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Along the curry mile

<strong>Balti Britain: a Journey Through the British Asian Experience</strong>

Ziauddin Sardar


Early in his personal account of British Asians, Ziauddin Sardar takes us to the Midlands, the home of balti cuisine. With gentle humour, he disabuses us of the notion that balti is particularly traditional, or unique. Not only does it have nothing to do with Baltistan, the mountainous north-west of the Indian subcontinent, it does not have much to do with balti, a Hindi/Urdu word for bucket, either. A modified version of karahi, the Indian wok, balti is a Midlands improvisation, a British variant supposedly in tune with the palates of these isles.

Sardar's primary interest is in these kinds of adjustments, which have grown the more Asian lives have become enmeshed in Britain. Interestingly, Sardar uses "India" to describe the ancestral home of British Asians, while consistently reminding us that he comes from Pakistan. This is to evoke pre-Partition India and the commonalities of the land mass between the Durand Line and the jungle on the border with Burma.

There is no one defining British Asian experience, at either the individual or the collective level

Sardar's account draws primarily on his own life: the child of Pakistani immigrants, he endured racism at his school in Hackney before working on the pioneering Eastern Eye at Channel 4 and establishing himself as an important voice in the British discourse. Sardar goes beyond this story, however, showing the historical links between India and Britain. A committed anti-racist and anti-colonialist, he makes the angst-ridden discovery that his grandfather fought for the British and was honoured for valour in imperial wars. He notes that 20 of the 27 Victoria Crosses awarded in the Burma Campaign went to Asians.

Sardar argues that Asians have enriched British life. In support of this idea, he turns to cricket, culture, cuisine and cinema. A broader sweep including business would have made the point more forcefully: Swraj Paul, Karan Bilimoria, Kirit Pathak and Gulam Noon do not figure here; without them, Britain would have been poorer, in every sense of the term.

Such absences prove Sardar's point - that there is no one defining British Asian experience, at either the individual or the collective level. The book is a rich and vivid portrait, but primarily that of a particular British Pakistani Muslim experience. Other stories remain untold, among them the Asian/black experience of the 1970s, when the two communities came together and strengthened the anti-racist movement. We do not meet Jayaben Desai and her co-workers organising at the Grunwick photo lab in 1976. Neither do we hear of Hanif Kureishi. And there is scant reference to Salman Rushdie, even though the "Rushdie affair" was a milestone in forging British Asian identity, within and without the Muslim community. Indeed, since then, Hindus and Sikhs, too, have been intolerant of art or theatre they do not like.

An Indian meal cannot include the whole menu, and even a buffet offers only a selection of dishes from particular regions. That is why you won't find dosas at a tandoori restaurant in Southall, nor fish pakora at a Gujarati savoury stall in Wembley. We leave it to the chef to select the ingredients and make a balanced meal.

Sardar is a wise chef and offers us an engaging tale. And, fortunately, he is also conscious that there are other, unexplored restaurants along the curry mile.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.