The Maxx Experience!

Culturally Diverse or Culturally Deluded?

So there I was, curled up very comfortably on my Parisian day bed with my tea and tobacco, waiting for the next instalment of ‘Bollywood Star’. For those of you who have a life, it’s yet another reality television show ‘in search’ for a wannabe to appear in a Bollywood film, only this time the Indian film industry is looking for a British face to launch as the next big thing.

To cut to the chase, six contestants have been chosen over hundreds of desperate, cringe worthy, stomach turning hopefuls. The line up is not too bad considering these people have only had the ‘Indian film experience’ in their front rooms in Birmingham scoffing Chicken Tikka Masala a la Tesco!

There’s Ricky, a longhaired Punjabi boy who’s had an audience of uncles egging him on from day dot. Rivona, is a vicious looking primary school teacher with high, verging on arrogant, ambitions of becoming a leading lady. Saydur, a waiter in an Indian restaurant, also known as ‘The Indian John Travolta’ is full of self-pity, wanting to escape his life of cleaning tables and toilets.  Then there’s Sofia, a tarty, party girl who’s suffered the restrictions of being a Muslim girl. Heidi is the white girl, a drama student seduced by the sparkle of saris and the bindis in Topshop. Last but unmissable is Rupak, the overeater with a tragic tale.

Let’s skip the airport farewells and words of encouragement from their loved ones. They have arrived in Mumbai and insecurity has kicked in. The schedule is thorny. Up at dawn, dance classes under the beating sun, acting classes by Ms. Chandra, a gruelling guru in a kaftan. There’s mandatory work experience too. This involves delivering lunches, working on a building site, selling flowers in the traffic and chaos and lap dancing to parasitical men drinking cheap beer with ogling eyes and hands. To make matters more ‘real’ the sweaty six must travel at all times by public transport. Welcome to India!

The problem is this. These desperate six are deluded to the highest order about their identity. They, like ‘the poor people in India’ are also searching for escapism via Bollywood cinema. There seems to be considerable confusion about reality and fantasy. How can these, self-professed intelligent individuals believe that this type of cinema is a representation of their culture?

Clearly and not surprisingly, there’s an enormous need for the Asian community to be represented in Britain. It alarms me that they are turning to Bollywood for this. Bollywood is the giant film making industry that churns out up to forty-five films a week. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is, a profit making engine offering up to three hours of obscene melodrama, fight sequences, that would have had Bruce Lee reeling, spectacular music and dance and of course the display of love in the most fantastic costumes and lavish settings. This, however, is not Indian culture or any resemblance to the Indian way of life. Why should it be? It’s great cinema and just that. What it offers is a three-hour ride through rainbows of colour, drama and magic. But you must get off!

It seems that the first generation of Asian migrants are stuck in a time warp. They are more ‘Indian’ than the Indians in India. As Sofia of Bollywood Star says in a wide-eyed, that sounded impressive, manner, ‘I don’t get judged in Bollywood, I get judged at home, …by my mother’. These parents have placed all the values and traditions, which they grew up with ‘back home, back then’ onto their children, dismissing the real experiences of growing up Asian in Britain. This often causes the second generation of Asians to lead a double life of deceit and frustration. At worst, it makes them desperate to convey their roots and heritage through their parents’ bible, The Bollywood Cinema.

All this brings me to the concerns of the term that is ‘Culturally Diverse’. What this term really means to me, depending on the context, is a minority group or lesser-represented communities within a multicultural Britain. So why does this term make me uneasy? As I say, depending on context. So let me try and put it in a relevant context…

Much of the arts organisations refer to this for their applications and funding process. It is designed to maintain a fair balance of how the funds are distributed. After all, it is public money and it should go to the individuals who are representing all aspects of the public sector. All very good…so far…

When it begins to bite me is when I see another form of ghetto being formed. This ghetto, as I see it, takes away much artistic credibility and seeks to define the artist as a Black/Asian person first and foremost. What it fails to realise is that artists from an ethnic background, and I am generalising – because I can! Where was I?…oh yes, these artists are much more interested in seeking critical observations and support for their practice than ticking the boxes which will be noted, often given more attention than their artistry, and be calculated for yet another pile of statistics.

These statistics, I imagine, will show evidence of fairness and justice and will bring another surge of public money to target the next batch, yes batch! Maybe they will even fund some artists! Is that what it’s about? Am I completely off my trolley when I say that? Or is it some other cult?? Are we perhaps unconsciously living in a white, guilt ridden (back handed and strangely twisted) society in Britain? Or, is it really coming from a place of genuine concern about the lack of ‘visible’ Black and Asian artists? The lack of the latter is surely the point? There are plenty of Black and Asian artists. Some are even engaged in making some interesting, cutting-edge work. So why do I keep hearing about the lack of these colourful people in the arts? The lack is in the visibility of these practitioners and that’s due to the lack promotion and exposure that is provided to culturally diverse artists. I will get back to Bollywood, I promise!

It’s all very well to ‘target’ and ‘identify’ Black and Asian artists but for once I’d like to see ‘these’ artists getting what they really want. Ongoing support, substantial funding, studio space, promotion, promotion and more promotion. Yes, it is what most artists, black, brown, white or yellow want. I suggest these artists create their own monitoring sheets and create their own boxes to tick off. My suggestions for boxes would be –

  • Substantial artists fees
  • Ongoing support including administration
  • Studio space
  • Maybe studio space for the duration of a funded project
  • Promotional support
  • Or does the funding cover the costs of all the above?…ahem!

Please feel free to add and create your own boxes, use separate sheet(s) if necessary.

Going back to Bollywood, it’s no surprise that Rupak, the fat girl, won. The poor woman won’t get the lead roles because she’s a victim of being ‘targeted’ and ‘identified’ – not to mention that nine yards of silk will not, in any way be ample for ‘that body she’s imprisoned in’, my thoughts and words of Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt. She’s a prime example of the bittersweet battle of minority versus majority and cultural acceptability. But she has been ‘given a chance’. Ring any bells? After all, she’ll be crucial in filling in the gaps between the beautiful dances, passionate romance scenes and the highly charged melodrama. The main ingredients of a Bollywood masala movie!

I on the other hand am going to pour myself another cup of chai and enjoy the fusion of its remarkable blend. God bless Crabtree and Evelyn. They’ve got it just right!


Maxx Shurley, July 2004.

Part of Thinkers In Residence: Maxx Shurley, 2004/2005

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