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The Attack On Gurinder Chadha Was An Attack On All Us Brit Asians

06/03/2017 12:10

I don't know Gurinder Chadha personally. Sure, we've exchanged smiles at various Brit Asian events over the years. Two in particular stand out in my mind. One was after the release of her film Bride and Prejudice when she was honoured at an event in the Houses of Parliament about ten years ago. The second in 2012 was not a celebration, but rather the coming together of the sisterhood outside the Indian High Commission in London to protest the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey.

I've always been Gurinder's fangirl. I was a teenager when her first film Bhaji on the Beach was released in the 90s. I still remember my fascination at seeing ordinary British Asian lives on the big screen. One thing stood out in my mind at the end of that film: if this Brit Asian woman could share the stories from her imagination, then so could I, for she was just like me.

Gurinder's personal story is typical of the majority of British Asians in her generation. She wasn't born here; she arrived when she was two years old in the 1960s from Kenya and her family settled in Southall.

You don't have to be an expert in race relations history to know that the 1960s and 1970s was a grim place for the new immigrants. National Front racism was not unusual but the Brit Asians persevered, build livelihoods and encouraged their children to succeed - even when they were pitched against institutional racism, prejudice and all sorts of unconscious bias in the workplace.

Gurinder's is one of the earlier success stories. She was the first Brit Asian woman filmmaker.
Sadly, three decades on she is still the only one.

Last week saw the release of Gurinder's new film Viceroy House, a tale of the 1947 partition of India-Pakistan from the viewpoint of the Mountbattens. Some have said that the film is Downtown Abbey in British India, with Hugh Bonneville playing Lord Mountbatten and Gillian Anderson in the role of Lady Edwina.

Gurinder has made no secret of the fact that her family experienced the horrors of partition and that she wanted to share this story, the piece of history which the west seem to know nothing about. After all, Attenborough's Ghandi was made decades ago and it no longer makes the Christmas or Easter re-runs on the tele.

Gurinder was going to make this film her own way, in her own style, pitched for popular viewing with a love story thrown in.

A style that Fatima Bhutto, granddaughter and niece of two previous Pakistani Prime Ministers, dismissed as the imagination of a colonial mind.

I have spent the weekend debating this review with friends. Some argued that Fatima is entitled to dislike it. I absolutely agree. I will even go further to say she can be offended by it too. What I wholeheartedly take issue with, however, is her outrageous remark about the colonial imagination.

Seriously? Is there anything more insulting for a child of an immigrant who lived through the extreme racism of the 60 and 70s? To suggest that this immigrant child has internalised the racism of the British Raj - ie: white English equals superior and Asian equals inferior - is beyond low.

In 2017, feelings of inferiority are more likely to be experienced in countries with feudal community set ups where the field labourer or peasant is pitched against all powerful landlords. I really don't think a Brit Asian woman, who has carved a place for herself in the highly competitive entertainment industry, suffers from feeling second best. And especially not after making successful films like Bhaji on the Beach and Bend it like Beckham.

We Brit Asians are proud of our heritage; the languages, the food and family values. Yet we are still different to those with whom we share ancestral and blood ties. The label Brit is not just an add on. We really are British in our identity. We have far more in common with our white English neighbours, work colleagues and friends than we do with the people who share our skin colour thousands of miles away.

It is within this context that I don't believe I'm wrong to say that Fatima Bhutto is a member of the Pakistani elite who doesn't 'get' the Brit Asian experience. If she did, she would never have accused a woman - who started at the bottom of the social and economic pile as an immigrant and rose up through sheer hard work and ambition - of a colonial mindset.

Gurinder Chadha is a British Asian success story. She is a woman who has broken down barriers and led the way for the rest of us Brit Asians who value the power of storytelling to affect change.

This article is not a film review of Viceroy House. The viewer can like it, love it or hate it with a passion.

Sufiya is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl, part set in a Pakistani village and in London.

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