Category: Diaspora film

Indian Film at 70 #1: Notes on the cinematic exploration of Indian Partition and its legacy

Pre-Partition Map of India

These notes were compiled for a Day School earlier this year that looked at extracts from various Indian films/films about India in an attempt to understand how the issues surrounding the Partition of India in 1947 have been represented on screens.

Historical context

The ‘partition’ of India was the final act by the British colonial administration working through the India Office and the Viceroy (i.e. the King’s representative) in August 1947. The Viceroy then became the Governor-General of India still representing the King as the Head of State in the independent ‘Dominion’ of India. In Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah became Governor-General.

The Labour government in London faced many severe problems in the immediate aftermath of war. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the worst on record in the UK and the heavy snowfalls in January severely disrupted industry and agriculture. As much as 10% of industrial output was lost, energy supplies were severely restricted. Public spending with the foundation of the National Health Service and the expense of military activity abroad (15% of GDP) created pressure on sterling and subsequent devaluation from $4.00 to $2.80 as the dollar exchange rate. Historians see this as the first stage in the UK’s decline as a superpower. Despite the enormity of the Partition of India as an event, it was only one of the problems facing Prime Minister Attlee’s cabinet (withdrawal from Palestine was also a priority). Mountbatten was given considerable powers and the government was prepared to accept a swift retreat from India. Communal conflict has been a feature of life in India at various times throughout recent history (much of it caused directly by British policies) and in August 1946 around 4,000 people lost their lives in Calcutta during clashes between Hindus and Muslims. The lack of action by the colonial authorities at this point is inexcusable, but the British state was increasingly running out of resources to police India effectively. Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy in February 1947, charged with achieving a British withdrawal by June 1948 at the latest. He accelerated the process of withdrawal in an attempt to avoid further violence – but instead probably exacerbated the conflicts.

The leaders of the Indian Independence movement, including Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi, had been pressing for independence since the 1920s and earlier. (The Congress Party and the Muslim League had origins in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th century.) The emergence of a ‘two state’ solution is generally accepted to have happened because of the position that Jinnah and the Muslim League adopted in the early 1940s. Jinnah argued for a division according to religious affiliation because of fear that an independent India would be dominated by Hindus. Ironically, Jinnah himself was not a ’religious Muslim’ and the British had encouraged separate political constituencies for Muslims and Hindus and other religious groups as early as 1932 with ‘The Communal Award’. Congress could reasonably argue that Jinnah did not have the support of the majority of Muslims across India as shown in local elections, but he convinced the British that he was the Muslim leader they should negotiate with.

Once partition appeared inevitable (i.e. when Jinnah and Gandhi /Nehru could not agree on how to negotiate with the Viceroy), the fundamental problem became how to divide the three provinces of British India in which there were roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Hindus. Punjab was further complicated by the presence of the home base of Sikhism in Amritsar. Bengal had already experienced a very unpopular earlier partition by the British along religious lines in 1905 (rescinded in 1911). Jammu and Kashmir was actually a ‘princely state’ – not under direct British control. India and Pakistan had to negotiate a partition arrangement after independence and this proved extremely difficult – leading to future military confrontations.

Punjab, Bengal and Kashmir will be the focus of our study of how Partition has been represented on film.

Who was actually responsible for creating this inevitability of Partition in 1947 is the most contentious issue in the history of the period. The most recent British film focusing on Partition, Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (2017) lays much of the blame on the wartime British leader Winston Churchill and his attempts in 1944-5 to prepare for the threat of Soviet influence over an independent India. Nehru was seen as most likely to adopt a non-aligned but friendly position vis-a-vis Moscow and Churchill saw the possibility of an independent Pakistan as a Western ally, allowing British bases to remain in place. In a documentary screened on British TV in August 2017, Chadha explored this evidence further (referring to wartime documents held in the British Library). This programme suggested that Jinnah had met privately with Churchill and that the idea of Pakistan as a future ally against the Russians was widely shared by what Chadha termed as “the British establishment” – including the Royal Family and the military. The suggestion is, therefore, that the Attlee government was faced with a fait accompli policy that they were unable to alter. Indian historians and Indian filmmakers have tended to blame Jinnah and the British – either separately or together.

Princely states

‘British India’ referred to what were in effect British colonies, locally administered by colonial civil servants and the India Office in London. In 1947 there were seven major provinces administered in this way and developed from the original ‘presidencies’ of Bengal, Bombay and Madras.

The British Crown also had ‘suzerainty’ over some 500 plus ‘princely states’, ranging from large states such as Hyderabad and Mysore to tiny states of a few thousand. Each local ruler had to make a separate arrangement with the newly established dominions of India and Pakistan.

The directly ruled colonies and the princely states together comprised the ‘British Raj’ established after the 1857 Indian Mutiny. It also became known as ‘the Indian Empire’.

Languages and local cultures

Religion was just one of the potentially divisive factors in India in 1947 and its impact was felt most strongly in the North. In much of Southern India, language differences and ethnic differences (i.e. the Dravidian South’s mistrust of the Aryan North) were more important. During the 1950s  and 1960s, Indian government was re-organised to produce states based on linguistic groups. In the states of West Pakistan and East Pakistan after partition, the fact that the mass of the population in the East spoke Bengali and not Urdu was a major issue for any sense of ‘national identity’.

Indian film industries

We are concerned with representations of the events of Partition and its aftermath on film. One of the important issues for us is to identify which film industry has produced a film and who the ‘creatives’ (writer and director in particular) might be. There are many films about Partition issues as well as many filmmakers from diverse backgrounds. For this reason, I’ve tried to include something from each of the following categories (they are overlapping categories, so some films and filmmakers appear in more than one category). There is no ‘ranking’ in this list.

  1. Popular (mainstream) Hindi cinema – often now retrospectively termed ‘Bollywood’.
  2. Popular international or Hollywood ‘studio’ films.
  3. Indian art films and ‘parallel cinema’ films
  4. International art films
  5. Films by Indian diaspora directors
  6. Indian ‘regional films’ – films in languages other than Hindi (or English)

(Because of difficulties of availability of films, I have not included Pakistani or Bangladeshi films that might address Partition issues)

From the list above, it would be useful to distinguish between a film like Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough’s biopic, as an ‘international’ Hollywood studio film and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House as an independent British film (with some Hollywood support) directed by a diaspora director – someone whose grandparents left Rawalpindi in 1947 and who now lives in the UK.

The so-called parallel’ or ‘middle cinema’ of India is difficult to define but it is clearly distinguished from the popular Indian cinema of multi-genre narratives and choreographed song and dance sequences. Parallel cinema was/is more ‘serious’ in its social concerns and character development. It is more difficult to distinguish between parallel and ‘art’ or ‘avant-garde’ cinema, the latter being in formal and narrative terms more experimental.

Films

What follows is an attempt to select extracts from films which represent Partition and in some cases its aftermath in Pakistan, West Bengal, Kashmir and Punjab. In some cases, longer posts are available discussing the films in more detail and I have included links where appropriate.

Jinnah (1998, UK-Pakistan, (English) dir Jamil Dehlavi)

This unusual biopic of the Muslim leader stars Christopher Lee in the title role. Director Dehlavi is a diaspora figure based in Europe and he used mostly British-based actors alongside Indian star actor Shashi Kapoor in this co-production with Pakistan that was controversial at the time of its release but has since been accepted in Pakistan.

Subarnarekha (Golden Line, 1962, Bengali, dir Ritwik Ghatak)

Despite being one of the most important filmmakers of his generation, Ritwik Ghatak’s films were not widely appreciated when first released. But when he went on to become one of the first tutors at the Indian Film Institute in Pune, he soon became an influential figure for younger directors. He was very much affected by partition, being forced to move from East to West Bengal. His trilogy of films in the early 1960s uses music and politics to explore the heartbreak of partition. (The other two films in the trilogy are Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Komal Gandhar (1961).

In Subarnarekha, Ishwar, a man in his late twenties and his younger sister Sita find themselves in a refugee camp in Calcutta where they acquire a stepbrother – a young refugee boy Abhiram who has lost his mother. This trio then find themselves in the western part of Bengal by the Subarnarekha River. The children grow up and fall in love, but the older brother can’t cope with events and breaks down, unable to escape from his past. In the clip above, the landscape is expressive of the despair and sense of exile and loss experienced by Ishwar.

Roja (1992, Tamil, dir Mani Ratnam)

An important film for Indian cinema, Roja is an example of Tamil language popular cinema. Unlike Bollywood, which in the early 1990s preferred stylised fantasy films, Tamil cinema, and Mani Ratnam in particular, created romances set in ‘real’ situations. Roja (‘Rose’ – a symbol for Kashmir) sees a Tamil cryptologist working for Indian intelligence being sent to Kashmir with his young wife. Visiting an area close to the ‘line of control’, he is captured by a Muslim guerrilla group who want to exchange him for one of their own members imprisoned by Indian forces. The film won many awards and was hailed as a ‘patriotic film’, being dubbed into Hindi, Telugu, Marathi and Malayalam. It encouraged Bollywood to think of more serious issues as the basis for entertainment features.

In this clip the cryptologist tries to talk to his captors.

Lakshya (2004, Hindi, dir Farhan Aktar)

This mainstream Bollywood blockbuster was written by the director’s father, Javed Akhtar, one of the most acclaimed writers in Indian cinema. A young man (Hrithik Roshan) from a wealthy Delhi family attempts to give up his aimless life and eventually passes out of the Indian Military Academy. He is posted to Kashmir and given the opportunity to prove himself in action against Pakistani insurgents. The various conflicts on the Kashmir border/line of control feature in several Indian films, often associated with the ‘Kargil War‘ of 1999.

