Patiala House is clearly inspired by Bend It Like Beckham and the true story of Monty Panesar’s selection (and initial success) as the first Sikh to play cricket for England. In many ways it is sentimental tosh, but I still found it good entertainment and there are several interesting aspects of the film in terms of its depiction of British Asians as viewed from an Indian perspective.
The Kahlon family has grown so large that they now occupy a whole small crescent of houses in Southall, West London. This small fiefdom is controlled by a fierce patriarch (Rishi Kapoor) who has named it (and his mini-cab business) ‘Patiala House’, presumably after his home town in the Punjab. He does indeed rule his little kingdom, declaring it almost outside UK law. A flashback reveals that the family suffered racist attacks in the 1970s with the death of a leading local Sikh figure in the struggles against racist thugs and the notorious SPG or Special Patrol Group (a controversial Metropolitan Police squad associated with harassing Black and Asian Londoners). The film uses archive footage, I think from 1979, when the New Zealand teacher Blair Peach was killed during a demonstration. Because of this history, the father hates the goras (‘whites’) and several years later he forbids his son Gattu to play cricket for any English team. The 17 year-old schoolboy is shown as an outstanding prospect who has already made his mark.
In the present day Gattu (Akshay Kumar) and his legion of younger brothers and sisters are kept in thrall of their father, all fearful of following their dreams to leave home and do exciting things (beyond the girls marrying approved partners). His siblings are all frustrated by Gattu’s decision to honour his father’s wishes. He still secretly practices cricket each evening but during the day runs a small newsagent’s owned by his father. He’s 34 now and seems resigned to his fate until . . . the appearance of Simran (Anushka Sharma), a young woman who has returned from an abortive attempt to make it in the Mumbai film industry. She has in tow a 12 year-old cricket-mad boy (for whom she acts as a guardian) and when the England cricket team announces that it is searching for new talent after several terrible defeats, it seems only a matter of time before the boy is urging Gattu to ‘come out’ as a cricket talent.
The film is predictable in terms of what happens next – we want Gattu to win a cricket match for England without upsetting his father and to get the girl. It would be a pretty odd Bollywood film if it didn’t at least attempt to reach these goals, preposterous though it might seem. One review I read made the observation that what follows is similar to the German film Goodbye Lenin and that seems a good call. Since Gattu’s success would effectively ‘free’ all his siblings, they are keen to help him keep the truth from his father until his final triumph on the pitch – all they have to do is to nobble all the people who might tell the patriarch about his son wearing an England shirt. Although what ensues has its comic moments, much of it is also quite poignant. Akshay Kumar is an athletic man who, although 42 when filming started, can just pass for 34. (By contrast, Sharma is perhaps too young even if her performance is convincing.) Monty Panesar is a spinner, but the producers have made Kumar a fast-medium bowler and with training by the great Wasim Akram he can pass as a medium pacer – perhaps like Mohinder Amarnath the Indian all-rounder who was the matchwinner when India won the 50-over World Cup in 1983. (Amarnath’s family boasts several test cricketers and since they come from Patiala it is no coincidence that they should be mentioned in the film.)
Unlike some of the mainstream Bollywood films that present only a fantasy London comprising Trafalgar Square and a villa in Hampstead, this film presents a recognisable Southall. The cricket matches utilise the Oval and for the main matches, Trent Bridge in Nottingham. Several famous test cricketers appear as themselves: David Gower, Graham Gooch, Andrew Symonds (as the Aussie who looks like he might spoil the party). But it was the appearance of Nasser Hussain, the former England test captain who was born in India that was most noticeable. His Hindi seemed rather hesitant to me and created some mirth from the South Asian audience in the cinema. I don’t remember Hussain ever provoking any comments about his decision to play for England – he moved to the UK as a 7 year-old I think and his mother is British. Andrew Symonds also has an interesting background as a cricketer. In more recent times three young British Asians of Pakistani background in the North of England, Sajid Mahmood, Adil Rashid and Ajmal Shahzad have joined the ranks of Asians playing for England. It’s interesting to go back to this Observer article written in 2006 when there were media stories about who British Asian cricket fans would support when England played South Asian touring sides in Test matches.
In some ways this film seems the closest I’ve seen to melding a Bollywood approach to a specific narrative with a setting outside India that is more than simply an ‘exotic’ backdrop. (I haven’t seen Shah Rukh Khan’s last US-set film.) I suspect that other producers will study it carefully. Meanwhile, with the Cricket World Cup in India bubbling up nicely and England and India tying a match, it offers an entertaining diversion.