Racial diversity in Western cinema has been particularly contentious since the Oscars scandal of 2016, when not one actor of colour was nominated for an award. But this was especially shocking falling in the midst of a marked increase in diversity, illustrated recently by two major hit films of this summer: Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light and Danny Boyle’s Yesterday. By now, critics have noted the similarities between the two films: British South Asian male protagonists, small-town lives, fanaticism around sensational twentieth-century Western musicians. However, these comparisons have obscured fundamental differences, not only in genre, but also in their approaches to South Asian identity.
As an arts enthusiast of South Asian descent, I have grappled with authentic representation – which, as consistently emphasised, does not merely mean diversity – for a while now. I cringe at South Asian comedians’ tired gaffes about their regressive families, only designed for white audiences. I also understand the desire to embrace one’s identity as part of a small racial minority in the industry. In cinema, embedding POC characters within stories where their race is coincidental to the plot can facilitate a form of colour-blindness, where race is not shown to have the inevitable bearing upon their lives which it still does for most people of colour across the West. Yesterday – a unique homage to the Beatles conjuring a world where they never existed – veers towards this danger, not once alluding to protagonist Jack Malik (Himesh Patel)’s South Asian heritage, besides respectfully acknowledging the casting of Patel through Jack’s surname. Contrastingly, representation is at the heart of Chadha’s film; her protagonist’s relationship with his (highly stereotypical) Pakistani upbringing constitutes the film’s central focus.
What makes Yesterday’s lack of focus on race largely positive is that it wasn’t written with a South Asian protagonist in mind, and has not edited any scenes to incorporate Patel’s ethnicity, a refreshing contrast with much of Western cinema and television centred on South Asians. Jack is constructed entirely as being from Lowestoft, Suffolk, embodying the trope of the struggling, small-town musician; his parents (Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar) are equally British, epitomising cultural associations of Eastern England in their enjoyment of cider and jelly. Yesterday demonstrates South Asian actors’ capability of departing from stereotypes and playing roles typically given to their white counterparts – but, bizarrely, reviews comparing it with Chadha’s film have rewritten Yesterday as centred on race, one even claiming Jack’s parents are immigrants ‘cling[ing] to’ their ‘indigenous sounds’. Clearly, despite all the progress in diversity, many disappointingly cannot accept South Asian actors outside the confines of stereotypical race-based narratives, even when these are irrelevant to their roles.
Chadha’s film, based loosely on journalist and co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, Greetings from Bury Park, is quite different. Set in Luton in 1987, it focuses on two interrelated aspects of teenager Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra)’s life: his discovery and ensuing hero-worship of Bruce Springsteen, set against his turbulent relationship with his Pakistani immigrant father. One deeply jarring aspect of the film is the characters’ passivity towards virulent racism, including violence, towards them from local National Front fascists. The film presents this violence as simply one of many frustrations of Javed’s Luton life instead of highlighting the danger it represented for South Asians across the UK in this era. Further, such racism never plays into Javed’s relationship with and eventual increased understanding of his father, or of his own identity and desires. Instead, his race – on the grounds of which the film consistently sets him apart from his white peers, and from the idealism of Springsteen’s songs – is explored almost solely through his father’s oppressive household presence and expectations of him (rendering the film highly male-dominated; female characters remain largely peripheral).
The family and their friends’ only apparent reaction to the racism is to wordlessly remove all evidence of attacks on their property before the film invariably cuts to another scene. Javed himself simply observes this process. His father vocalises this passivity by telling him that, as Pakistanis, ‘we must keep our heads down’, in stark contrast to his patriarchal dominance over his family. This approach constitutes another angle of his opposition to Javed’s big dream – escaping Luton to go to university and become a writer – on the grounds that Javed is Pakistani, not British. The film itself in fact invokes a strikingly outdated, generic view of South Asian families as uniformly backward and repressive, without examining any specificities of Pakistani culture. Further, this presentation of South Asians as helpless and submissive in the face of racism ignores the widespread, cross-generational resistance originating from these communities. The film misses an opportunity to explore the complex interplay between family dynamics, expectations of children and external experiences of racism within predominantly white communities, which many South Asians were fighting with in this period.
One viable point of comparison is the films’ portrayals of interracial romance: both Asian male characters have relationships with white women. Whilst decidedly a subplot of Chadha’s film, this plotline nevertheless provides one of the film’s most nuanced scenes depicting his girlfriend’s Tory-supporting, stiff-upper-lip parents’ evident struggle with Javed’s race. Yesterday, meanwhile, opts for an inevitable rom-com structure: as the film draws to a close, Jack finally reciprocates the long-term feelings of his best friend (Lily James). This construction of Jack as an everyday romantic hero becomes a radical refusal to characterise this relationship by cultural taboos, or perpetuate oft-seen stereotypes of South Asian men as ‘nerdy, emasculated, and safe’.
Both films are by turns witty, moving, and hopelessly cliché. But comparing them inaccurately around themes of heritage and immigration ignores the differences in their respective concerns. Such comparisons illustrate how South Asian actors and characters are often seen through certain limited lenses, no matter how far they stray from these. As such, on-screen visibility – even in leading roles – does not ultimately ensure all viewers’ capacity to perceive them beyond race-based preconceptions, an indicator of true social visibility.
Featured image: ActuaLitté (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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