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Paul Chowdhry: “Mental health problems aren’t really discussed in the Asian community.”

The stand-up on stereotypes, grief and taking the piss out of ignorance.

Paul Chowdhry, born Tajpaul Singh Chowdhry in 1974, says the decision to anglicise his first name shouldn’t be overhyped. “When I got to school at five years old,” he explains, “my dad told them my name was Tajpaul. The teacher asked if they could call me Paul – obviously that extra syllable was a bit too difficult for them – and it just sort of stuck.”

“In any case, it’s not like I’m [R&B singer] Jay Sean, is it? His name is Kamaljit Sing Jhooti, but the geezer is calling himself Jay Sean. If I wanted to distance myself from being Asian, I’d have dropped Chowdhry… which is probably one of the most dangerous last names I could have had in Britain.”

With brown skin, matted black hair, a sharp jaw-line covered by yet more matted black hair, and a flat in London's Willesden, it seems fair to say that distancing himself from being Asian has never been one of Chowdhry’s priorities. But while he is proud of his place at the top table of British-Asian popular culture, and his act features plenty of niche jokes with a peppering of Punjabi expletives, Chowdhry still feels uneasy about being billed as an Asian comedian.

“I don’t like to be labelled like that,” he says. “It seems unfair to use a banner term as if I represent all Asian comedians. Why do you need to say ‘Asian comic Paul Chowdhry’? You wouldn’t say ‘white comic Michael McIntyre’ even if all his stuff is about being white. Which it is.”

What could be confused for over-sensitivity, Chowdhry insists, is actually simply a personal sense of pride. “As a comedian you want to be recognised for your material, for your performance and what you do. You don’t aspire to be pigeon-holed. So when people talk about Asian comics as if we are all the same, it’s annoying. Look at Romesh [Ranganathan], he’s Sri Lankan. I’m Indian. Yeah there might be some crossover, but we do have different backgrounds. I think there can be a real broad brush stroke approach to diversity in the entertainment industry and that’s unhelpful.”  

A mainstay of Chowdhry’s routine over the years has been his “Dave” character act, which sees him affect a stereotypical Cockney accent and caricature various white, working-class tropes. The “Dave” voice, he says, is largely a response to the “bud bud ding ding and head-bobbing rubbish” that is alleged to resemble an Indian accent and mannerisms. “Honestly, I swear none of us do that.”

Does Chowdhry ever worry about alienating white members of his audience? He strokes his beard for a moment and says: “I wouldn’t like to think I’m alienating them… on some level I’d like to think of it as an opportunity to educate them. I might talk about the differences between Bengalis, Punjabis and Gujaratis, but that’s mostly because I want people to understand that we aren’t all the same. There are lots of different subcultures within the Asian community. So when I’m calling all the white guys in the audience Dave or all the white women Tracy, I’m taking the piss out of the ignorance involved. I know all white people aren’t the same, of course I do, but then I expect the same obviousness to be applied to knowing not all Asians or Indians are the same.”

While some of Chowdhry’s previous shows – What's Happening White People? and PC's World ­– drew plenty from the idiosyncrasies of many Indian families, such as parents’ failure to readily accept teenage relationships, they were delivered without much judgment. Chowdhry managed to use the status quo as a punch line in itself, but beyond the initial quirk of contrast between English and Indian cultures, little was made of the dark side attached to these gags.

Chowdhry’s more recent material, including his latest show Live Innit, is more explorative. Among other things, Live Innit covers class, Brexit, online dating and a real stickler for the Asian community – mental health. “It’s my most personal show yet.”  

The aim of Live Innit, Chowdhry explains, is not necessarily to criticise Asian culture, but rather to “add a bit more context” to some of the jokes he has made over the years. “I think sometimes people laugh at stuff within the Asian community without fully understanding some of the pressures and pain behind it.” To Chowdhry’s credit, his act has matured and become more serious without becoming too preachy. Live Innit is every bit as funny as Chowdhry has been in the past, but with an added depth that should see its future YouTube clips shared for reasons other than to make people laugh.

Depression, with which Chowdhry has experienced “an on and off battle” for many years, is something he says that Asian families tend to struggle to understand. “Mental health problems aren’t discussed in the Asian community really. We don’t even have a word for it. Across all those Indian languages, there isn’t one that actually has a word for depression or anxiety. You’re seen as a mad man, really.”

Chowdhry continues: “I suppose within the Asian community there is a natural stand-off between fact and fiction. Facts mean education, stability, a good job, you know. Fiction means fantasy. Because mental health is something that you can’t quantify – it’s happening in someone’s head – I think maybe Asians and Indians struggle with that abstract concept a bit.”

Anxieties specifically surrounding status, according to Chowdhry, can often form the basis for mental health problems, particularly in Asian men. “The pressure against blokes is definitely stacked. Take education, for example. Even with private tuition, I wasn’t that academic personally. That’s frowned upon. At school you’re expected to get 10 A*s even if you only did five subjects.”

Those anxieties are only compounded, Chowdhry thinks, by “constant comparisons with relatives, family friends or even people you don’t know”.  He says: “It’s not healthy. If you get told ‘Mr Kumar’s son has got 15 GCSEs’ or ‘Mr Patel’s son is a doctor’ all the time, it’s not going to do you any good. If you’re constantly comparing yourself to other people, when do you figure out what you want for yourself?”

The “trinity of judgment”, as Chowdhry terms it, is Asian uncles’ tendency to ask about “your car, your house and your marriage” at family get-togethers. “The idea that a marriage is like a qualification,” he says, “definitely undermines it. It doesn’t seem to value forming a relationship with someone and it seems to just be reduced to ticking a box.”

Grief, as well as tact, he adds, is another concept which the Asian community needs to work on. Chowdhry’s mother died when he was five, but it is only as an adult that he has been able to explore what that meant to him and his life. “I think as a kid you don’t really get it anyway. You just assume they’re going to come back. My understanding was that mum’s just gone to sleep. As I’ve got older, obviously I’ve been more inclined to have the conversations I wasn’t able to back then. But like I said, the pushback from an Asian family is in that they don’t want to get caught up in all this unquantifiable emotional stuff. Because the answers aren’t straightforward, not even a little bit. Asian families don’t want uncomfortable issues. Maybe white families wear their hearts on their sleeves a bit more. Maybe we could learn from that.”

Migrant families especially, Chowdhry suggests, perhaps felt an extra pressure to have a “strong image” when they came to Britain in the 1960s and 70s. “I think the older generations who came over here in the 60s and 70s had to look strong because they were coming to a hard country, and there had been a massive risk involved in uprooting themselves and making the journey in the first place. So they saw anything that made you look less strong – depression for example – as a liability. There was an unwillingness to say what they were really feeling, if they were scared or nervous for example, and culturally that seems to have persisted.”

What, then, does Chowdhry propose as a solution? The former Dixons employee doesn’t pretend to have a silver bullet for mental health problems or indeed attitudes towards them. But he says: “In fairness, I don’t think that the need for understanding mental health problems better is an issue specific to the Asian community, but maybe there’s some more work to be done there. I do think right now there is a readiness to over-medicate people generally. I know people who have gone to a doctor after a break-up and been given anti-depressants. I think that’s a dangerous game. I think people need to know that they have got more control – or at least the capacity to control – their own minds. And they should do that, for a start, by being able to talk more about how they’re feeling, really feeling, with their families.”

Paul Chowdhry is on tour with Live Innit until 15 June, with shows at Hammersmith Apollo on 4, 6 and 7 April.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.

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“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge