An Interview with Gurinder Chada

Desi Rascals

Don’t miss the new series of Desi Rascals on Sky Living HD from Tuesday January 20th at 8pm.

When I first heard about Desi Rascals, I must admit I was mildly sceptical. I’ve spoken before about the limited, usually stereotyped media representation of British Asians and the disappointing lack of positive roles we have. And with this show, I was really expecting more of the same. What I wasn’t counting on, was that with award-winning director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice) behind it, Desi Rascals isn’t going to be anything like we’ve seen before. This non-scripted, reality TV show featuring British Asians, shot in real time is going to be ground-breaking for the Asian community.

I talked to Gurinder about what we can expect from the show, how it reflects the diversity in today’s British Asian community and some of it’s boundary pushing characters.

“I am supremely confident that it will fit the bill in terms of showcasing the diversity in the British Asian community,” Gurinder told me. “The characters we have gives it a very multi-dimensional view.

There’s a great mix within the cast: Gujaratis, Punjabis, Bangladeshis- amongst others. There’s different social stratas represented, from small business owners to one very wealthy family who own a chain of luxury hotels.

It’s multi-generational too, which is a really important element. Having the older generations in our show allows us to show how the pressures on that generation are as important as those of the younger people. Parents sometimes put pressure on their kids, but there’s also pressure on them because they want to do the best for their kids as well as upholding certain traditions and values, which is where the tension and drama really comes from.

Ultimately, a more three-dimensional portrayal of the British Asian community will come from the fact that it’s non-scripted drama, that allows for spontaneous and real exchanges between the characters- you couldn’t write drama like this! And what’s also great is that we are not limited to any one person’s vision of the Asian community. Desi Rascals shows you how English we are as well as how British Asian we are.”

“I think you can safely say you’ve never seen Asians on TV before like this” Gurinder Chadha

Tell me a bit about the cast members?

“Well there’s Owais who is a property developer. He spent a lot of his youth trying to overcome a stutter. Then there’s Amita who runs her own business- she’s a beautician and is also a single mum. There are the boys Anj and Nurat- a uncle and nephew team who own their own gym.

Desi Rascals .Sky1..© Andrea Southam for Sky Living

Amita Patel from the cast of Desi Rascals © Andrea Southam for Sky Living

One of my favourite characters on the show is Naman who is an openly gay Muslim. He’s extremely family orientated and very sweet, very warm; and very close to our single mother Amita. He’s not just a gay guy, he’s very much part of our world. I think his journey is going to be hard, as an ‘out’ gay guy.

And he has been very supported by everyone on the show, including Owais, who has said “as a fellow Muslim, I’m extremely proud of you.”

“It really is the people that are going to take this into different areas-the types of people that have come forward to be a part of the show are what’s really going to drive it- who knows where they will take it- and there will be lots of surprises! The main thing that you’re going to see is not what you’re going to be expecting. I think you can safely say that you’ve never seen Asians on TV before like this.”

As the show features a beautician, a Bollywood dancer and a makeup artist I shared my concern with Gurinder that her portrayal of Desi women was limited to rather, shall we say, girly pursuits.

Desi Rascals .Sky1..© Andrea Southam for Sky Living

Expect to see some strong desi women in Desi Rascals © Andrea Southam for Sky Living

“Well what do think?! With my name attached, what do you think?! Anything that I do is not going to be namby-pamby you can safely assume, when it comes to women!” 

I think we can safely assume that anything Gurinder puts her name to will not be ‘namby pamby’ as she put it. And that’s what makes her such an important British Asian figure and such a hugely influential person in her field. Her contribution to positively shaping how the world sees British Asians has been really important- think of how Bend It Like Beckham brought the richness of Asian family, community and tradition onto our screens 12 years ago.

I’ve no doubt that Desi Rascals will do the same for us, 10 or so years on. And there couldn’t be a better time than now to see this happen. In our current news climate, where sections of the Asian community take a constant battering, it’s really time we see something else of who our community are. And I’m hopeful Gurinder’s Desi Rascals will do this for us- and perhaps give us some really positive role models to boot.

‘Desi Rascals’ premieres on Tuesday 20 January at 8pm on Sky Living. Watch the trailer below

You might also like “Where do we look for positive British Asian role models?”

When did you realise you were Asian?

 

When did you realise you were Asian?

What do you think of when you hear the word “gorah”? Or “chav”? All labels, however crude or unkind have been defined by society. We all eventually accept our personal label: Asian; British Asian; Black Person; White Person and so on-and all the baggage it comes with. Being Asian isn’t just a case of circumstances: the family you were born into, your country of origin; and we aren’t born with an awareness of it. At some point in our lives we come to a realisation of our racial difference.

