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Bollywood blues

Bollywood films might be taking Britain by storm, but they're still watched almost exclusively by Asians.

Tabasam Haseen

Topics Politics

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This year we’re having an Indian summer.

Bollywood is taking over Britain. The world’s largest film industry is currently being celebrated in the British Film Institute’s ImagineAsia festival and Bollywood stars are coming to the UK in June 2002 for a series of concerts. Even the High Street has embraced it, with Selfridges launching a celebration of all things Bollywood.

Hurrah! This finally proves that Britain is a diverse, multicultural country where all are welcome, say some liberals. No it doesn’t.

Beneath the hype is the reality that the success of the Indian film industry paints a picture of a Britain still heavily split along racial lines. Just ask yourself who are watching these movies? The answer is simple: British Asians.

At cinemas, you see a line of fans waiting to buy tickets for the latest Bollywood blockbuster – and they’re always all Asian. Bollywood videos and DVDs are sold to a dedicated fan base, nearly all Asian. The Bollywood concerts will be attended by tens of thousands of people – and virtually all will be Asian.

Very few white or black Britons watch Bollywood movies, so how can the success of Bollywood in the UK be a triumph of integration? If anything, it highlights that even entertainment is subject to the racial divide. Just as some housing estates are racially segregated, certain schools are racially segregated, certain areas are racially segregated, now entertainment is racially segregated. Multiculturalism does not automatically mean crosscultural integration.

Previously, this might not have seemed like a problem. After all, Bollywood films are made in India, so those who originated from the Indian subcontinent generally found them more appealing then those who did not. But at a time when Britain’s minister for Europe Peter Hain is complaining of ‘isolationism’ of certain religious groups, and when home secretary David Blunkett is complaining that Asians in particular are not integrating, anything which divides people along racial lines is bound to cause controversy. This isn’t just a matter of cinematic taste, but a matter of race.

Bollywood’s real boom time in Britain was in the 1980s. Millions of British Asians watched Bollywood films, Bollywood video rental stores outnumbered mainstream stores by three to one, and Bollywood stars would cause chaos when they arrived in the UK.

But despite the fervour, lack of PR and lack of broader interest meant that Bollywood went virtually unreported in the mainstream media. There was hardly any news coverage or features about these hugely popular movies, and all signs indicated that most non-Asian Britons had probably never even heard of this film industry. It existed in its own world, separate and cut off from the mainstream – it was seen as Asian entertainment, for Asians.

Two months ago I witnessed a rather bizarre scene that captured the ignorance that still exists about this industry. A young Asian colleague of mine was at a party where she got chatting to a famous film critic. Even though she has no background in film, she ended up educating the film expert about the world’s largest movie industry – of which the critic, who had watched countless movies and had film qualifications coming out of his ears, had no knowledge.

My colleague was amazed. How could a film ‘expert’ know nothing about a movie industry that was avidly followed by millions of people in Britain? Was Britain so racially divided that non-Asians had no idea what was occurring in the Asian community?

With the current generation of young British Asians born and raised in the UK, some Bollywood experts predicted that Bollywood films would lose their popularity. Far from it. Thousands of British Asian kids regularly watch Bollywood movies – even though many of them cannot understand Hindi, let alone speak it.

Although the three-hour plush musicals do have a unique appeal, there is a more telling reason as to why they are so popular among British-born Asian youth. As one Bollywood fan recently told me: ‘In English films, Asians are portrayed as weak and pathetic. In Bollywood movies Asians are cool, sexy and stylish.’ Another fan told me: ‘Look at East is East, where our community was portrayed as backward wife-beaters; at least in Bollywood we look good.’

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. People are waking up to the fact that the world’s largest film industry is in India, not America. But celebrating the success of Bollywood as a sign of integration would only be meaningful if people from all ethnicities were enjoying these films. In order for this to happen, the mainstream media should allow more coverage of Bollywood and not just dismiss it as ‘Asian’ entertainment.

By the same token, those in Bollywood need to promote their films in the mainstream so that non-Asians are able to decide for themselves whether they want to watch them. Whatever your opinion of Bollywood, art should be a matter of taste, not race.

Tabasam Haseen is a film reviewer who writes for Radio 1’s Movie Lounge and BBC Asian Life.

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