The film shows Hindi cinema attempting to merge a romance (Pretty Zinta is the hero’s ‘lost girlfriend’, a TV reporter) with a story about young India’s indifference towards guarding its border. Ironically, the Colonel of the regiment is played by the supreme Bollywood hero Amitabh Bachchan. At the time Roshan was one of the young hopefuls attempting to replace Bachchan.

The clip below is a ‘music video’ featuring the title song with scenes from the film. We see the hero in training and the role of the Army officer is shown as both heroic and glamorous. It’s worth noting that both the Indian and Pakistani Armies were created out of the British Indian Army in 1947, a situation which initially created the possibility of a civil war situation in which officers and men who had trained together might find themselves on opposite sides in a conflict. The Bollywood presentation suggests that today there is an American influence on how the image of the Indian military is constructed.

Garam Hava (1973, dir M.S. Sathyu)

This film, in Urdu, is one of the first examples of the ‘parallel cinema’ of the 1970s and 1980s. The title translates as ‘Scorching Winds’. They are mentioned in the first few lines of dialogue as threatening the flowering trees of the city of Agra (the city which is the home of the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal, two major symbols of the Muslim Mughal Empire in India). If not uprooted, the trees will wither in the heat. ‘Scorching Winds’ is also metaphorical and refers to the violence of communalism sweeping through India in 1947-8. The film deals with a Muslim owner of a small shoe factory. He decides to stay in Agra, but his brother moves to Karachi and gradually life becomes very difficult for the brother left behind. Garam Hava proved controversial even after more than 20 years since the events depicted. It had a delayed release because of fears of communalist violence. It was supported by the government agency, the NFDC and submitted as India’s entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar.

In the interview above the director and scriptwriter discuss the film and its legacy in some detail. The interview in 2014 was conducted at the time of the film’s re-release. (You need to click on the link and watch the interview directly on YouTube).

Earth (1998, dir. Deepa Mehta)

Earth is an adaptation of an autobiographical novel Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, first published as ‘Ice Candy Man’ in the UK in 1988. The director Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar in Punjab in 1950. She moved to Delhi as a child and graduated from the University of Delhi. In 1973 she migrated to Canada and started a film career as a writer and documentarist. She directed her first feature in 1991 and as well as English language features in Canada she has returned to India to make four features. Earth was the second film in her ‘Elements’ trilogy after Fire (1996) and preceding Water in 2005. All three films were controversial (Fire addresses lesbianism and Water, the treatment of widows in traditional Hindu culture). They were also highly praised and won prizes. Her 2012 adaptation of Midnight’s Children was less successful (but still well worth watching).

Although this is a film from a diaspora director with photography by Giles Nuttgens from the UK, it is also a film deeply rooted in Indian cinemas. The music is by A. R. Rahman and the actors include the current Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan in an early role. Nandita Das is a star of Indian parallel cinema and other cast members are well-known in India.

The film is part of the group of films, like Garam Hava that deal with the personal tragedies of Partition rather than directly with the political machinations. Like Train to Pakistan its focus on Punjab means that the complexity of religious, social and cultural relationships are explored in some detail.

The film is set in 1947 in Lahore in Northern Punjab. The city has a Muslim majority but the household at the centre of the narrative is Parsee and the little girl who in effect ‘narrates’ the story has a Hindu nanny/maid (Nandita Das) who has a circle of friends that includes Muslims and Sikhs. The clip below shows the girl and the maid during the kite-flying festival and the maid is being wooed by the Aamir Khan character, the Muslim known as the ‘Ice-Candy Man’, one of his several identities. The kite-flying is a joyful competition which ironically underlines how the community will later be divided by the violence of the communal violence in the lead up to Partition.

Train to Pakistan (1998, dir. Pamela Rooks)

This is another film that received backing from NFDC as a later example of a parallel film. Pamela Rooks was a filmmaker born in Calcutta to an Army family, but the film (in Hindi) is set in Punjab. It’s an adaptation of a 1956 novel by Kushwant Singh, himself a major cultural figure in India post 1947.

The trailer above does not have English subtitles but a subtitled DVD is available in the UK. The story is set in an Indian village in 1947 close to the new border with Pakistan. Despite the conflict all around them, the villagers, mostly Sikh landowners and a minority of Muslim labourers, live a peaceful life. The film explores, through various characters, how the peaceful village is drawn into the conflict. The village money-lender is killed when he refuses to open his safe for a band of Sikh dacoits. The local magistrate, befuddled by whisky and a young prostitute, sanctions the arrest of two men – one is a Communist Party member just arrived from Delhi and the other a local dacoit who never robs in his own village and who was sleeping with his Muslim girlfriend when the murder was committed. The magistrate and police attempt to frame both men, meanwhile a train filled with dead Sikhs arrives in the village and a little later, Muslim refugees on foot from India.

Other Partition narratives

The films discussed here are by no means the only examples of film narratives exploring Partition. Here are two other examples not discussed on the day:

Partition (Canada-UK-South Africa 2007)

Another diaspora director, Vic Sarin, made this film in English starring Jimi Mistry, Irrfan Khan and Neve Campbell in Canada. It takes the Sikh perspective on partition in Punjab.

Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (India-Germany-France-Netherlands 2013)

I didn’t see this fine film by Anup Singh until after the Partition Event. Please follow the link on the title above for more details. The film again stars Irrfan Khan as a Sikh in the Punjab at the time of partition. Anup Singh is also a diaspora director with a similar but also slightly different background to Gurinder Chadha.

Resources

I used the following two books alongside web searches in preparation for the event:

Akbar, M. J. (1985) India: The Siege Within, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Tunzelmann, Alex von (2007) Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, London: Simon and Schuster

The films from which extracts have been taken have all been available in the UK on DVD except Garam Hava (which is available on YouTube or from India/US as a Region 0 DVD).

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LFF2016 #7: Divines (France-Qatar 2016)

Taking Paris by storm

Taking Paris by storm

Divines is a fascinating and provocative film that is highly entertaining and timely. No wonder it created a stir at Cannes earlier this year where it won the Camera d’Or, the ‘first feature’ prize, for its director Houda Benyamina. Unfortunately, what could be an excellent film to use with 16-19 students in schools and colleges in the UK has been bought by Netflix and is currently certificated (15) by the BBFC only for VOD. If you want to see this in cinemas you’ll have to go to France. Perhaps we should lobby Netflix for a DCP? Presumably it will appear on Blu-ray? But first you’ll want to know why all the excitement.

Divines is a ‘banlieue film’, i.e. a narrative set in the the housing estates outside Paris. Its director is Moroccan-French and the lead character Dounia is played by the director’s younger sister Oulaya Amamra. Dounia is a 15 year-old facing the same bleak future as the central character in Girlhood (France 2014) and she reaches breaking point when faced with a role-play in school designed to train her as a receptionist/desk clerk. Dounia is already equipped for survival on the street and has a shoplifting scam worked out for the local supermarket with her partner in rebellion Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena). Dounia is petite, beautiful and sharp as a tack, Maimouna is large, exuberant, but also slightly vulnerable. Dounia is in charge. Her family is unable to control her. The family lives in a Roma camp and earn a living in bars and clubs. Maimouna’s parents are more conservative and she is expected to go to the mosque.

Divines is a youth picture which mixes crime, romance and dance – an interesting combination. Dounia can only see herself making progress by working for the area’s drug queen, but she’s distracted by her interest in the security guard at the supermarket – a handsome young man with a six-pack and a flair for athletic modern dance. Dounia seems driven both by desire and envy when Djigui (Kévin Mischel), the guard, succeeds in his attempt to get into a dance troupe. The film’s final section uses a familiar genre narrative device and overall the strength of the film is not so much in the story development as in the performances, the presentation of the action and the emotion packed into the central relationship between the two girls.

According to Isabel Stevens in her useful overview of the film for the LFF, director Houda Benyamina is a self-taught filmmaker who made several short films and set up a workshop for actors, including her sister and Déborah, before this, her first feature. Divines is informed by Benyamina’s experiences of the Paris riots in 2005. Her filmmaking background reminds me of the similar story of Shane Meadows and his Nottingham experience. In both cases the director is working with actors they know from a local community and that gives the performances an energy that is more difficult to conjure up by directors who come into the community from outside. Divines does use some ideas that are shared by both Girlhood and La haine but it is in no way derivative of those two well known films and includes its own innovative ideas alongside the emotional impact of its central relationship. It also acts as an antidote to the negatives of the otherwise worthwhile Black on release in the UK earlier this year. But can we get Divines out of the clutches of Netflix?

Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika, Germany 2001)

Regina as a young girl (Lea Kurka) reads a story to the village children

Regina as a young girl (Lea Kurka) reads a story to the village children

Nowhere in Africa is an engrossing film and it is no surprise that it won the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2002. It is adapted from an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig in which she explores her childhood experience of arriving in Kenya in 1938. On the Region 2 DVD Zweig says that one of the features of the film that she appreciated most was the representation of rural Africa. She felt that writer-director Caroline Link had captured the beauty that she had experienced as a child without resorting to the simply picturesque or exotic (“no lions or leopards”). This is an important observation which rings true. The film raises a number of unanswered questions but in respect of its images it is certainly one of the best European perspectives on Africa in the mid 20th century.

Outline

1938. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a successful lawyer in Hesse, has left Germany and taken a job as farm manager in Kenya. He fears the rise of the Nazis and as a (non-practising) Jew thinks it wise to leave his comfortable middle-class existence for rural Africa. Stricken with malaria he has arranged for his wife and small daughter to join him. Jettel (Juliane Köhler) enjoys her comfortable life and ignores her husband’s plea to bring useful items. 8 year-old Regina is less happy in Germany and immediately takes to Africa and especially to her father’s cook Owuor who has used local knowledge to care for Walter during his bout of malaria. When war breaks Walter is interned by the British and Jettel and Regina lose their home but with the help of Nairobi’s Jewish community solutions are found and the family are soon together again on a different farm. The film follows the family up until their departure from Kenya in 1947 when they return to Germany. The drama comes from the different experiences of each member of the family as well as the relationships between them (and with Owuor and the local Pokot people). The fifth major character is Süsskind, another German Jewish man who migrated earlier than Walter and who helps the Redlich family at various times.

