Given the recent hyper visibility of Asians on screen with Channel 4 drama Britz and the Brick Lane film (both on a billboard near you), it’s easy to forget how rare sightings of Asians on British TV in the 80s were. Back you either got the stern aunties and uncles presenting Hindi language specialist programming on BBC 2 or the terrified victims of school-bully Gripper on Grange Hill
Only did the advent of Channel 4 introduce some variation with Hanif Kureishi’s exotic creations. Yet those early Asians on the box have much in common with the more obviously controversial characters of Britz and Brick Lane: critics have knocked all of them for being not representative, a criterion that seems to disproportionately apply to ethnic arts.
Cornershop’s lead singer Tjinder Singh has commented “Other bands are just there. We’ve had to justify ourselves much more than anybody else.”
His point was that minority cultural practitioners are unable to separate their ethnicity from their artistry and it’s impossible to consider their art as anything other than statements explaining how characters seem like cardboard cut-outs created only to prove a point.
Anything “Muslim” is currently subject to an even higher degree of scrutiny - witness the splash made by Ed Hussain’s cautionary tale of the author’s involvement in the murky world of Muslim extremist group Hiz B’ut Tahrir The Islamist. The author has consequently become New Labour’s favourite Islamic advisor; popping up on Newsnight and the Labour conference (he is a now a party member).
At a recent book-reading by Safraz Manzoor of Greetings From Bury Park, his portrayal of a Luton-Pakistani childhood, he described “the Muslim thing” as “an open goal”, continuing: “If I’ve got something to say about Muslims I know people will allow me the space to do so.” He agonised “I don’t want people to only accuse me of talking about Islam. I’m not actually that interested in religion. I like other things as well”.
I have noticed the same thing as an Asian academic: over the years I have been invited to various locations in Europe to explicate the British Asian phenomenon. Other Asian academics I know have served on government advisory bodies. As one put it “I’d rather be a token than unemployed”.
Brick Lane, the novel, was criticised because its author Monica Ali has only one side of Bangladeshi parentage. The obvious retort to demonstrations against the film claiming “Monica Ali’s book is lies” is to agree – it’s fiction
There is little that protesters could get angry about if they actually sat down and watched the final sanitised version. The royal charity premiere was pulled to avoid upsetting sensibilities, paralleling descriptions in The Islamist of student Islamic societies in the 1990s running rings around politically correct college authorities.
Yet I hated East Is East (another autobiography) for being a missed opportunity to educate and inform and presenting instead a clumsy succession of stereotypes portraying Muslim families as backward. Serious matters like domestic violence were laughed off with the tag “hilarious culture-clash comedy”.
Britz writer Peter Kosminsky conversely employed an on-set Muslim advisor and recruited extras from Bradford to legitimate his recent drama on Muslims in the post 9/11 world.
Perhaps one day there will be enough Asian arts that all this will cease to be an issue. There will not be pressure on every Asian play/film/book/TV programme to accurately represent “us” in verifiable terms. One East is East may not matter so much. In the meantime however whilst Asians remain under-represented it looks like the burden of representation will remain for some time to come.