I was 7 when it hit me. We had recently moved to an all- white neighbourhood. I started school mid-way through the year so everyone else knew each other and had little friendship groups. If that wasn’t bad enough, after a couple of days of my being there some of the boys started to call me “chocolate face”. At that young age I realised they were saying this because I looked different to everyone else. They singled me out for my race because I was different to anyone they had seen before and they didn’t know what to do with that. I was mortified. And I never forgot it. I went home and realised too that my mum was different- she dressed differently to all the other mums at pick-up time. Over that year I gradually started seeing that I was different. We ate different food. My parents spoke another language. And so it began: all the ways that you see and experience racial difference.

It’s heart breaking and confusing and disappointing. You realise that inequality is all around you. And it’s not just defined by skin colour but cultural practices. Not eating a roast dinner on a Sunday. Not being allowed to go to sleepovers or the school disco or have a boyfriend.

Being different is not easy.

But then as an adult, I learnt another word to describe all this: diversity. And that’s a good word!

It’s also a buzzword that people like to band around to sound inclusive and fair minded. There are diversity awards, diversity programmes, diversity initiatives, diversity policies….

You know when you say a word over and over it loses all meaning? That.

We need to reclaim diversity so it has some meaning to us, as individuals- where it’s more than just a programme or initiative of some HR manager. Growing up, I was acutely, painfully aware that I was different to everyone else and I tried desperately to hide my racial difference- I would make up stories to sound the same as the other kids, like what we had for our Christmas dinner- as if! I know all kids just want to fit in, but I wish someone had told me it was ok to have brown skin and have parents from a different country. Because difference can be exciting and fun; and what’s more, being different is what makes us individuals rather than a herd of sheep.

And FYI, if you have a child or teenager that denies their racial heritage or identity, like I did, give them time. There will come a point when hopefully they will stop wanting to just blend in but understand a bit more about their background and their heritage. Cue you, the parent, to answer their questions and share your experiences.

So how do we reclaim diversity? Well can I suggest that ‘owning’ your racial identity is one way- rather than trying to hide it like I did. Be an individual! It’s ok to be different from the culture that surrounds you, it’s ok to even be different from other Asians.

And wear your difference with pride. Look at Pardeep Bahra Singh, founder of the fashion blog Singh Street Style– who does that quite literally. He celebrates the fact that he wears a turban through his photography. By doing so, he normalises his sense of style which is different to mainstream fashion. He makes his culture accessible to others by saying: “this is who I am and how I dress and I’m not ashamed of it.”

People of colour spend a lot of time talking about the negatives of racial difference. We focus on our negative experiences too much. It is good to share these types of stories because there’s a sense of unity that comes from that. But we must also talk about our racial differences with pride. It’s the racists and the ignorant who want us to just curl up and go away. Their vision is for a country with no multiculturalism, no diversity, they want to deny that racial difference is a reality of 21st century life. It’s up to us to reclaim it, not just to silence the bigots but to silence that inner voice that screams “you’re different, you don’t fit in, you don’t belong….”

 Share your stories of when you first realised you were Asian- and then a positive one on what you love about being Asian.

Does anyone care about caste anymore?

Burning candles in the Indian temple.

There’s a wonderful sense of family pride and community spirit that comes with being part of the British Asian community. For many of us who spend a lot of our time immersed in British life and society it’s great opportunity to pause, and touch base once again with our Asian roots.

Sadly though this year, there have been many news stories that have reminded us of the dark side of our community. For Muslims, the stories of extremism and militant Islam just continue to roll. For Hindus and Sikhs, inter-caste discrimination has once again been debated after events such as the horrific rape and hanging of two cousins in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, where the father of one of the girls said they were attacked because they were Dalits.

How can caste still be such a divisive issue amongst Asians? We all know that there have been literally hundreds of years of conflict that have stemmed from caste, but in this day and age of political correctness, tolerance, and diversity, how are we still having this debate?

Caste is mentioned in some early Hindu manuscripts, but isn’t necessarily tied to spirituality. The early models for the caste system were there to fulfil various job functions in society. Teachers, priests, warriors, merchants & businessmen, craftspeople, farmers, labourers and servants: it seems a simple enough structure designed to ensure the smooth running of society.

Many young British Asians will fervently tell you that caste doesn’t matter to them, that it is an outdated and irrelevant system.  But for many more, the reality is that caste is still important to their parents. They feel compelled to marry within their caste to honour their parents’ wishes despite that it’s not really a priority of their own. For the older generation on the other hand, caste is still about the honour of an inherited family status and name. In practice, caste is very much a matter of identity for most Hindus and Sikhs.

