the idea. Voices from "the other side" are too confused and confusing to present a confident and inspiring picture. Furthermore, the second and third generations born in this country have different attitudes and outlooks from the generation born outside Britain. The result is that inexperienced BBC researchers often end up with unsuitable and, frankly, ignorant contributors for their few precious cross-cultural items. British Asians mostly continue to watch ZeeTV or Asianet and listen to Sunrise Radio. Overall, the impression is one of cultural segregation, not integration: apart from Indian food, there has been no widespread interaction between cultures.

Alibhai-Brown looks at these issues and more in nine chapters of varying quality. She writes mainly from an east African Muslim's point of view, which occasionally broadens to include the perspectives of other ethnic groups. Her passionate narrative is interspersed with interviews, personal anecdotes, official facts, figures and reports, and excerpts from the writings of other cultural commentators, some of them in the universities. Her goal is to widen British cultural horizons and reflect its new ethnic diversity.

It is curious that she ignores gays and lesbians among the Asian diaspora - surely people who are doubly discriminated against. And in talking about feminism, she makes no mention of women writers and thinkers from India, such as Mahasweta Devi and Madhu Kishwar, who have been critical of western feminism. This makes her discussion a little shallow. Nevertheless, there is much personal knowledge and experience here, such as when she candidly records one of the paradoxes of minority life: her decision to baptise her half-Muslim daughter in order to gain her a place at a local church school. She honestly admits: "I don't feel my personal choices should form my wider opinions." Of course a similar logic of prudence is often used by politicians.

Alibhai-Brown's strength is in her descriptions, not her prescriptions. She portrays dilemmas such as the one above, warts and all. One of her interviewees, a Muslim girl born and educated in Britain, consciously decides to reclaim her Islamic identity and wear her hijab as a statement to boys not to harass her. She sees this as a protest against the sexual promiscuity of her contemporaries - but most of them interpret the gesture as a symbol of her being oppressed by fundamentalist Islam. What is the way out of such mismatches? The book does not suggest any, instead it shows the difficulty of the problem and makes an appeal for better understanding, sometimes in vacuous language. "Nothing is the whole truth in this book," the author writes ambiguously.

The centenarian writer and scholar Nirad C. Chaudhuri, who lived seven decades in India and his final three decades in Oxford, maintained that without a deep knowledge of one's own history and literary and artistic heritage, one cannot meaningfully understand, let alone integrate with, foreign cultures. Alibhai-Brown mentions Chaudhuri respectfully, but does not deal with the truth of his critique of multiculturalism. Superficial exposure cannot bridge genuine cultural gaps. From the examples cited in her book, it is evident that such gaps are sometimes bridged by individuals, but hardly at all by society. Whining by minorities about equal representation produces nothing but irritation and politically correct mediocrity. When the diaspora realises this and makes an effort to know its own heritage properly, integration can at last begin. Meanwhile, mainstream British society needs to make an effort to develop the faculty of recognising real worth in these cultures.

Krishna Dutta has been a teacher and educational adviser with the London borough of Haringey for many years.

Who Do We Think We Are?

Author - Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
ISBN - 0 713 99413 1
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £18.99
Pages - 292

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