Owuor (Sidede Onyulo) always looks out for Regina

Owuor (Sidede Onyulo) always looks out for Regina

Narrative

The narrative is constructed in retrospect by Regina as she travels back to Germany in 1947. The film begins and ends with her voiceover. The three central characters each represent a different approach to the problems of migration. Walter is the rationalist (though he also claims to be an idealist). They had to leave. He doesn’t want to be a farmer but he’ll buckle down. The war changes him – he joins the British Army in Kenya and he uses the demobilisation scheme to get the family back to Germany. Jettel follows a classic Hollywood ‘journey’. Initially she finds it hard to adjust and her middle-class, European stance makes it difficult for her to get on with Owuor and the local people. Eventually though she becomes a farmer and is reluctant to return. Jettel’s story might have made a conventional melodrama. Regina ‘blossoms’ in Africa. She is the narrator of the story and she mixes not only with Owuor but also the local children. It is not until she attends an English boarding school in Nairobi that she feels ‘alien’. Since she makes the transition over nine years from little girl to bright teenager it is more difficult to assess how she feels in the closing scenes (since she now understands more about her parents’ marriage).

Jettel and Walter during one of their reconciliations

Jettel and Walter during one of their reconciliations

Nowhere in Africa is a long film (140 mins) and some critics/reviewers have argued that the narrative drive is lost in the final third. There is something in this charge and sometimes the film does feel more like a memoir of a period than a filmic narrative in the mainstream sense. This might also take something away from those unanswered questions.

British colonial Africa

Nowhere in Africa was commercially successful in Germany ($10 million) and in North America ($6 million). The third biggest territory was Spain (over $2 million) and then Australia. In the UK, Box Office Mojo quotes $400,00 – not bad for a subtitled film, but half the Australian total and not much more than Argentina ($370,000). The first three UK reviews of the film that I found each see the film as underwhelming, simplistic, ‘safe’ etc. These reviews also tend to be inaccurate as well as missing some of the interesting angles. Perhaps the film suffered from comparisons – to Polanski’s The Pianist and Out of Africa, the Isaak Dinesen story that became a Hollywood melodrama with Meryl Streep? I’m not sure that either is a useful comparison, though Out of Africa does share several important elements. The reviews don’t really pick up the colonial melodrama issues that interest me. In several ways, the most interesting link would be to the Claire Denis film Chocolat (France/WGer/Cameroon 1988) – which also features the daughter of middle-class Europeans and their family servants.

Kenya has always been prominent in British cinema’s relationship with colonial Africa – and with the whole ideological terrain of colonialism, independence struggles and post-colonialism. Putting aside the specific case of South Africa, Kenya was perhaps the most attractive colony for European settlement, based to some extent on plantation development for tea, coffee and maize. The climate and the fertility in the ‘White Highlands’ of Central Kenya meant that were reserved for white settlers by the colonial administrations – displacing local farmers and reducing grazing land for nomadic peoples. The settlers were mainly middle-class British, but also other Europeans and in UK popular culture their lifestyle was seen as hedonistic in the ‘Happy Valley’ region – later represented in the film White Mischief (UK 1987). The exclusivity in this region also helped to encourage local political independence movements which began to be active in the 1920s and grew in strength immediately after 1945. In the early 1950s the same area became an important location for British adventure films including Where No Vultures Fly (1951) – which dealt with game poaching and the struggle to establish national parks in Kenya.

Regina as a teenager (Karoline Eckertz) with one of her now grown-up friends from the cillage

Regina as a teenager (Karoline Eckertz) with one of her now grown-up friends from the village

Nowhere in Africa is interesting in not really featuring the British upper middle-class settlers and instead offering more practical settler-farmers with few graces. One farmer has to use the cook as a translator as Walter has learned some Swahili but not English. When Jettel and Regina are interred in a hotel in Nairobi, however, it is a very upmarket establishment and their other experiences include meeting the Nairobi Jewish community, who are British and middle-class, and experiencing the boarding school. When they do begin effective farming, the crop is maize which was mainly introduced by the British as a cash crop. The simmering political unrest is not directly represented – though arguably it is still there. One of the telling lines of dialogue is from an old man who Walter meets when he starts work on the second farm. The man says he knows the land and can help – he’s known in for 40 years. He then says that “if someone steals your cow and eats it, you can forget it. But if they steal your land it is still there and you’ll never forget it”. He is prepared to help because Walter is not a ‘bwana’ who seeks to get rich by stealing more land. This is one of the scenes in which Regina is not present and therefore one she must invent from what she understands happened to her parents. The whole narrative is narrated from her perspective – which was a child’s and then a teenager’s. She was at that age less interested in politics and more in love with the country and its (native) peoples.

I would recommend Nowhere in Africa for several reasons, including excellent performances by the principals. It offers a different European perspective on Africa, one that is still eurocentric but is less trapped in the coloniser-colonised binary. It’s also a film about a girl growing up that to my ageing male eye seems to be authentic and well worth engaging with. I’d also be interested in a film which told the parents’ story in more detail. I found the film in the bargain bin at Fopp (£3 for a DVD) and I consider it money well spent.

London Indian Film Festival #1: Josh (Against the Grain, Pakistan-US 2012)

Josh

Josh is the first of three screenings of films from the 2013 London Indian Film Festival to be shown ‘on tour’ at the National Media Museum in Bradford and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Screening at 6pm during Ramadan is possibly not a real test of its popular appeal and the local Urdu-speaking audience was not in evidence. For audiences more used to popular Punjabi comedies at the local multiplexes the film may not have appealed even without the difficulties created by religious observance. Josh has been described as a ‘social drama’ and that is a reasonable description of a narrative that takes in class differences, feudalism, violence by the rich towards the poor, the empowerment of women and the youth movement in Pakistani politics. ‘Popular’ themes like the relationship problems of young men and women are included somewhat lower down the priority list.

JOSH

Iram Parveen Bilal on set in Pakistan

Writer-director Iram Parveen Bilal is an American-trained filmmaker (ten years in the US) who returned to Pakistan to make this film based on important local news stories about women as both victims and forceful agents of change. One of the problems about discussing the film is that the Pakistani film industry is still in the early stages of recovery from long-term decline. My local Bradford contact, with direct experience of Pakistani film and television culture, explained to me that in her view cinema was still not really respectable amongst the Pakistani upper middle classes. Television with its long-form narratives is still dominant. This perhaps explains the presence of several women as directors in a Pakistani film industry that is not fully ‘institutionalised’ – and why the lead role in this film is played by one of the big stars of Pakistani TV, Aamina Sheikh.

Fatima (approaching from the background) and a local street artist

Fatima (approaching from the background) and a local street artist

The plot outline of Josh sees Fatima (Aamina Sheikh) as a wealthy young woman in Karachi, still living at home with her widowed father, a leading lawyer. Fatima is a teacher in an English-medium secondary school. She hasn’t married, but has a boyfriend Adil, an aspiring artist who may be about to leave for America. She has friends in the Westernised milieu of upper middle class Karachi and is introduced to Uzair, a rising politician representing the Pakistan Youth Party. Uzair is played by Aamina Sheikh’s real-life husband Mohib Mirza (also a well-known actor in Pakistan). The equilibrium of Fatima’s comfortable life is disrupted by the disappearance of her ex-nanny Nusrat, a woman who has been heavily involved in trying to alleviate the suffering of her home village community outside Karachi. When Fatima discovers what has happened to Nusrat (who she considers her ‘second mother’), she finds herself in conflict with the village landlord and his group of armed thugs. Who will help Fatima – her father,  Adil or Uzair or her other friends? Can the villagers help themselves in their struggle?

This bald outline of the plot connects Josh to Hindi social films and Indian parallel cinema. It isn’t a ‘popular film’ in the Indian sense. Although there is some use of music that might correspond to contemporary Bollywood (i.e. in a montage sequence as might be found in independent Indian films), on the whole the music is used more in a Western mode – and there are no dance sequences. In fact I was a little disappointed in the music soundtrack, a mixture of Pakistani songs and Western film scoring. Despite the presence of Pakistani star names, the film has a low budget feel. The image was soft (and appeared to be projected from a DVD or Blu-ray disc) but more of a giveaway was the uneven sound recording. In one scene involving a conversation between two people, the background sound was completely different for each of the speakers in the same location. A quick glance online reveals that Bilal as producer-director had great difficulty getting financial support together and that the film’s completion was dependent on funds from Netflix administered through The Women in Film Foundation.

Given Ms Bilal’s difficulties in raising funds – and the important nature of her social issues-based themes – I’m a little reluctant to criticise the film. I will say that I was engaged throughout and the emotion of at least one scene brought me to tears. On the downside, I didn’t enjoy some of the montages that used ‘flash editing’ – sequences comprising shots only a few frames long, producing a kind of strobe effect. I could work out what they were supposed to mean but they still irritated. Equally, I was dismayed when I learned after the screening that the lead actors were married when they created so little erotic energy on screen. The rest of the cast seemed much more ‘authentic’ – perhaps there is a clash of acting styles? Overall, I think that the film tries to do too much and in doing so loses some of its potential to move the audience.

In trying to categorise/classify the film it is worth considering Ms Bilal as a diaspora filmmaker. The film’s narrative makes only limited references to studying/working abroad, themes common to some of Mira Nair’s films (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding etc.) but there are aspects of the film that suggest American style filmmaking and several of the key technical staff work mainly in the US. It seems unfair to compare a young filmmaker with established names such as Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta – and anyway the context of filmmaking in the sub-continent has changed markedly since those directors made their first Indian films back in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. Thinking about the national identity of the film also means that a more appropriate reference point might be a Pakistani diaspora director such as Jamil Dehlavi (Jinnah 1998). We might ask why the London Indian Film Festival decided to include a Pakistani film for the first time. Personally, I’m glad they did because I got a chance to see it. A release in both India and Pakistan has been announced for the Eid festival period. I fear for the film’s reception in India and I’m not sure what to expect when it is seen in Pakistan. It has however been a festival success, first at Mumbai in October 2012 and then at various other festivals.

Iram Parveen Bilal is clearly a talent to watch and there are various ways in which to explore her background. She has a website here. The official website for the film lists many of the positive reviews. Here is the trailer from the London Indian Film Festival:

And here is a set of interviews with the filmmakers. Bilal herself describes the film as a ‘mystery thriller’:

The social issues that the film tackles are very important and the current coverage of the campaign led by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who refused to be silenced by the Taliban emphasises the auspicious timing of the film’s release. Josh didn’t start out as a feature film and it will be interesting to see if by presenting the social debates in this way they get wider coverage and more attention. Despite its flaws, it would be good if it attracted audiences in the sub-continent and in the UK. 

Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002) – Narrative, Genre and Representation

Jess is surrounded by her teammates when it looks like she will be unable to play.

Jess (Parminder Nagra) is surrounded by her teammates when it looks like she will be unable to play.

This is one of our occasional archive publications of notes on specific films for film and media studies students. These notes were originally published in 2004.

Introduction
Bend It Like Beckham (BILB) is in many ways an excellent case study for British film, in terms of both ‘industry’ and ‘culture’. The release of the film in the UK in 2002, during the run-up to the football World Cup (at a time when David Beckham’s injury was front page news), represented something of a gamble for the distributor Helkon, with a wide release on over 380 prints – the kind of release usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. The gamble paid off so well that the film became the most successful ‘non-Hollywood’ British film of the modern era with a UK box office of over £11 million. The ‘universality’ of the central theme then went on to win large audiences in North America where the ‘Beckham factor’ was (then) of little importance. An American box office of $32 million and healthy returns in Australia, India, France, Italy and Germany guaranteed that director Gurinder Chadha would have carte blanche for her next project. Keira Knightley, the second lead in the film also become ‘hot property’ with subsequent starring roles in major American films. (Parminder Nagra had success on US TV, but nothing like that of Knightley.)

The success of the film was also associated with the way in which it presented aspects of British Asian life in accessible ways for a mainstream audience – attracting little or no controversy in the process (cf East is East, 1999). These notes will discuss the film in terms of narrative, genre and representation and also raise questions about contemporary British Cinema.

SynopsisSPOILERS (These notes discuss the film’s narrative in detail, so this is a full synopsis)

Jess Bhamra is an 18 year-old school-leaver who dreams about football and being able to ‘bend’ a ball like David Beckham. Her mother expects Jess to follow tradition in their Punjabi Sikh family and prepare for marriage, like older sister Pinky (but only after she has got a degree). One day in the local park, Jess is spotted playing football by Jules who is a member of the Hounslow Harriers women’s football team. She invites Jess to watch the team play and persuades the coach, Joe, to give Jess a trial. Jess is accepted but she decides to keep her new activity secret from her family. Mother finds out and tries to stop her, but Jules persuades her to carry on (being similarly under pressure from her own mother, who worries that Jules is too ‘tomboyish’). Preparations for Pinky’s wedding are in full swing, but Jess uses her clothes budget to buy new football boots – angering her parents. Jules gives her some suitable shoes but the two are seen by Pinky’s future parents, who thinking Jules is a boy, declare that Jess brings shame on the family and they call off the wedding. Jess is banned from football. Joe visits the family to plead her case. He fails, but Jess is determined to carry on and secretly joins the team on a trip to Germany where Jules sees for the first time that Jess and Joe are attracted to each other.

Mr Bhamra has worked out what is happening and meets the team on their return. He despairs of Jess and Pinky. Meanwhile, Jules falls out with Jess. Mrs Paxton overhears the row, convinced it is a lovers’ tiff. Jess confides in her cousin Tony and discovers that he is gay – but his family don’t know. Jess is playing in a game when her father sneaks in to watch. Jess is pumped up and gets sent off. Father discovers Joe comforting Jess. When they return home, Teetu’s family have come to rescue the marriage. The new wedding date clashes with the final of the football competition. Jess gets her A Level results, but Jules is looking forward to the American scout seeing her play.

On the day of the wedding, Father relents because Jess looks so unhappy and he allows her to leave the reception to play. Jess scores the winning goal – ‘bending it’. Jules and her mother arrive at the wedding and cause a scene because Mother sees Jules kiss Jess. At Jess’ house Tony tries to help Jess by telling the family that they are getting married. But Jess wants the truth – she announces that she has won the scholarship in America and her father says she can go. Jess goes to see Joe – she tells him she can’t start a relationship, but she offers hope. David Beckham is glimpsed in the airport as the girls fly off.

Gurinder Chadha
Gurinder Chadha was born in Kenya, but brought up in the UK, in Southall, West London. She first came to attention as a features director in 1993 with the release of Bhaji on the Beach, a social comedy which followed a group of Asian women on a day trip to Blackpool. In the best traditions of the genre, the narrative of this film provided the opportunity for women of different ages to exchange ideas about men and their own lives. The Blackpool setting also allowed some comic moments of culture clash. Overall, however, the film offered a serious discourse about the issues facing Asian women in Britain and it found an appreciative audience, despite restricted distribution.

“You have tradition on the one side and modernity on the other, Indianness on the one side, Englishness on the other, cultural specificity and universality – but in fact there is a scale between each of these polarities and the film moves freely between them.” (Gurinder Chadha quoted on www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/502103/)

In 2000, a second feature, What’s Cooking? moved Chadha to Los Angeles and a multi-strand narrative about four families from different ethnic backgrounds experiencing familiar domestic problems which are brought into focus by the pressures of Thanksgiving Dinner. Again more of a critical than a commercial success, What’s Cooking confirmed Chadha’s skills as a filmmaker and her ability to explore cultural diversity without emphasis on cultural difference.

Recipe for Success

It’s difficult to escape from culinary puns in describing Gurinder Chadha’s work and Bend it Like Beckham was presented with the tagline “Who wants to cook aloo gobi when you can bend a ball like Beckham?”. Much of the success of the film derives from perfect timing in combining an interest in football and celebrity, at a time when ‘Beckham mania’ was beginning to peak in the UK, with the increasing popularity of Indian culture and all things ‘Bollywood’. A further significant factor in easy recognition in the UK was the success of the television series Playing the Field (1998-2002) created by Kay Mellor. This series had already introduced the idea of women’s football as an interesting site for dramatic narratives. Although the series generally concentrated on older women players, it was important in appealing to a female audience, especially an older audience, notoriously difficult to attract to cinema features.

Overall, BILB can be seen as a British ‘feelgood’ film which appealed to audiences much in the same way as The Full Monty (1997) and Billy Elliot (2000). It differed in being ‘Southern’ rather than ‘Northern’ and female-centred rather than male-centred. It is also ‘feelgood’ in a British Asian context. The more affluent Punjabi/East African Sikh family setting also distinguishes the film from the other major British Asian comedy success, East is East (which like the other two examples represented Northern working class life). For the British film industry, the most important difference between BILB and the other films mentioned here is that it was made and distributed without Hollywood studio money. The rather complicated financial arrangements saw the lead taken by the German media group, Helkon AG which set up a distribution arm in the UK, eventually taking a 51% stake in the UK ‘start-up’ company, Redbus (which itself had hired staff from the disbanded Polygram distribution arm in the UK). Helkon has since gone into bankruptcy in Germany, but Redbus survived (and was sold to Lionsgate in 2005). German and British money went into BILB, but essentially it is a ‘British’ film.

It is worth noting that BILB breaks many of the ‘rules’ that low budget British films being ‘groomed’ for feelgood success are normally expected to follow. The film is arguably too long for its subject matter at 112 mins (80-95 mins. is the norm for a film of this kind in the UK). It does not boast either the ‘star’ cameo performance of a Julie Walters in Billy Elliot (Juliet Stevenson could be argued to fill this role, but her star status was less established) or the leading role recognition of Robert Carlyle in The Full Monty. Similarly, the film lacks the range of familiar ‘character actors’ and the ‘gritty’ social realism of films like Brassed Off (1996).

BILB is in many ways a youth picture, but one more in the mould of a Hollywood ‘teen picture’ rather than a British ‘social problem’ film. (Youth pictures in the UK have often concentrated on the problems associated with young people – drugs, delinquency etc. – rather than on their aspirations.) Youth pictures, by their very nature feature tend to feature younger, lesser known actors. They also tend to feature popular music and this is certainly the case with BILB which not only sports an extensive range of music clips, but also uses them in a series of montage sequences, often associated with football training and action from featured games. The reliance on these montage sequences is perhaps the defining stylistic feature of the film. (The film is in the main very conventional in terms of aesthetics. It is filmed on location with studio inserts for the Bhamra home. Apart from a couple of crane shots and extensive steadicam work on the football field, camerawork is not particularly expressive.)

Narrative

The central idea of BILB is the linking of two ‘conflict narratives’ – effectively doubling the narrative potential. The first narrative concerns the attempts of Jess (Jasminder, played by Parminder Nagra) to live her life ‘independently’, according to her own interests rather than those expected of her by other family members, and especially by her mother. The second narrative concerns the possibility of women’s football as the basis for a successful career (i.e. rather than as a recreational activity) – something which is extremely difficult in a British context.