But with stories like the Uttar Pradesh rape case once again showing that caste simply divides people and perhaps even cause damage and heartache, we are left wondering what place caste should actually have anymore, and what its future should be.

Perhaps one answer to this is intermarriage. The intermarrying of castes is becoming more common and more acceptable amongst young Asians. Many are choosing to marry for love; either the parents learn to accept this or the young couple live with being ostracised simply because they love each other. The result is that the caste system is becoming diluted. One young Asian woman I spoke to said this about inter-caste marriage:

“In 20 years’ time you’ll have a father who is Punjabi, a mother who is Pakistani, a son who is half Jatt, half Dhakan…. our kids will become more and more multicultural and caste won’t matter anymore, in fact it will be irrelevant. Inter-caste marriage is good, because it will eventually do-away with the caste system.”

Whether or not inter-caste marriage will actually eradicate the caste system remains to be seen- but you can see the logic in it.

And if caste started out as a practical way to organise society, it clearly isn’t about that today because modern society- even in India, doesn’t run like that anymore. I mean, how many Jatts do you know today who are actually farmers?! With this aspect of the system no longer viable, perhaps caste is becoming obsolete.

With all the heartache the caste system brings are we better off dismantling it?

Why are South Asians always after the latest gadgets?

Chances are by the end of this month someone on your Facebook newsfeed will be telling you all about their new iPhone 6. Like they are suddenly the aficionado of iPhone technology. What they are doing of course is telling you that they’ve got the latest piece of tech and you haven’t. And they’re way-cooler than you because of it.

Yes Apple is expected to announce the launch of the iPhone 6 tomorrow, and it’s likely on sale by the end of the month if not sooner. Fans can expect a bigger screen, more rounded edges, sapphire scratch proof screen; amongst other features. As well as different size variations on the phone, there’s even rumours of the much talked about iWatch being announced.  I’m telling you this so that you’re prepared for when your friend goes on about it!

Why is it that we Asians rush out to buy the latest versions of gadgets? Are we tech-savvy early adopters? A more likely explanation is that we’re extremely brand conscious, and having the latest gadgets feeds our competitiveness. And what’s more, I wonder how many of us will actually use all the new features of an iPhone 6- or will we just check Facebook and the weather app?! In the end perhaps it’s really about being the first to have one.

So am I saying that we are that shallow? Is it all just a case of keeping up with the Patels? Well I’ll let you decide that for yourself.

The truth is that we live in an upgrade society. Every few months, manufacturers tell us how out of date our existing phone is, even though it’s likely to be around a year old. And it’s not just phones. TV manufacturers now bring out a new model every autumn. Who remembers growing up, when you’d have the same TV for like about ten years until the screen went green?

Technology is increasing at a break neck speed and its fair to say that it’s not just the South Asian consumer who wants to keep up with it. We’re all pretty much sucked into the manufacturer’s race to give us the most advanced phone, TV, tablet, watch….

So I wouldn’t judge you if you were one of those queuing for days outside the Apple store: if we’re really honest we’d probably all love to get our hands on the curvaceous edges of the iPhone 6.

Personally I can’t wait for it to come out so we can start talking about the iPhone 7.

What kind of Asian are you?

Did you catch Pharrell Williams recently talking to Oprah about his controversial idea of “The New Black”? He said: “The New Black dreams and realises that it’s not pigmentation: it’s a mentality and it’s either going to work for you or its going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on.”

His comments were met with a barrage of criticism in the social media, not least for dismissing every occurrence of racism ever experienced by ethnic minorities, as if you can overcome racism by simply ‘picking a side’. He also sparked a hashtag frenzy when writer and blogger Feminista Jones created the Twitter hashtag #whatkindofblackareyou? This resulted in tweets such as “I’m the ‘How tall are you? Do you play any sports?'” Black; to “the kind of Black that gets fed up with disconnected Blacks like @Pharrell not recognising that they are Black too”.

Their comments highlighted that there isn’t simply one way to be Black, new or otherwise.

In the past I’ve often felt disconnected from my Asian identity (and apparently I’m not alone in this, according to a new study). The fact is I’ve never been the “kind of Asian” that avidly listens to Bhangra, watches Bollywood films and takes pride in driving a BMW or whatever the other stereotypes are.

I grew up in a very white area. There were probably about four other Asians in my year-group in high school, none of whom were my good friends. I hung out with English girls. They were a bit of a popular clique. Guess who I was in the midst of that? Yes that’s right, the token Asian person, the tagger-along. Every now and then I’d be allowed to go to my friend’s houses after school or at birthdays, and these glimpses into their family lives made me long to be a part of an English family because their lives seemed so simple. Their parents didn’t speak with an embarrassing accent and never seemed as strict as mine. They weren’t constantly reminded that ‘they weren’t from this country.’ They weren’t at odds with the society around them, as I often felt. Growing up I shied away from being Asian in favour of the other culture that surrounded me. By the time I was in my late twenties, I resigned myself to the notion that I was probably a coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside.

Coconut; Bounty bar; white-washed; gorah-fied. Why do we as a community have such cruel labels for other Asians who don’t fit the mould? Because the truth is there is so much diversity in our community that there cannot be ‘one kind’ of Asian, in much the same way there cannot be simply one kind of black. I was the ‘kind of Asian’ that was raised without compromise to be Asian. My parents adhered strictly to the traditions, religious rules and cultures they brought over from their home-country. But outside the home my experience was totally different. My peers, teachers and role models- in short, all my influences were Western and English. As a result today, I, like so many others like me, occupy that curious space called British Asian.

We’re not fully British, but we’re also not fully Asian. There is a dual identity at play which means that you identify with both cultures, but it’s never as simple as saying “I’m from India” or “I’m English/Irish/Scottish” or whatever. Having access to these two cultures means you get the unique experience of dipping in and out of both; but sometimes this makes you feel like you don’t fully belong to either. If you are lucky enough though, you do have the advantage of taking or leaving the bits you do and don’t like.

If we’re going to have a discussion about identity, it’s important that we go beyond the stereotypes, and allow ourselves to do away with the mould. As a community we must be free to accept the diversity there is amongst us- Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Punjabi, Guajarati, Bengali, Pakistani and so on- there are so many more permutations. There are so many communities and heritages encompassed under this blanket term “British Asian” that, to talk in singular terms would simply not do it justice. And with diversity comes a richness of cultural experience- just think of the melting pot of traditions and culture that we can bring when we come together as a larger community.

Today I have done away with any damaging self-labels such as ‘coconut’. I allow myself to be ‘the kind of Asian’ that celebrates her roots, heritage and all the culture that comes with it- and I actively pass this onto my daughter. I also recognise that there is a lot of British, English, Western in me, and I enjoy all that that offers me too.

 

Where do we look for positive British Asian role models?

 

A recent study found that young British Asians felt least affinity with the term ‘Asian’ when choosing between terms such as ‘Asian’, ‘Bengali’, ‘British’, ‘Hindu’ or ‘Indian’. They felt the term ‘Asian’ had negative connotations, particularly in the media.

To me this is sad, but not surprising. How often have you cringed at yet another news report of ‘home-grown terrorists’ rising from the British Asian community; or at seeing yet another Asian playing a type-cast role in a sitcom or drama?

Post 9/11, the Asian community has had to grapple with being stereotyped and labelled as terrorists and extremists. The negative stereotyping goes further back than that of course. The cornershop owner, the curry house proprietor, the penny-pinching dad vying for position at the local mosque are all recognizable characters in 80’s and 90’s British sitcoms.

At times it has felt like there is nowhere to look for a positive or realistic portrayal of British Asians, let alone role models. Even within media and entertainment produced by Asians for Asians, I’m thinking of bhangra videos and Bollywood films, it feels like we’re being short-changed. The other day, my daughter and I were looking for a particular bhangra song on YouTube. We were bombarded with video after video of the stereotyped young Asian man all blinged-up and imitating a rapper, while the scantily clad Asian woman was desperately trying to get his attention. I felt embarrassed to be watching this with my four year old.

Are these portrayals, these stereotypes really a reflection of who the British Asian community are? Of we are as individuals?

Last year, the Asian Media and Marketing Group published its 3rd annual list of the 101 most influential British Asians. Reading it really makes you sit up and take note of just how widespread and influential South Asians are in various sectors and industries in Britain.

  •  17 people from the political sphere were honoured for their work including Sajid Javid the first British Asian to lead a government department and Keith Vaz the longest serving Asian MP and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Then there’s Baronness Warsi, the former co- chairman of the Conservative party. She was also the first Muslim to serve in a British Cabinet, and the first female Muslim to serve as a minister in the UK.
  •  Scientist and businessman Dr Yusuf Hamied features as number 9 on the list. He’s the chairman of a socially conscious pharmaceuticals company. He is most known in the West for his work in the ongoing search for a treatment for AIDS and most notably in his work in the developing world in the spread against HIV and AIDS.
  • Indian businessman Rakesh Kapoor is the CEO of Reckitt Benckiser, the multinational company which owns household brands such as Veet, Strepsils, Dettol and Clearasil.
  • From the arts & entertainment there are some well- known names including Zayn Malik, Sanjeev Bhaskar and wife Meera Syal. There’s BBC newsreaders Mishal Hussain and George Alagiah.
  • You know that big red metal sculptor in the Olympic Park, the Archelor Mittal Orbit? That was designed by Anish Kapoor, Indian born sculptor and Turner prize winner, amongst various other accolades. Amol Rajan became the first non-white editor of a national newspaper when he was appointed as the editor of The Independent last June. And of course there are the many other prominent Asians who didn’t make it onto the list but whose work should be noted and celebrated.

I could go on. It’s great to read of British Asians who are making a positive and notable contribution to business, entertainment, the media, politics, technology and other areas shaping British society today; and indeed making a difference globally.  What’s more, they are not simply trophy figures there for the sake of equal opportunities, but credible figures in their field.

Why is the media not representing this aspect of who the British Asian community are?

Well whatever the answer is to that question, positive British Asian role models do exist. They get noticed for the work, their ideas, their talents and achievements. We may not agree with their politics or their methods, but it’s encouraging seeing their prominence in British life, occupying roles outside of the stereotypes. There is still a long way to go in smashing that glass ceiling, in dealing with the discrimination, disadvantage and underrepresentation that Asians face in the workplace every day. But hopefully they will inspire us and particularly the next generation to feel proud to own the ‘Asian’ part of our identity. We are a community that have so much more to give the world than we are given credit for or perhaps even that we give ourselves credit for.

I’ve written before about role models for my daughter. Parents, never underestimate how important and what a difference positive role models can make in your child’s life (and conversely, what damage negative ones can do.) I’m glad there are those who are carving out a positive space and identity for British Asians.

 

50 shades of skin tones

We went to an Indian wedding on the weekend, a Gujurati one to be exact. I wore a simple purple lengha suit. As I didn’t know the bride and groom that  well, I felt comfortable with the idea of a low-key outfit that would enable me to blend into the throng of guests you expect to see at an Indian function. But after an hour or so of being there, it became apparent that I was wearing the ‘wrong outfit’. All the other ladies were wearing sarees, and a certain design of sari at that. I stuck out like a sore thumb and spent a lot of the day enduring sideways glances from other female guests who were obviously thinking “who’s she?” and “she’s not one of us”.

Well its ironic that in a room full of other British Asians you can be made to feel like you don’t belong, when really, where else would I belong? If I went to an English wedding wearing a lengha, I would be ooh-ed and aah-ed at for my ‘exotic outfit’ but I certainly wouldn’t fit in amongst the crowds of fascinators and Coast dresses. So its funny and sad to me that amongst my own community I can made to feel like an outsider.

This made me think about other types of discrimination within our community. The South Asian community is large and diverse, encompassing different religions, countries of origin, languages, cultures,preferred dress styles, even food. While this lends to the richness of our community, if we are not careful, it can also become tribal, as I experienced wearing the ‘wrong outfit’.

While I was mulling this over, I stumbled across another, more serious type of enemy within. In India a campaign called “Dark Is Beautiful” seeks to highlight the stigma surrounding dark skin tones. Run by an NGO called Women of Worth, it’s founder works to normalise the idea that darker skin is beautiful. She highlights instances where women of darker skin are made to feel inferior and discriminated against, like in the film and modelling industry; where they miss out on jobs and get turned down for marriage proposals- all because of the hue of their skin.

Back in 2007, there was a stir in the UK beauty industry as ‘skin-whitening’ products from India and other parts of South East Asia were filtering into our shops, particular the independent Indian food shops. Now it emerges that there are even skin whitening products for genitals and underarms. If you dig around enough, you can also get hold of ‘fairness shade cards’ to measure one’s own skin tone on, against a kind of ‘skin tone range’.It all seems ludicrous, but the skin whitening industry is big business. But even bigger is the mindset that informs that industry: that dark is ugly, inferior and unworthy. If we conform to this idea, that fair-skin is the image of Asian beauty, then surely we are no better than racists ourselves?

We need to call this what it is, a kind of racism. Inter-community racism. It’s not a new concept. Whether its based on a skin-tone discrimination or the tribal mentality of dress codes it is rife in our community. It is discriminating against others who are different to us. I don’t mean just within the British Asian community, but within the global community of South Asians that we belong to.  And I think we can only deal with the racism without by dealing first with the enemy within- our own prejudices against difference.