A different way to present this ‘double’ would be to assess the problems or barriers facing Jess. She wants to be a footballer, but not only is she a woman, but she is an Asian woman. Note that the image of ‘Asian woman footballer’ has to contend not only with the concept of a young woman challenging traditional roles for women in British Asian families, but also the almost complete absence of Asian role models in professional British football. In this sense, the narrative of BILB is set up like a traditional Hollywood ‘quest narrative’. Jess might as well be tackling dragons and wizards, so fantastical does the challenge sound.

The other characters in the film are all developed in relation to Jess’ quest. Jules, played by Keira Knightley, at first appears to have so many advantages in her parallel quest for football success – not least her greater experience and her height and athleticism. But Jules has to contend with her mother and her fears about lesbianism. Mrs Paxton provides a kind of counter-balance to the similar negative feelings of Jess’ mother.

It is noticeable that in contrast to other British Asian films (My Beautiful Laundrette, East is East, My Son the Fanatic) – all of which feature British Muslim families – the main dramatic focus is on the mother figure. This does not mean that father does not have an important role, only that the opposition to Jess comes mainly from her mother. Interestingly, it is only via the father and his memories of playing cricket in Kenya that the film makes direct reference to forms of institutional racism. Father is a patriarchal figure in this Sikh family, but he is also prepared to be flexible in dealing with his daughter.

The other characters in the film have similar personal battles that contrast with those facing Jess and to some extent provide other dimensions to her struggle. Sister Pinky offers a stereotype of a young British Asian woman who can be both ‘modern’ (in dress and appearance and in attitudes towards sex with her boyfriend) and ‘traditional’ in the way she accepts that she must marry according to the customs of her community.

Tony carries a secret that he cannot reveal to anyone other than his cousin, Jess. His gayness is even more unacceptable to the family. Joe carries several burdens – he is estranged from his father, has had to give up his career as a player and is unsure about his future as a coach. In dramatic terms, both Tony and Joe are seen as supportive of Jess – almost as if they sympathise with her position or because they want to see her succeed where they can’t. The male power in the film lies with Mr Bhamra and it is because he is understanding that a resolution is possible.

The two narratives come together in the final act with the crosscutting between the wedding and the football final.

Representation

The representation issues in the film clearly relate to gender and ethnicity. Less obvious are the questions about social class, which are raised less by the film itself and more by audiences attempting to read the film. BILB is essentially a (young) woman’s film. Gurinder Chadha herself has said that she got the idea for the film after watching the reactions to England’s failure in the 1996 European Nations Cup. She was intrigued by the prospect of putting an Indian girl into the ‘testosterone-fuelled’ world of British football. At the centre of the film is the mother-daughter relationship in the Bhamra household. The similar relationship in the Paxton household emphasises this relationship. For Jess, the alternatives seem to be the life as mapped out for Pinky or the camaraderie of her teammates.

Shaheen Khan as Mrs Bhamra, playing older than herself and representing a woman of her own mother's generation.

Shaheen Khan as Mrs Bhamra, playing older than herself and representing a woman of her own mother’s generation.

Chadha has also stated that many of the lines of dialogue attributed to the two mothers came from her own experience – listening to her own mother and the mothers of her (white) friends. She suggests too, that young British Asian women went back to see the film for a second or third time, just to hear how Jess’ mother berates her. (Comments taken from the DVD commentary.) Here we have confirmation of one of Richard Dyer’s arguments about representation. Gurinder Chadha as writer/director ‘speaks’ in the film. Hers is the authentic voice of a woman brought up in an Asian family in Britain. This is further emphasised by actors playing older than their real ages (Shaheen Khan as Mrs. Bhamra and Harvey Girdi as Teetu’s Mum) – effectively playing their own mothers. How audiences read these scenes depends very much on how ‘real’ they take the situations to be. (It might be argued that while the plot is formulaic, with its expected actions and its repetitions, the confrontations themselves ring true.)

The contrast between Jess and Pinky is expressed in a number of ways. Dress and appearance are important, but casting and acting style contribute as well. As Pinky, Archie Panjabi has to suggest the modern/traditional contradiction of a particular kind of Southall girl. Parminder Nagra was 27 when she played Jess as an 18 year-old and she has an uncanny ability to look even younger at times – to be almost childlike. But in some of the later scenes with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, with her hair down, she looks much older (older than him in fact). This switching suits her character which is innocent and direct, but also capable of maturity. In this respect she represents authenticity – Pinky seems a much less mature woman. Other issues surround Pinky’s behaviour. She hasn’t gone to college which might affect her ‘marriageability’ and she has also slept with Teetu, another mark against her in the marriage stakes for a traditional community. Yet, she does love Teetu and she wants to marry him for love, not just because the families approve. So there is an ‘authenticity’ about her behaviour.

The running joke about food also becomes part of the discourse about gender and ethnicity. In the famous line that developed into the tagline for the film’s poster campaign, “Anyone can make aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”, Gurinder Chadha is again making a reference to her own childhood and the traditional view that a young girl must be taught by her mother how to make a ‘full North Indian meal’. The DVD commentary is again interesting on this point and provides an explanation for the scar on Jess’ leg. The explanation in the film is that this is the result of an accident when she was heating up baked beans as a child and her trousers caught fire. Gurinder Chadha tells us that this is what really happened to Parminder Nagra.

Ethnicity

BILB is a film in which, although ‘ethnic difference’ is several times the basis for comedy or dramatic effect, it is almost never a ‘problem’. The film is set firmly within the community that has produced both the filmmaker and the story. Gurinder Chadha is completely ‘at home’ and the narrative is infused with her love and affection for her family. There are only two moments in the film where racism becomes an issue.

One is when Mr Bhamra recalls his own treatment as a cricketer from Nairobi who is excluded from a local club in England. He goes on (with complete justification) to point out to Joe that there are no British Asian players in the Premiership. “They won’t let our boys in, so what hope is there for Jess?” Jess responds by saying that Nasser Hussein became the England cricket captain. The argument ends, but in the credit sequence at the end of the film, we see Joe bowling to Mr Bhamra on the green outside the Bhamra house, with all the players properly dressed in cricketing whites. (The same experience is also used in the closing scenes to explain why Mr Bhamra let his daughter play in the final – he wants her to make decisions in which she wins and doesn’t regret.)

Mr Bhamra (played by Hindi cinema star actor Anupam Kher) backs Jess partly because of his own frustrations over institutional racism that stopped him playing cricket.

Mr Bhamra (played by Hindi cinema star actor Anupam Kher) backs Jess partly because of his own frustrations over institutional racism that stopped him playing cricket.

The second moment of potential conflict over racism comes when Jess is sent off in the match watched by her father. After the game, Joe berates her. She tells him that he wouldn’t understand, because the opposing player had called her a ‘Paki’ and that is what caused the incident. Joe responds with “Of course I understand. I’m Irish.”

It could be argued that in both these instances, the reference to racism in UK society ‘works’ in a narrative sense, especially in the case of the father’s actions. However, it could be argued that both offer a fairly rosy view of UK life from within an established and confident community. Racism in UK sport is still very much a ‘live issue’ and the different experience of immigrant groups in the UK is not to be discounted. These representations also become problematic for audiences in other territories (see comments below on social class).

Social class

Issues of social class remain a problem for UK filmmakers. Despite the protestations of politicians about the creation of a ‘classless society’, most British films are read by audiences in class terms. In other words, audiences make sense of what happens on screen because of their own knowledge of the nuances of social behaviour and they choose the films they want to watch, partly at least, on the basis of what they assume to be the audience address of the film. So, for example, films such as Notting Hill (UK 1999) or Love Actually (UK 2003), written by Richard Curtis are perceived as ‘middle class films’. In the most extreme recent example, most (middle class) UK film reviewers fell upon the comedy Sex Lives of the Potato Men, which they identified as a ‘working class film’.

Many of these differences are difficult for overseas audiences to follow. This is important because most British films need overseas sales to make significant profits. Successful films abroad have tended to celebrate a certain (arguably nostalgic and certainly ‘realist’) view of working class communities in the North of England or selected areas of London. Alternatively, they have attempted to promote a generally affluent England (i.e the South East) with as few local ‘quirks’ as possible. BILB falls some where between the two. It is set in a definable and recognisable place – the borders of Southall, Heston and Hounslow, west of London. The houses where the two lead characters live are ‘semi detached’ and suburban. The Bhamra house looks out onto an attractive green or common. Location, and especially housing, have always been key indicators of class in Britain.

Given the high cost of housing in contemporary London, these houses scream ‘middle class’, especially to audiences outside the capital. Yet, the narrative information suggests that the Paxton family is to be read as ‘nouveau riche’ ( a view supported by the DVD commentary). Social class in the UK is judged not by money, but by education, taste, ‘lifestyle’ etc. The gauche behaviour of Mrs Paxton (plus her accent, dress etc.) are crucial. The Bhamra family is rather different. In East Africa the family would have been relatively wealthy. On arrival in the UK, they would have had to rebuild their lives – thus the early struggle and the need to work overtime etc. Because of the extended family system and the family work ethic, as well as other factors, many such Punjabi and Gujurati families have been able to achieve material success in the UK relatively quickly. The development is emphasised in BILB by the fact that Jess is qualified to enter university, unlike her older sister. Mr Bhamra’s uniform suggests that he has progressed in his Heathrow job, although precisely what he does is not clear. Note also that he reads the Guardian – a sure sign that he associates himself with a liberal middle class. It isn’t possible to pigeonhole the Bhamras. ‘Lower middle class’ might be the best description. What is important is that the film goes to some lengths to avoid the possibility that audiences will make an automatic assumption about social class and ethnicity. In this respect a comparison with My Son the Fanatic (UK 1998) is useful. In this contemporary melodrama, the Bradford setting for a taxi driver’s family suggests a more traditional Northern working class community in which a second generation Muslim youth is growing up (although again this film shows different experiences within the Muslim community).

The confusions in BILB for North American audiences are neatly summed up in these two quotes from review articles:

What sets Bend It Like Beckham apart, however, is that director Gurinder Chadha exposes the social and historical context that drives this personal story. In a brilliant scene not central to the plot, Chadha subtly draws attention to Jess’ class background when she reveals a gruesome burn that she suffered as a young girl fixing her own dinner while her mother worked the night shift at London’s Heathrow Airport. Chadha is equally skillful in revealing the racist white English culture that keeps the girl’s parents, despite their rise from their working class immigrant roots into the middle class, in a space of cultural seclusion.

It is a theme to which many Asian Americans can surely relate. Perhaps it was easier for Asian American college students to buy into the hype of Better Luck Tomorrow (US 2002) because of that film’s middle class ennui in contrast with the immigrant politics of Bend It Like Beckham. (from: ‘Better Buzz Tomorrow’, Anmol Chaddha, 6/5/03 on Alternet.org)

and . . .

In promoting Bend It Like Beckham, Chadha implores, “the film celebrates the processes of cultural change, the experience of living in a diverse environment from one generation to another and not only the difficulties involved but also the pleasures in becoming more integrated.” Yet surely the film shows that whites next door to a south-east Indian wedding celebration can continue to live in blissful ignorance of the party going on next door. Where interracial alliances are shown, we find the new lower middle class in England comprising well-educated visible minorities reading the Guardian alongside the Del-boys (or Boycies) made good – white English (who are impressed by the respect for elders in ‘exotic’ cultures) or Irish (who are allowed to – absurdly – explain that they understand what being called a ‘Paki’ means) individualists from working class backgrounds. (Daniel McNeil, University of Toronto, in The Multiracial Activist, April/May 2003)

The first of these quotes is from an Asian American, praising BILB in comparison with a recently released Asian American film. The second is a Canadian postgraduate student who clearly knows British culture very well. Taken together (and putting aside understandable American confusion with class boundaries in the UK), the comments are reminiscent of those in the debates that surrounded The Cosby Show on US (and UK) TV in the 1980s. Bill Cosby was at the time, the highest paid performer on US television and he produced his own show which a middle class African American doctor and his beautiful and talented family in a sitcom. Black audiences were divided between those who enjoyed the assertion of family values and saw the show as ‘aspirational’ and others who were concerned that it was not representative of the lives of most African Americans at the time. Similar feelings were expressed in the UK.

Jess and Pinky (Archie Panjabi) represent nuanced differences in second generation British Asians – but the wedding is a possible shared experience if it wasn't for football.

Jess and Pinky (Archie Panjabi) represent nuanced differences in second generation British Asians – but the wedding is a possible shared experience if it wasn’t for football.

The main ways in which the film represents Punjabi identity is through the narrative leading up to the wedding. The sights (and sounds) of the wedding party in the Shepherd’s Bush gudwara seem very familiar to any filmgoer with more than a nodding acquaintance with Indian Cinema. Even those British arthouse audiences who would not normally see a Bollywood film, would have enjoyed a similar spectacle in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). Crucially what the wedding celebrations emphasise is the confidence of the Punjabi community in a set of traditions that are at the same time able to refer to a rural past and to embrace a modern future. The wedding is just as ‘at home’ in Southall as in New Delhi. Because of partition in 1947, Punjabis are scattered around the globe, but family and religious celebrations keep the community together. The wedding and the references to food and music (see below) are part of what has been argued to be cultural diversity rather than cultural difference. The community celebrates in a traditional way, but is also happy to participate directly in the culture of the ‘majority’ or ‘host’ community. The images of Southall Broadway – a ‘real’ London high street with national chainstores and Asian grocers side by side – at the beginning of the film represent the sense of a hybridising of UK culture. Punjabi culture contributes to and draws from a new culture which mixes traditions. (Difference still exists in the lack of comprehension shown by both white and Asian characters towards the behaviour of others, but mostly this is a factor in older generations, not the second generation characters like Jess and Tony.)

Music

Music is essential in BILB, not just to provide ‘background’ for montage sequences of football training etc., but also to represent the ‘feelgood’ ethos of the film and also to promote the ‘hybridity’ that Gurinder Chadha obviously supports. Again the DVD commentary provides some explanations of why particular tracks have been used. Throughout the film there are musical sequences which combine traditional film music scoring with Punjabi popular music. There are songs written for the film (e.g. from Melanie C.) and examples of songs from other traditions given a Bhangra treatment (e.g. ‘Hot, Hot, Hot’ originally a hit for the Trinidadian Soca star Arrow in 1983 and then used as the theme for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico – a link in BILB to ‘Nessun Dorma’, used so successfully in the BBC coverage of Italia 1990 and here signalling the moment of Jess’ triumph with her ‘bent’ free kick).

Perhaps more about ‘personal politics’ is the use of Curtis Mayfield’s 1971 hit ‘Move on Up’. Chadha states that this song was particularly important for her because of the singer and the context of the original song. Curtis Mayfield was for many African-Americans one of the major voices of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the lyrics of this song are all about ‘empowerment’. It plays in the film as Jess sets off for football training for the first time and again at the end of the film when the two girls fly off to America.

Genre

Issues of narrative and representation are also bound up with questions of genre. BILB is a ‘feelgood’ film. This isn’t a traditional generic category, but it is certainly a recognisable set of elements, especially in the context of contemporary Hollywood. The ‘feelgood’ narrative often centres on the ‘quest’, clearly evident in BILB.

Gurinder Chadha has been quoted as referring to the film as a ‘teen comedy’ and this may be the most useful focus for a genre analysis. ‘Teen comedy’ is a Hollywood concept, usually associated with a high school setting, but also applicable to a range of other settings and mixes with other genres, including science fiction and the combat film (e.g. in Starship Troopers, US 1997) and the whole cycle of ‘teen horror’ films.

The term ‘youth movie’ is a useful broad category term and fits BILB well. Several aspects of the youth movie repertoire are referenced in the film:

  • generational conflict, parents v. daughter
  • forms of ‘rebellion’ by daughter
  • focus on clothes, food, use of language to represent ‘difference’
  • narrative with time constraint – takes place over the summer holiday before university
  • climax at major social event – wedding/football final
  • extensive use of popular music

These are elements found in a whole range of youth orientated films. ‘Youth movies’ usually set out to target a youth audience and so alienate older audiences. BILB clearly appeals more broadly, even though it has all the other elements in place. This is partly explained by the added ingredient – the focus on the Punjabi family and the importance of elements of the Bollywood formula, especially the wedding as climax of the narrative. BILB has been described as a ‘Bollywood film’, but this is only valid in terms of the wedding and the internal family conflicts. The musical sequences, for instance, are derived from Hollywood cinema, not Bollywood.

The American dimension

BILB was successful in North America for different reasons than those which helped The Full Monty etc. Rather than a ‘British film’ adapted for an American market or marketed as ‘distinctively British’, BILB was conceived with aspects of the American market already addressed in the script. Gurinder Chadha’s husband and writing partner, Paul Mayeda Berges, is American and Chadha herself had previously made an American film, the Los Angeles set What’s Cooking? After living in America she was aware of some of the audience needs. Although the Beckham name was not so important in North America and the title of the film would baffle most American audiences, Chadha also knew that ‘soccer’ in America is arguably more important as a participatory game for women and girls, than as a male spectator sport. It is very much a ‘college game’ and therefore it is important that the film ends with the two protagonists flying off to a ‘soccer scholarship’ in California. The women’s game in America also has a professional presence and the stars of the American Women’s team that won the World Cup in 1999 are household names in America. In Jules’ bedroom she has a poster of Mia Hamm, who for most of the late 1990s was the best known female sportsperson in America.

In preparation for BILB Chadha watched sell-out women’s soccer games in California and she knew an audience was there. As part of the promotional tour for BILB in North America, Parminder Nagra made a public appearance at a men’s professional league game and launched a new season with the kick-off (see www.filmjournal.com)

What may seem puzzling from a UK perspective is that the US release, several months after Europe and therefore not related to the World Cup, followed the huge American success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Some American audiences took BILB to be primarily a feelgood comedy romance about an ‘immigrant community’ and its wedding conventions.

Conclusion: BILB and British Cinema

Since there are very few British films that have massive international success (BILB’s cinema box office was ten times the production budget), it is inevitable that each ‘winner’ will become the next film to be emulated (or rather imitated). In the case of BILB this is going to be very difficult as can be perceived from the ‘success factors’ apparent in the film’s production and reception by audiences:

  • relatively low budget production (£3-4million)
  • writer/producer/director with knowledge of subject
  • all the benefits of ‘hybrid culture’ without the possible barriers
  • ‘feelgood’, upbeat narrative
  • well targeted for audience plus possibility of ‘universal appeal’
  • good timing for release re Beckham/World Cup etc.
  • full distributor support for release

Gurinder Chadha herself used the success and her new status to get finance for Bride and Prejudice (UK/US 2004) – a Bollywood version of Jane Austen. Whilst this film was still under the creative control of Gurinder Chadha, it had US (Miramax) money in from the start as well as an Indian star. It was certainly not a low budget ‘British’ film. BILB is likely to remain a one-off until another combination of factors produces a similar success in a few years time. Other attempts to carry on in the same way have not succeeded at the box office (e.g. Peter Cattaneo followed up The Full Monty with the relative flop Lucky Break in 2001 and Damien O’Donnell followed East is East with the little seen Heartlands (2002).

Questions for discussion

1. In what ways is Bend It Like Beckham clearly targeted at an audience of young women?

2. Using specific scenes from the film as examples, show how Pinky and Jess have different attitudes towards their parents ideas about marriage.

3. Discuss the ways in which camerawork, music and editing are used to link the two main narrative lines in the film during the wedding/football final.

4. How would you analyse the concept of ‘hybridity’ in relation to Punjabi culture in Britain as represented in the film?

Resources

There are many reviews and interviews on websites. This is a selection of some of them (including those quoted in the notes above):

www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/502103/

www.alternet.org/story/15835/better_buzz_tomorrow

www.multiracial.com/readers/mcneil5.html

http://www.scope.nottingham.ac.uk/filmreview.php?issue=may2003&id=717&section=film_rev

film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,4120,682376,00.html

Claire Monk’s generally negative review of the film in Sight & Sound May 2002 is an interesting example of the problems associated with ‘judging’ a film on a preview screening. It is difficult to argue with any of Monk’s general criticisms of the film (“. . . artless and mediocre . . . unsatisfying viewing for thinking adults”), but she can’t predict its power to move audiences.

Bend It Like Beckham is available on DVD from Helkon (the DVD includes a very useful director’s commentary). All text in these notes © 2004 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated. Images © Helkon.

Midnight’s Children (Canada-UK 2012)

Parvati (Shriya Saran) and Saleem (Satya Babha) are two of 'Midnight's Children' with magical powers.

Parvati (Shriya Saran) and Saleem (Satya Bhabha) are two of ‘Midnight’s Children’ with magical powers.

I approached this screening with some trepidation. I read Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children in 1982, identifying strongly with its central theme. It felt like the cutting-edge of a fiction in tune with the cultural shifts towards post-colonialist literature. But only a few years later I started to go off Rushdie. I remember a key moment being the attack he made on Black Audio and Film Collective’s film Handsworth Songs in 1987. It’s ironic that Handsworth Songs is now rightly recognised as an important intervention in the development of a Black aesthetic in Britain, whereas Rushdie has lost some of his cultural status. That status appears to have been diminished further with the reception of the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children – scripted by Salman Rushdie who also provides several passages of narration. On its second week of release in the UK, the film was screened only once a day, in the afternoon, in the Vue multiplex at The Light in Leeds. There were just five of us in the audience. This already looks like a lack of confidence from its distributor eOne Entertainment, the new Canadian major .

So, is it as bad as all that? Well, no. I decided not to go back to the book before the screening and I watched in as objective a manner as possible. I was surprised to find myself in tears at the end of the film. That probably says more about me than about the film but in most respects this is a very impressive production. The Indian director Deepa Mehta who makes her films from her Canadian base has achieved what many thought was the impossible feat of adapting Rushdie’s novel with a wonderful cast drawn from the vast array of Indian performers working in India and North America in all forms of cinema. More than sixty location shoots in Sri Lanka stand in for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mehta has said many things about the production and my guess is that she chose Sri Lanka for two reasons. First she had previously suffered from protests by Hindi fundamentalists when she made Water (Canada 2005), the third film of her ‘elements trilogy’. (See my earlier posting about this film.)  She moved that production to Sri Lanka where she discovered that Columbo and its environs has preserved much more of the ‘heritage buildings’ from the colonial period than equivalent cities in India. Midnight’s Children was a much more demanding shoot in terms of locations so Sri Lanka was very attractive. Rushdie’s novel has also been controversial in both India and Pakistan and the shoot was interrupted for a few days when the Iranian government tried to pressurise the Sri Lankans to withdraw permissions. It will be interesting to see what happens when the film finally opens in India (there were protests after its screening at the Kerala International Film Festival). PVR are going to distribute the film in India with a release date of February 1st. I suspect the Indian release will create a stir. I’m not sure if critics and audiences will like the film, but at least they will know the history. It is, of course, unlikely that it will be released in Pakistan except on pirated DVDs. I’m not sure yet whether it will make Bradford – where street demonstrations and a book burning were part of the reaction to Rushdie’s later novel, The Satanic Verses in 1989.

Outline

Rushdie’s long novel (500 pages of dense text in the paperback edition) tells the story of two characters born within seconds of each other at the stroke of midnight on August 14/15 1947, the moment of the end of the British Raj and the birth of two new nations separated by Partition. For reasons explained in the plot, the babies are switched at birth (in Bombay) with the poor child given to the wealthy (Muslim) mother and named Saleem and her ‘real’ son going to the poor Hindu father after his wife dies in childbirth (and named Shiva). As the two boys grow up knowing each other (but not their true identities) in the same district, they gradual discover their special powers, individual to each of the Midnight’s Children born at that one moment across the old Raj. We follow the boys through the major events of the next thirty years when they are separated only to be re-united in very different circumstances towards the end of the story. Rushdie also provides us with further background in the form of the story of  Saleem’s Muslim family since his grandfather first met the woman he was to marry in Kashmir in 1915. This means that we have a story that covers 62 years of tumultuous history in South Asia with the birth of three new countries (i.e. Bangladesh in 1971) and a host of  important characters. It shouldn’t be difficult to work out from this brief outline that a ‘magic realist’ treatment of these events enables Rushdie to create symbols, metaphors and allegories for much of ‘Indian’ history in the 2oth century. The story is essentially about the failure of the children with magical powers to help create India and Pakistan as viable democracies. Rushdie was writing at a time when Indira Ghandi had just been deposed after the period of ‘Emergency’ in 1977.

Production and reception

Rushdie’s novel was seen to be unfilmable, although a stage production was mounted in 2003 (see this review) and Wikipedia suggests that a BBC five part serial was considered in the 1990s (ironically featuring Rahul Bose who appears in Mehta’s film) but not developed when it was feared that there would be protests in Sri Lanka where it was to be shot. Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie share a background as diaspora ‘creatives’. Mehta was born in 1950 in Amritsar, Punjab province close to the Indo-Pakistani border created by Partition. Her 1998 film Earth is one of the best Partition films. She and Rushdie worked very closely on the adaptation of Midnight’s Children, agreeing on how much to cut from the novel’s plot to enable a runtime of 146 minutes. It would also seem that Mehta urged Rushdie to write and perform the narration – and that he agreed with some reluctance. I think that on the whole the script works (though I did feel that the last section of the film was less satisfactory in that there were ellipses that seemed to suggest cuts having been made). For me, the one big mistake was the narration. I’m not one of those who never like narration. On the contrary, I like narration when it’s done well and when it fits the narrative style of the film. But Rushdie’s voice is so well-known and his delivery for me was so flat that I winced each time it came on the soundtrack. I think an actor could have ‘performed’ the narrator’s role much more successfully.

The other criticisms of the film seem much less valid to me. Partly, I think, critics in the UK and North America don’t know the history well enough to understand the somewhat schematic presentation of some of the events and they don’t necessarily know much about the different types of Indian cinema or are familiar with the acting talent on display here. Just to take a couple of examples, Kate Stables in what is otherwise a perceptive and balanced review in Sight and Sound (January 2013), refers to “snapshots of Indo-Pakistan wars and cross-border wanderings”. There are two major wars shown in the film, the India-Pakistan War of 1965 and the conflict of 1971 which saw Indian forces crossing into East Pakistan to help secure independence for what would become Bangladesh. I’m not sure what she means by ‘cross-border wanderings’. The Guardian‘s film editor Catherine Shoard refers to “actors perfectly cast to the point of blandness” and music in which “wooden flutes, xylophones and wind chimes patter about on the soundtrack”. The actors include Seema Biswas, Anupam Kher, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and many more known in India as well as the American-based Satya Bhabha who makes a good job of the lead. Perfectly cast, yes. Bland? I don’t think so. Mehta works in a form of parallel cinema that requires actors to work largely (but not completely) in English and to deal with scripts quite unlike those which they would find in mainstream Indian popular cinemas such as Bollywood or Tamil/Telegu. The overall effect is not necessarily as ‘coherent’ as we might expect in the commercial cinemas of South Asia or Hollywood/Europe. It is usually more ‘realist’ but sometimes more expressionist. The fantasy elements of this particular property (largely achieved without CGI) make this seeming contradiction more noticeable. The music in Midnight’s Children is by Nitin Sawhney. If Catherine Shoard doesn’t like his music that’s fine but as a world-class musician, a British Asian with an international reputation, he deserves not to be treated with disdain.

Midnight’s Children is not a perfect film by any means but it is a decent attempt at a literary adaptation that will please the more open-minded of the novel’s many admirers and would also please many new audiences – if they got the chance to see it. Its message of protest about what has happened in India and Pakistan over the years is still something that needs to be shouted out. I think I cried at the end because the film brought together memories of many of my favourite stories from India, partly by reminding me of the films I’ve seen and the novels I’ve read. I’ll try to keep track of what happens to Midnight’s Children in India.

Material on the background to the film’s production has mostly been taken from the Press Pack uploaded by Mongrel Films in Canada.

Here’s the UK trailer which gives some indication of the difficulties discussed above:

Izzat (Norway 2005)

The three friends as part of the East Side crew in 'Izzat'

Izzat is exactly the kind of film this blog is all about. It’s a crime genre film from Norway – a filmmaking country better known internationally for serious social drama until hits like The Troll Hunter and Headhunters in the last couple of years. But Izzat is also one of the first films (possibly the first) to emerge from the Pakistani community in Norway and as such belongs to the broad category of diaspora film.

Migration has become a visible social issue in Scandinavian countries over the last thirty years, but in the UK we are mostly familiar with representations of migrant communities in Swedish and Danish films and TV. Norway has experienced similar inflows from Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa and the Pakistani community is the largest of the non-European groups in Norway – around 35,000 mostly living in and around Oslo, especially on the East Side of the city.

‘Izzat’ is the Urdu and Hindi word referring to ‘honour’ and ‘respect’, particularly in relation to the family and the onus on men to maintain the reputation of the women of their family. In a European context this has led to rather negative representations of South Asian family relations and made it difficult to report objectively on so-called ‘honour killings’ in which young women have been murdered by family members. These kinds of actions are not part of the plot of this film Izzat – but the plot does use the protagonist’s desire to protect his family, particularly his brother and sister, as an important narrative device.

Narrated as a long flashback (but starting pre-credits with a crucial scene from later in the story) Izzat presents us with three young Pakistani boys in their early teens growing up in East Oslo in the 1980s. Bored in “the safest city in the world”, they fall in with a Pakistani criminal gang, ‘The East Side Crew’ led by two brothers, Sadiq and Khalid, and gradually they become part of the gang. The narrative then moves forward several years and we see Wasim and his two close friends, Riaz and Munawar now established as part of a drugs operation. The East Side Crew are opposed mainly by a local operation run by ‘The Bullet’ and his gang of Nordic skinheads. Inevitably the two gangs clash but Wasim also finds it difficult to reconcile his family responsibilities and his close bond with his two friends with the realities of working in a criminal gang and this is where the main narrative conflict arises (there is very little about the police attempts to control the gangs).

The models for this kind of narrative are The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America – all of which have been popular and influential across global cinema. But films about organised crime have always been a staple of major film cultures from Europe (France, UK, Italy), Japan, Hong Kong and India. Izzat is on a much smaller scale than the Hollywood films, but it looks very good in CinemaScope and it successfully combines elements from Hollywood, Europe and South Asia. There are a couple of sequences shot in Lahore where Wasim is first sent as a teenager and then later as a gang member. Written by two Norwegian-Pakistanis, one of whom Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen is also the director, the film does to my mind offer a pretty slick crime film. It has scenes reminiscent of the Swedish TV crime series seen in the UK, but also has elements of the domestic cultural world of Pakistani migrants and narrative moments that are quite specific. At one point when Wasim is arguing with Sadiq he points out that he is a Norwegian citizen but that Sadiq can always be deported if he is convicted. The Oslo setting also throws up some interesting juxtapositions with shootouts taking place in near deserted streets. One climactic moment involves a suburban bus and a tense meeting between two gangsters takes place in a genteel coffee shop to the bemusement of the elderly customers. Colour is used quite carefully in the film so that the 1980s has a conventional ‘golden glow’, present day Oslo is relatively muted and the Pakistani scenes are quite vibrant.

The technical credits on the film are very good. There is an extensive use of Norwegian rock music on the soundtrack (with several songs featuring English lyrics) and the central character, Wasim (as an adult), is played by Emil Marwa. I thought he looked familiar but I didn’t realise that he was born in Norway to a Norwegian mother and Kenyan-Sikh father and has had a long career in British TV and film. His first big break was as one of the sons in East is East in 1999. Although he speaks Norwegian (and presumably Punjabi), his accent was considered wrong for the Oslo-based character so his voice is dubbed (something which didn’t go down too well with some Norwegian commentators). Overall Norwegian audiences seem to have been split between enjoying a relatively new kind of action film and criticising it for not being as slick as Hollywood.The film doesn’t appear to have been seen outside Norway where it had 130,000 admissions which doesn’t sound much but would make it a hit.

I have been wondering why in the UK there is no cinema film that I can think of that uses this kind of crime genre structure in a British-Asian context. Instead, British-Asian films tend more towards social comedies or melodramas or, more recently, have become absorbed into the less ethnically-defined category of ‘urban films’. On the other hand, all the elements of Izzat have turned up in UK TV series or TV films. I’m not sure what this tells us about the differences between the UK and smaller European countries – both in terms of representing migrant communities via popular genres or about the roles of TV and cinema films. It would be interesting to know if anything similar has appeared in Norway (or Denmark or Sweden) since 2005.

Our evening class discussed the film in the context of the development of ‘Nordic Noir’ cinema. With its focus on the Pakistani community the film offers us the obverse view to that of writers like Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson in which the effects of globalised crime and migration are viewed from the perspective of a host community gradually realising that a settled social democracy is being challenged. The Pakistani criminals in this film are a threat to order but the community as a whole is not represented as a victim or a problem. What is more obvious is that the Norwegian welfare system is simply puzzled by how to handle the boys in school and how the family ties re-exert themselves. I won’t give away the film’s ending, which is possibly a surprise, but it makes a further comment on the relationship between Norwegian liberalism and Pakistani culture.

Women Without Men (Zanan-e bedun-e mardan, Ger/Austria/Fra/It/Ukraine/Morocco 2009)

The CinemaScope framings are well used in Women Without Men

This film sneaked out on a single print in June 2010 in the UK and I missed it. I only became aware of it when researching A Separation. I’m glad that it is now available on DVD as it proves to be an interesting production for several reasons.

Shirin Neshat is an Iranian visual artist best known for short films that appear in gallery installations. Born into an upper middle-class Tehran family she left to study in the US around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This is her first feature film and she wrote and directed it in partnership with Shoja Azari, variously described as an Iranian-American artist and filmmaker. With two artists at the helm Women Without Men was unlikely to be made as a conventional feature and what was produced does not disappoint in that respect. Although ostensibly based on a historical novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour, the film proves to be a visual treat and something of a meditative art object despite some powerful and emotionally charged passages. (The novelist herself, a celebrated figure in Iran but now exiled in America, appears in the film as a brothel-keeper.)

The setting is Tehran in 1953 at the time of the coup d’état engineered by the British and Americans to secure their oil interests, bringing down the government of Prime Minister Mossadegh and reinstating the powers of the Shah. Four women from different backgrounds are featured with three of them eventually coming together in a large but isolated country house – more like a fantasy garden than a real location. The woman who owns the house is the wife of an Army General who has discovered a liberal café society since an old male friend returned from the West. Another is a beautiful but emaciated prostitute. The other two do know each other but they have different views – one conservative and orthodox but the other radical and not prepared to compromise. The latter leads us into the action of the coup and the attempts by radicals to resist it.

The look of the film is deliberate and very precisely controlled in CinemaScope images ‘painted’ in muted tones through a slow-moving camera lens. (The Tehran scenes are nearly monochrome but colour breaks through in the ‘garden’.) Several images are surreal and the overall effect is heightened by the production constraints. Presumably the two filmmakers were unable/unwilling (?) to return to Iran (the original novel was banned in Iran) so the production was based in Morocco. I have no real idea how Tehran looked in the early 1950s (apart from a few newsreel images) but I’m sure that it was probably significantly different from the Tehran of contemporary Iranian films. I have been to parts of Morocco and the locations used in Women Without Men did seem to cry out ‘North Africa’ pretty convincingly. I’m not suggesting that this is a problem, simply that it adds to the sense of ‘otherness’ as I take North African and Iranian cultures to be significantly different. (Neshat says that she thinks Casablanca does resemble Tehran in the 1950s.) Another way to approach the film is to see it as primarily a ‘globalised’ production. One of the women is played by a Hungarian, the film is photographed by a German and scored by Ryuchi Sakamoto and without the support of various European production funds the film couldn’t have been made.

The DVD carries a long and detailed statement to camera from Shirin Neshat who reveals some interesting aspects of the production. She tells us that the film was a long time in preparation in different countries and that it travelled extensively in post-production with different editors in each country. However, two seemingly contradictory factors held it together. The joint Austrian/Iranian design teams were meticulous in their research but Neshat and Azari didn’t want to make a ‘social realist film’. Neshat speaks about her admiration for East European/Russian and Scandinavian films and specifically mentions Tarkovsky as an inspiration. I did sense this in the film – partly perhaps because of the scenes in long shot in which crowds of protestors clashed with groups of soldiers or where the soldiers swarm into buildings. I was reminded of scenes in Andrei Roublev by Tarkovsky (and The Red and the White by Jansco). These sequences are contrasted in the more static tableaux and the scenes with the slow-moving camera. Neshin also speaks of Roy Andersson and I can see the link to his work.

The black of the women is isolated against the white of the men (and of the desert)

What does it all add up to? I was struck by one comment on IMdb in which it was suggested that the film is metaphorical in terms of the women’s treatment by men and the damage this does to the prospects of democracy in Iran. The film ends with a dedication to the revolutionaries in Iran from the 1906 ‘Constitutional Revolution’ to the recent ‘Green Revolution’. The suggested metaphor then develops the house and garden in the desert as a kind of potentially democratic ‘paradise’ (the first shot of the film follows one of the women entering the grounds via an irrigation canal). The gardener/caretaker is one of the few men in the film shown sympathetically. Neshat herself refers to the garden as a central image in Persian culture and especially in poetry as a symbolic place to engage with the spiritual. The narratives of the four women each represent different aspects of women’s lives in Iran. The westernised woman, though wealthy, is marginalised because of her age and is caught between men of opposing views who both patronise her. The orthodox woman eventually comes to see that marriage in this society is a trap. The most dramatic stories involve the radical and the prostitute. The presentation of the radical character Munis is surprising and I won’t spoil it. No amount of distancing camerawork can negate the shock of the image of Zarin a terribly thin woman scrubbing herself violently in the hammam in a vain attempt to free herself from the disgust she feels at her use by men.

I’m not sure why this film received so little attention in the UK (it was promoted well in the US). I would say it is well worth seeing and especially in the context of the other films by Iranian women, both the internal critics such as the Makhmalbafs and the other diaspora director, Mariane Satrapi of Persepolis fame.The two major criticisms seem to be that a) there are too many ideas in the film and b) that it feels like four separate stories not successfully melding into a single coherent narrative. I don’t see the problem with too many ideas. The second is the view of Sight and Sound‘s reviewer Sophie Meyer who points out that each of the stories had first been presented as gallery installations. My response to this is to argue that art films don’t need to offer coherent realist narratives and anyway putting the installation work into a feature enables many more people to see it who like me are unlikely to be able to get to the exhibitions where the installations play.

There is a great deal of useful information on the filmmaker and the film in the detailed Press Pack available here.

Here’s the official trailer which gives a good indication of the style but also a couple of possible spoilers: