Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Ludicrous yet Lovely 'Machan' - Released on DVD this week

Two years after charming audiences around the world, ‘Machan’, the hilarious and heart warming film about Handball and illegal immigrants, is released on DVD in Britain this week.

Based on a bizarre true story, ‘Machan’ was directed by Uberto Pasolini, the producer of The Full Monty. The story is set in 2004, when the Sri Lankan Handball Team travelled to Germany to take part in an invitational tournament, losing their first three games in spectacular fashion before vanishing into thin air. Bavarian police found a note in the team dormitory saying the ‘players’ and ‘coaching staff’ had crossed the border into France. Sri Lankan Sports Ministry officials were left scratching their heads; Handball was unheard of in Sri Lanka. Investigations later revealed that 23 hard up slum-dwellers from Colombo had invented not only a ‘National’ Handball team but a Sri Lanka Handball Federation, all in a bid to travel to Europe, abscond, and join the thousands of illegal workers on the continent.

Filmed almost entirely on location in Sri Lanka, ‘Machan’ (the Sri Lankan equivalent of ‘mate’, ‘dude’) became a darling of the film festival circuit in 2008 before being swamped – like many other gems - by the PR juggernaut behind the relatively mediocre Slumdog Millionaire.

The ‘real’ team members have never been found and Pasolini and his crew spent months in Sri Lanka researching and interviewing dozens of slum-dwellers. The men’s outlandish scheme defies belief yet symbolizes the audacity, determination and quick wit of the most marginalized of our societies.

“Once there…everything will be new…even I will be new…”
At the centre of the story is Stanley, a fruit seller who thinks up various money-making schemes doomed to failure from the start but whose eternal optimism endears him to everyone. Stanley is behind on his bills and spends his days dodging his creditors. His streetwise, fast-talking kid brother sees petty crime as an alternative to school. Stanley spends his days dreaming of going abroad, where “Everything will be new; even I’ll be new”. After discovering an advertisement for a handball tournament, Stanley enlists the help of his best friend Manoj – a waiter who tries to stay straight but is perpetually drawn astray by Stanley – to put together a team.

The duo promptly find takers aplenty within their slum; economically and socially impoverished men excluded by the mainstream, looking for one final roll of the dice; the struggling family man trying to provide two square meals for his young family, another whose only goal in life is to live up to his wife’s iniquitous expectations, the young layabout who plays Gigolo to overweight European tourists while planning for the future with his naive girlfriend; the bent cop who wants in but doesn’t want to pay, the labourer with a tragic past, and the list goes on.

The men pay little attention to practising Handball and instead spend their time coming up with hilarious methods to raise the money required for the trip. Each member had to raise more than £4000 for everything from visas to uniforms and they proceed to beg, borrow and steal. Each also had to battle the debilitating fear of failure associated with applying for visas in the Third World, where every applicant – from a brain surgeon to a student – is viewed as a potential illegal; the excitement of a new experience, the grief of parting with family and friends and the stark uncertainty of what to expect once in Germany.

An authentic feel…
The script – by Pasolini and Sri Lankan playwright Ruwanthie de Chickera – is outstanding; the characters well constructed and credible. Pasolini’s direction is impressive, vividly illustrating the hopelessness felt by the men and portraying the setting of their lives in all its teeming vibrancy, hopelessness and humanity. With The Full Monty, Pasolini used humour to shed light on a serious issue and it’s a method that he uses to excellent effect with Machan, without ever straying from his unrelenting commitment to authenticity. The performers, made up of stage and working Sri Lankan actors, are uniformly good, in particular the relatively unknown Dharmapriya Dias, who gives a nuanced performance as Stanley.

Most importantly however, Machan breaks from the conventional wisdom of portraying illegal immigrants as feeble, vulnerable or criminal even, and instead depicts them as determined, highly motivated and extremely resourceful.

An absolute gem.

- Vijitha Alles

‘Machan’ (£15.99, Rated 15) now available at all leading retailers.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Islam, Punk Rock and the most important cultural force of our time...

Islam and Punk Rock are such conflicting concepts; they make Marmite on Chicken look like culinary fusion made in gourmet heaven. However, whilst they may not sit well together, they do make for an intriguing proposition. So the news of a film charting the marriage of these two strange bedfellows being screened in the East End of London (of all places) got me plenty intrigued, not least at the prospect of seeing a Muslim demonstration at the venue. Alas, the street facing the Rich Mix Arts Centre in Bethnal Green was instead occupied by a solitary, 7-foot-tall, stick thin, cross dresser, who appeared to be the off spring of Ru Paul and Pete Doherty, replete with lush beard and a vision in lacy black knickers, leopard print poncho and heels.

‘The Taqwacores: the Birth of Punk Islam’, a pulsating documentary by Pakistani Canadian director Omar Majeed, charting the… err… birth of Punk Islam, premiered at the recent East London Film Festival; known for promoting movies with controversial themes (and for men who wear skinny jeans and tea saucers in their ears). The screening may have flown well below the Asian community’s radar but the film is a little gem and relates a truly remarkable story; one which is perhaps the most significant for our troubled times.

The History
The documentary is based on a 2002 book called ‘The Taqwacores’, by Michael Muhammad Knight, a 33-year-old American of Irish Catholic descent. Knight had converted to Islam in 1993 after reading a biography of Malcolm X (and running into his abusive white supremacist father for the first time). The following year, aged just 17, he travelled to Pakistan to study the religion, often praying for up to 8 hours a day and mingling with Afghan refugees and Chechen fighters. In the late 1990’s, by now bored and jaded, he returned to the US looking for inspiration and promptly found Punk Rock. Struggling to reconcile these two incongruent loves and disillusioned with what he calls the hypocrisy of the Muslim religious establishment, Knight wrote a book titled ‘The Taqwacores’. In it, he imagined a punk rock scene in Buffalo, New York, made up of disaffected young Muslim students struggling with religion and identity crises and voicing their frustrations through Punk.

Initially, the author made photocopies of his work, distributing it among people filing out of Mosques throughout the US Northeast before it was published by a small record company in California. Remarkably, the book’s narrative of jarring, non-conformist Punk rock confronting structured and dogmatic modern Islam struck a chord. The message was taken up by dozens of young Muslims who decided to turn fiction into reality by creating a music movement, now officially called ‘Taqwacore’ (‘Taqwa’ is an Arabic word meaning piety, married to ‘Hardcore’). ‘Taqwacores: The Birth of Punk Islam’ follows Knight on his journey through the US discovering the artists who were inspired by his fiction. Shot over a period of 2 years, the film provides a riveting insight into the genesis of an entire new sub-culture.

What not to do during Ramadan
Determined to spread the message of Punk Islam, Knight and his followers take a converted school bus from Boston to Chicago, in the process getting stoned, praying, stamping on the American flag and singing “I want to fuck you during Ramadan!” The musicians include Boston’s ‘The Kominas’ (Bastards in Urdu), founded by Basim Usmani and Shahjehan Khan; sons of successful Pakistani immigrants. Also on the trip is ‘Secret Trial Five’, an all female group founded by Sena Hussein, a Vancouver-based Pakistani Lesbian who named the band after a group of Muslims currently held without charge on suspicion of plotting attacks inside Canada.

In Chicago, the group manage to wangle their way into the annual meeting of the Islamic Society of North America, where their unscheduled performances cause a riot with shocked organizers and cops trying to push them out of the convention centre while excited middle class Hijab-clad girls head bang.

In the film’s second act, the artists and Knight travel to Pakistan to explore the roots of Knights’ original metamorphosis and to introduce punk to the country’s increasingly resentful and disillusioned Muslim youth. And of course, they all get completely plastered on high-grade Hashish whilst plotting how to promote their burgeoning musical movement and avoid being turned into minced meat by a suicide bomber.

A two-fingered salute
It’s all one-and-a-bit hours of frantic fun, with darkly comic moments that are often reckless; the politically conscious young Muslims grab every opportunity to give a two-fingered salute to both the secular and religious establishments. Knight is treated with almost religious zeal by the Taqwacores, young men and women with seemingly boundless energy and an insatiable appetite for the Ganja. In turn, Knight plays the perfect foil, becoming a counsellor, guide and of course, bemused observer; in utter disbelief that an idea that took root in his imagination could give rise to an entire cultural movement. Knight’s remarkable spirituality and religious devotion helping to temper the adolescent movement’s chaos and rebellious nature. Director Majeed allows the main players to relate the story as they developed it, providing a wide ranging and hugely entertaining look at how Taqwacore evolved.

The Cultural Force
The Taqwacore scene has now transcended the book and Knight himself, although he remains an integral part in spreading its message throughout America and the rest of the world. The book is studied at several Universities in the US and has been hailed as one of the most important cultural forces in the new ‘Barack Obama world’. It has energized the Liberal Muslim movement in the States, which calls for a renewal of the sense of global community encouraged by the Qur’an, as well as a return to the pluralistic intent of the Muslim holy book. Taqwacore’s growing popularity is also down to the fact that there is no definitive ‘Taqwacore Sound’ as such. Artists are known to incorporate various styles, ranging from punk and techno to Bollywood and hip-hop (the fearless London actor, rapper and MC Riz Ahmed also makes an appearance in the film).

At its’ heart, The Taqwacore movement calls for the rejection of institutionalized religion and all that that entails, from priests and monks and imams and sheikhs to unilateral decrees and cover ups and of meaningless ritual superseding spirituality. It calls for a return to the essence that underpins all religion; a sense of brotherhood and compassion. Whilst increasingly authoritarian religious leaders call for submission, and an ever more dogmatic interpretation of Islam to contend the ‘many and varied’ ills of the modern world, the modern, cosmopolitan and religious Taqwacores demand a return to the pliant and accommodating roots of Islam.

The message may shock and offend but ultimately it is a positive force that should be embraced by all of us, irrespective of our religious beliefs.

- Vijitha Alles

Monday, 10 May 2010

Sendhil Ramamurthy: from Tennis-loving immigrant kid to international star

The achingly chic PR girls are fidgeting and whispering to each other like infatuated school girls as we wait for Sendhil Ramamurthy to arrive. The girls are usually the picture of elegance and poise but Ramamurthy’s imminent showing is pushing up the girls’ combined temperature in spite of a typically miserable London chill hanging in the air.

As Sendhil saunters in to the imaginatively named Soho Hotel in, er, Soho, I can understand why. He is quite ludicrously handsome, classically tall and dark, sharply dressed and with features so finely chiselled that his jaw line could probably slice a frozen steak. Small wonder he’s twice been named in People Magazine's annual '100 Most Beautiful' list. To top it off, he is blessed with that buoyant and typically American graciousness that cynical Londoners find terribly annoying, but which certainly enhances his appeal. The former star of the monster hit US TV series ‘Heroes’ was in London earlier this month to promote “It’s a Wonderful Afterlife”, his first major film project in several years.

The movie is the latest by Panjabi force of nature Gurindher Chadha. Sendhil plays a police officer drafted in to investigate a series of murders in West London, involving poisoned Indian curries and a mother’s quest to get her plump daughter married. The film is a typically cheery but underwhelming Chadha romp with plenty of fat jokes and, er, Zombies. Sendhil does try to make the most of a mediocre script, but the role barely scratches the surface of his undoubted well of dramatic ability. “...Afterlife” may not have won over many critics but fans are queuing up at cinemas and the film continues the evolution of Sendhil Ramamurthy from Tennis-loving son of brainy Indian immigrants to cross cultural, global superstar.

From Pre-Med to West End
Ramamurthy was born in Chicago in 1974 to characteristically overachieving, upper middle-class South Asian parents originally from Tamil Nadu; his father is an anaesthesiologist and his mother a neonatologist. Perhaps tired of the icy weather that often grips the Windy City, the Ramamurthy clan (Sendhil has a younger sister who is a doctor) moved to balmy San Antonio, Texas when Sendhil was 20 months old.

Growing up, Sendhil was a gifted Tennis player, participating in local and regional tournaments before being gently nudged by his parents to concentrate on his studies. The love for Tennis is still evident but the disappointment of not continuing and turning professional has been offset by his tremendous success in showbiz. “I still travel lock, stock and barrel to Tennis tournaments around the world and play whenever I can, especially in charity tournaments”, says Sendhil with a hint of nostalgia. Having relegated Tennis in his life’s priorities, he followed in his parent’s footsteps, studying pre-medicine at Boston’s Tufts University.

Much like all great thespian stories, Sendhil’s entry into the business of performing came about by chance. During his final year in University, when American students are frantically trying to complete their graduation credit requirements by taking up easy-to-finish subjects like The Fundamentals of Golf or The Philosophy of Star Trek, Sendhil Ramamurthy took up an acting course. Part of ‘Intro to Acting’ involved performing in a stage play, titled ‘Our Country’s Good.’ He recalls wistfully, “I was immediately smitten. The liberation you feel on stage is amazing and I knew straight away that acting was what I wanted to do for a living.”

His parents were unsurprisingly taken aback but decided to support him, even sponsoring a trip to London to study drama and work on the West End stage. “They were less than thrilled at first”, says Sendhil. “I was pre-med, so I was going to go into the family business more or less. But I came to my senses, luckily, and backed out, and decided to go to drama school. Now they're happy that I'm playing a doctor on TV at least. It’s funny, because they don't quite understand what the hell Heroes is all about. After each show I have to explain to them what exactly happened”.

Smart Choices
Travelling to London was the first of two key decisions that laid the foundation for his eventual, global success as an actor. Whilst in the city, Sendhil took up roles in ‘A Servant of Two Masters’ and the acclaimed ‘Indian Ink’, and did a stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company whilst studying. The second decision was to not take on stereo-typical roles created specifically for actors of South Asian origin; clich├ęs like doctors and accountants with exaggerated accents, stingy grocery store owners or terrorists. “I’m just not into it”, he says. “I made a decision very early on in my career to turn down auditions for roles like that. I don’t fault other actors for doing that. Sometimes you just need to work. But for me personally, I would rather just go and do something else.”

Following his stint in London, Ramamurthy took on bit parts in movies, but more significantly joined the army of working actors on US Television; a part of Hollywood which has recently matched the movie industry in terms of revenue, global popularity and artistic excellence with such mega hits as ‘The Sopranos’, ‘24’, ‘C.S.I.’, ‘Lost’ and of course ‘Heroes’. Sendhil himself picked up roles in a number of acclaimed series, including Grey’s Anatomy, Casualty and Guiding Light, before landing his life changing gig as geneticist Mohinder Suresh in ‘Heroes’.

Ironically, ‘Heroes’ creator Tim Kring wrote the part for a 55-year-old actor. The 32-year-old Sendhil however, sent in a hastily prepared audition tape and was shocked to even be called in for a test. “I was saying, ‘Are you guys sure?’”, he recalls. “I almost talked myself out of the biggest job of my life!” Tim Kring says, “The character I wrote was in his late 50’s. We saw several auditions but the casting director kept coming back asking that we need to take a look at this one actor in particular. She said, ‘Trust me, you want to see this guy.’ Sendhil walked in the room and opened his mouth and we all looked at one another, so I went off and rewrote the entire character.”

The show itself was an expensive gamble for NBC with its effects-heavy production values, large ensemble and the geographic spread of the storylines. However, “Heroes” has become a global phenomenon, a commercial and critical success with weekly audience figures averaging 16 million. Sendhil recalls an incident in Singapore; “After the first season, the cast went to a fan event where they told us it would be like 500 to 800 people and we got there and there were just under 8000. That was freaky. It was scary but cool. These people screaming for you, you're kind of hoping they don't kill you too. When we came to Europe, we had an even bigger response. It's great to see that the show hasn't become just this genre, sci-fi show. It really has become this global thing.”

The cast have become international stars, not least Sendhil Ramamurthy. His good looks and distinguished accent (his character is from Madras but supposedly had a lot of elocution) has earned him an army of female fans around the world. His intense performance as the troubled son investigating his father’s mysterious death has won him plaudits from critics as well. In many ways, Sendhil’s character is the very soul of ‘Heroes’, a sort of counsellor for the ‘Superheroes’ coming to terms with their powers.

Desktop Screen Saver
Just a decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for an actor from the parched South of the vast Indian sub-continent to enter the imaginations (and desktop screen savers) of countless American females, let alone be given acting roles that didn’t involve being a terrorist or the tourist with the funny accent. Sendhil joins real life edgy lothario Naveen Andrews (who plays Sayid in “Lost”) in forcing women around the world to fan themselves furiously.

The key difference between the two however, is that unlike Andrews, Sendhil doesn’t come across as the sort of heartthrob who will nick your wife, girlfriend or mother for that matter; but it’s an attraction that baffles Sendhil. “It is flattering but I can’t quite get my head around it”, he says, smiling sheepishly as the PR girls let out a loud sigh. Unfortunately for the girls and millions of others Sendhil’s been happily married for nearly a decade to Olga Sosnovska, an Anglo-Polish actress he met at drama school in London. The couple have two children – 4-year-old daughter Halina and son Alex, 2 who dutifully travel with dad whether he’s filming in Mumbai, promoting a show in Singapore or watching Wimbledon.

A total departure
Ramamurthy’s evolution continues this year with a new TV series titled ‘Covert Affairs’ in which he plays a volatile, womanizing CIA Agent in a total departure from his role in Heroes. Significantly, the role doesn’t have any ethnic undertones and is being executive produced by Doug Liman, the man behind ‘The Bourne Identity’; the internet is already awash with chatter about the series, months before its July premier. "I get to play a character very different from what I play in 'Heroes'. It's a childhood fantasy come true. I'll be running around shooting guns. I don't only get to play out an action fantasy I get paid for it.”

Sendhil is also spreading his wings beyond American TV, first with “It’s a Wonderful Afterlife” and, later this year, with “Shor”, a Bollywood production by Ekta Kapoor, the gifted and prolific young Indian film and TV director. The 36-year-old Ramamurthy is set to play an Indo-American who returns to India as a humanitarian but gets caught up in the Mumbai underworld. Whilst his role involves a grand total of 20 Hindi words, the film will no doubt broaden his appeal in the land of his forefathers.

In spite of the multi-million dollar salary, the sex symbol status and global popularity, Sendhil remains modest, composed and even. “I pinch myself every day. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have consistently worked and to have worked my way up to where I am today”, he says.

Sendhil’s is a story of gradual accumulation, of hard work and – most importantly – of sticking to his convictions; of having the confidence in his abilities to reject hackneyed roles as well as leaving ‘Heroes’ just as the show threatens to fall victim to Hollywood’s “bigger and noisier is better” mantra. It is perhaps a reflection of his heritage and the work ethic that is characteristic of the South Asian Diaspora community. That heritage has also helped him remain grounded and focused on building a successful body of work and in the process break down cultural barriers and stereotypes; and becoming the embodiment of South Asia’s collective confidence, and global ambitions.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

“They need to be able to differentiate between tomato and tomayto, whether they are from Mumbai or ...er ...Muramgaonwhereisthatblastedwhatsitsname!”

Speak to immigrants and the general consensus – whether they are a student who has never seen the inside of a classroom or a British passport holder who came to this country 30 years ago – is that a Conservative government would signal tighter immigration rules; that the streets would begin swarming with Border Agency staff in knife-proof jackets and belts stuffed with Victorinox multi-tools asking people for ‘documents’.

And that’s in spite of the Tories shuffling to the center of politics, and admitting to strange urges like wanting to kiss a hoodie and hug an asylum seeker. The misconception is partly due to an annoying habit, particularly among South Asians, to arrive at startling conclusions with little valid information, and partly due to history. The BBC Asian Network’s DJ Nihal (himself the son of Sri Lankan immigrants and who often makes Jeremy Paxman look like Oprah Winfrey on a particularly blubbery day) chats with David Cameron about immigration, the BNP and arranged marriages.

Nihal: A lot of tough talk on immigration David, stealing the BNP’s thunder as it were?
David Cameron: I don’t accept that for a moment. I’ve always taken the view that immigration is a subject that you have to talk about with care and sensitivity and I’ve always done that but I also think we need to have proper and robust and sensible policies which we do have but I completely reject what you put in your question.

Nihal: Well that’s the way it comes across, certainly to certain members of the Asian community that talking tough on immigration makes the Asian community nervous. Does the Asian community have any reason to be nervous about Conservative immigration policy?
David Cameron:
It has absolutely no reason to be nervous at all and actually many members of the Asian community in Britain have come up to me in this campaign and raised the issue of immigration with me, actually calling for more robust control, so I think it’s a complete myth to think that British Asians and others don’t want to see proper immigration. They want a fair system and I think that’s very important to understand.

Nihal: You say you want to promote integration into British Society and also there will be an English Language test for anyone coming here from outside the EU to get married. British Asians, many freely enter into arranged marriages David, with partners from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and often their new spouses’ English will be poor. Would you stop them from coming over?
David Cameron:
Well I think there should be an English language test and also along with the government, we’ve argued for the raising of the age limit which has happened in recent years. And of course different communities will want to continue with the arrangements that they’ve had in the past but I do think that it’s important that in our country young women, young men feel they have a choice, whether they want to get married to someone in their own country, in our own community or whether they want to have an arranged marriage. I just think it’s important that people do have a choice and having met some of the people who have been victims of forced marriages, I do know that this an important issue that we need to get right.

Nihal: Nobody is trying to say that forced marriages are a great idea but arranged marriages cannot be demonised either and there are a lot of people that enter into arranged marriages with people who are from villages for instance may it be in Pakistan or India, whose English may not be up to the standard that you require, so you’ll be stopping them from marrying who they wish to marry?
David Cameron:
No, not at all, what I will be doing is making sure that if they are going to enter into that marriage that they have to have a basic level of English, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I am not in anyway, just to go back to your question, demonising what communities choose to do in terms of arranged marriages but as I said, I think it’s important to make sure that young people have a choice.

Nihal: One of the things that came out of an election programme I did with some young Asians was that they were thoroughly hacked off with the rise of groups such as the BNP and the EDL. What would you do to stop the spread of far right groups?
David Cameron:
The BNP as I’ve said, are a completely unacceptable dreadful bunch of thugs and I was very proud of a great British Asian, Sayeeda Warsi on, who I thought did so well on Question Time to uncover Nick Griffin. I think the truth is that you don’t beat the BNP by running towards them and shouting loudly about immigration and I haven’t done that. In four and a half years as leader of the Conservative Party, I have put in a sensible policy and I have always talked about it in a reasonable and sensible way. You beat the BNP by getting on the doorstop and talking to local people about the issues that concern them. The BNP fill a vacuum where the traditional politicians haven’t actually worked hard enough so we’ve got to get in there, talk to people about the problems of housing and tax and education and unemployment, yes addressing the issue of immigration but always doing it with care. Do that and we can stop the BNP.

Nihal: David, having done many phone-ins about radicalisation, there are those that believe the only way to stop radicalisation is to change UK foreign policy. Foreign policy, the perception of alienating young Muslims, British troops in Afghanistan, a perception that the UK Government favours Israel over Palestine. What do you think about that opinion?
David Cameron:
I don’t really accept it. British foreign policy should be right for Britain, should be right for all of Britain but I don’t really accept the view that for instance, what we are doing in Afghanistan, which is actually at the invitation of an elected Muslim Islamic government - that that is an excuse for radicalisation. It isn’t and I think we have to be very clear about this and we do have to fight those that are poisoning the minds of young Muslims in Britain because that’s just not the case. Also, you can agree or disagree with what we’re doing in Afghanistan but that should not lead to a process of radicalisation, where people take up extreme views and then go ahead and do extreme things. I think we’ll get into a moral mess if we start thinking that’s somehow acceptable, it isn’t.

Nihal: David, a lot of British Asians, as you well know, are self employed and they run their own businesses. What will the Conservative Party do to make their life easier considering they are going through a pretty tough time at the moment?
David Cameron:
Well they are and they’re the backbone of a lot of our economy. The first thing we will do is we’re going to cut out wasteful spending in government so we stop the national insurance rise which will hit so many family owned and small businesses across our country. If you put up national insurance contributions you’re putting up the cost of employing people and also the government plan to take more money out of people earning just 21,000, 22,000 pounds and we think that’s wrong so we’re going to stop that. For the future, we want a lower rate of corporation tax for small businesses, we’ve set out how to pay for that and we want people to set up new businesses and they won’t have to pay national insurance on the first ten employees. So we want to so a lot for the small business community that’s where the jobs are going to come from. With this opportunity on the Asian Network, what I’d say is there are many British Asians who have Conservative values about families, about enterprise but who have been held back from voting Conservative in the past because they’ve been concerned about ‘is the Conservative party really for me’. I think what we are demonstrating with the candidates we have and with great people like Sayeeda Warsi, candidates like Paul Uppal, many others and Nadhim Zahawi who is going to be a great candidate in Stratford on Avon, you can now vote for the Conservative Party, it is a multiracial party, it’s there for everyone and if you share our values about enterprise and family then come with us.

Nihal: David, you also say that a Conservative government will give every child the education that is currently available only to the well off, safe class rooms, talented and specialist teachers etc. How exactly are you going to make sure that a child from a poor working class background is going to get the same kind of education and privileges that you had. How much is it going to cost?
David Cameron:
I believe in opening up state education, making sure we have more of the great academy schools and other schools coming into the state sector to provide really good opportunities. I was at the London city academy yesterday, a great example of this sort of programme and I believe the fact that opportunity is so unequal in our country and it is a real problem. Now of course this costs money but also some things in education like good discipline, like teaching the basics, like having competitive sports in schools. It’s not all about money, it is as I said, partly about money but also discipline and values, things that I think British Asians know are necessary in our schools and I meet a lot of British Asians who are depressed that these things aren’t available in our schools when they should be.

Nihal: Another thing – following on from schools to universities. We have a lot of graduate who are very very fearful of their future now and one who wondered whether it was even worth going to university and then getting into £20,000 of debt. What would you say to a new generation of students who are going to university and who are very fearful at the end of it, all they’ll be saddled with is debt and no job?
David Cameron:
I would say, if you think university is right for you, it’s going to give you good qualifications go for it because we want to have well trained, well-educated graduates in our country to compete with the rest of the world. I’ll be frank though, we can’t afford to get rid of the tuition frees and the parties that say they can and the liberal democrat say they ‘re going to, but you look at the small print – they’re not going to get rid of them for 6 years. That’s beyond the next parliament. So I’m being straight with people and saying universities are good, we want people to go we can’t get rid of the tuition fees. Choose your course carefully, make sure you do the research that you’re getting a good course at a good university but it’s a really important thing we do as a country.

Four Lions – Britain’s most provocative comedian takes on home-grown suicide bombers. Oh dear.

Christopher Morris is, quite possibly, Britain’s most provocative comedian, finding humour in the most unpleasant of topics (conversely, provoking more open debate about such topics through comedy), much to the great exasperation of the mainstream. Issues such as drug abuse, paedophilia, keen Catholic priests, Aids. Morris is after all, the satirist who introduced Britain to the difference between ‘Good’ AIDS (for example, acquired through transfusions of contaminated blood) and ‘Bad’ Aids (acquired through unprotected sex or drug abuse). And he is a master at evoking the prejudice behind that extra bit of sympathy we feel for the ‘Good’ Aids victim over the ‘Bad’ Aids victim.

And now, a mere 5 years after the London bombings of 7/7, he’s turned his attention to a toxic issue that has been bombarded into our collective consciousness for the past decade – Islamic extremism, of the home-grown variety. Morris must be blessed with especially sturdy genitalia to take up such a tasteless subject for his film debut but that’s precisely what he’s done with Four Lions.

The film follows a terror cell based in a particularly dreary part of Yorkshire as they bungle their way through a plot to bomb the London Marathon and destroy the “Kaffa Bastards”. Ironically, the terror cell in Four Lions actually consists of five would-be Jihadis. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the intense and focused leader who spends his time flitting between frustration and bemusement, spitting abuse at his cohorts whose general incompetence constantly threatens to derail the plan for martyrdom. Waj (Kayvan Novak) is Omar’s dim-witted, easily-led sidekick, and muscleman of the group. Fessel (Adeel Akhtar) is the clueless ‘materiel expert’ who stockpiles vast quantities of bleach from the same shop disguised as a woman by covering up his lush beard with just his hands. Hassan (Arsher Ali) is a fusion rapper and the innocent new recruit. Barry (Nigel Lindsay) is the most unlikely of the five, a ferocious Caucasian Muslim convert with a nasty streak and little sense; seemingly ready to take out the “Jaffa Cake eating Jew Lovers” armed only with the vicious bile that he spews. Barry initially proposes bombing a mosque to spur a Muslim uprising against the indigenous populace but that plan is soon shelved.

As a buddy comedy Four Lions is a near perfect blend of The Full Monty, Ocean’s Eleven and The Three Stooges; with a fantastically temperamental cast of characters and the resultant bickering, slapstick humour, tetchiness and camaraderie in generous proportions. The director touches on the politics of terrorism and, significantly, the difficulties faced by the characters in reconciling their adopted culture and its sensibilities with their own cultural values and religious righteousness.

However, the strength of the movie is in the fact that Morris doesn’t dwell too long on the politics of fundamentalism and identity crises; nor does he attempt to paint a vivid background or bother too much with substance. (He’s far more concerned with writing-in the most colourful Urdu abuses: “I’ll fuck your aunty standing up!” is one of the best ones. Or maybe the sub-title guys just cocked that up).

Instead Four Lions pokes fun firstly at society’s imperfections, paranoia, cynicism and prejudices; Omar’s brother is a far more orthodox Muslim who fits the ‘fundamentalist’ stereotype perpetuated by the mainstream media but has a far more conciliatory approach to life.

Morris then chips away at the collective idiocy of everyone involved and to great comic effect too; from the government and its’ war on terror, the intelligence community, the sensationalist segments of the media to Jihadis and everything being about “God’s Will”; from the naivety and clumsiness of the bombers to the staggering incompetence of the police. In amongst it all he manages to throw in some extremely touching moments as well without the narrative ever becoming syrupy.

Four Lions is a brilliantly funny and touching debut from a fearless director who has successfully accomplished the tough task of taking a sensitive subject and dressing it up in a really funny costume (or costumes in this case). The politics is relevant but never overshadows the humour. As the director himself puts it, laughing, especially at ourselves, is always a better alternative to killing.
- Vijitha Alles

Four Lions is released in the UK 7th May.
Image courtesy of Optimum Releasing.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Election 2010: Immigrant Stories II

It’s been amusing watching the issue of immigration being played out between the Prime Ministerial candidates as well as mainstream media outlets in the run up to the elections. Clegg keeps banging on about how more than a million illegal immigrants are being held hostage by “criminal gangs” and the importance of bringing those people out of the “black economy”. The guys at my local car wash seemed to be in total control of their destiny the last time I asked. Brown and Cameron are constantly on about immigration caps, allowing entry only for skilled workers, exit controls, strains on public services, jobs robbed…

As I sit at a coffee shop writing this, looking at the Latvian immigrant who’s warming up my steak and cheese panini (she’s studying English when not preparing lattes), I wonder how refreshing it would be for one of the candidates to raise the question as to what would happen to British society if all these immigrants were pushed into the Channel? And to raise the possibility of sending the BNP to Alicante, parts of which have become entirely devoid of Spaniards.

The contenders talk of big societies, spending cuts, sending the House of Lords into exile in Hyderabad and of course immigration. Most immigrants I have spoken to however, are not fully attuned to the fact that they have become a contentious “issue” in this increasingly fractious election. They are voters nonetheless who are more inclined to base their vote on personal circumstances rather than the policies promoted by the candidates and their parties. Their voting intentions are as much a reflection of the state of Great Britain as it is of their personal prejudices.

The Socialist-Accountant
“She was bigoted! I don’t know why they are laying into the Prime Minister so much. He comes across as a man of integrity”, says Usha, a 37-year-old accountant. I’m watching Sky News with Usha and her family (husband Sanjay and 3-year-old Karan) at home in North London. The bulletin’s dominated by the news about the Prime Minister’s unguarded comments about Gillian Duffy. “She is clearly bigoted to say something like ‘Where are all these Eastern Europeans flocking from’, adds Usha; “Where does she think immigrants come from? Does she think they’re a band of inbred sheep from a communist collective or something?” Usha may be an accountant but that’s only because her father was an accountant in Nagpur. If she had not stuck to convention, she’d probably be a left-wing, tree hugging Guardian columnist.

Usha has lived in the UK for 8 years. She came to the country as a Highly Skilled Migrant and enjoys a more than comfortable life. The recession has dragged the value of a property she owns into the negative but she’s philosophical – “It’s a long term investment so it will have ups and downs.” She’s a pragmatic person with a social consciousness, and believes Gordon Brown’s a good man who has tried really hard while the other two just look good and dither a lot. Brown’s hypocrisy may have cost him a pensioner but he has certainly gained an accountant.

£15,465.37 for a life in the UK
Stories abound about desperate, impoverished people who pay thousands of pounds to people smugglers to bring them to the United Kingdom; 35-year-old Sanjeeve spent more than £15,000 for a life in the UK but he has never met a people trafficker. Sanjeeve is from Goa and used to work in the hotel industry. He came to London in 2000 on a student visa but never saw the inside of a classroom. His first job was as a cleaner at a McDonald’s restaurant in Harrow. He then secured a job as a shop assistant at a high end clothing shop owned by a Middle Eastern man in Central London, working variously as a leaflet distributor, stacker, sales assistant and cashier. After impressing his boss with his work ethic, he managed to convince him to apply for a work permit for Sanjeeve (in the days before the points system was brought in).

The boss agreed to cover the £1200 cost of the work permit and to create a new position – “Merchandising Manager” – for Sanjeeve’s benefit (the shop specializes in buying designer wear cheaply in places like Dubai, Hong Kong and Istanbul and selling them at sky high prices in London – it never had a merchandising manager nor will it ever require one).

Sanjeeve employed the services of a South Indian lawyer who agreed to create fake certificates, including a Bachelor’s Degree certificate (Sanjeeve’s education ended in High School) as well as reference letters and other documentation for a price of £3000. The first application for a permit was rejected; so were the second, third and fourth appeals. The Work Permit was finally approved on the 5th attempt; “I think the Entry Clearance Officer just got fed up!” says Sanjeeve.

Each time the application was rejected, the solicitor came back to Sanjeeve saying new documents had to be prepared. Each appeal cost up to £1500 and with assorted other costs Sanjeeve’s total tab came £15465.37. His wife and daughter are now in England but Sanjeeve is still in debt to the tune of about £8000 to his boss who deducts £300 a month from Sanjeeve’s net monthly salary of £1250. The “Merchandising Manager” also works as a delivery man at nights and weekends to support his family. He’s voting Labour on March 06th because he feels he owes a debt of gratitude to a lax system that nonetheless allowed him and his family a “second chance” in life.

Another reverse xenophobe…
Thuran is in stark contrast to Sanjeeve. Thuran is originally from Madras and worked as a security guard at a factory in the sprawling South Indian city until he was 23. In 1994, unhappy with his lot, with no qualifications or experience, Thuran happened on the idea of smuggling himself to England and seeking asylum here on the pretext of being a Sri Lankan Tamil escaping state persecution. He embarked on his journey that same year, first travelling to Thailand by boat, taking an overland trip to China and into Russia. From Russia to Poland and then on to Germany and down to Italy and on to Turkey from whence he was shipped to France and then on to England, on a journey that took just over two years. On the way he nearly froze to death, was bitten by German Shepherds, was stuck in the ceiling of a toilet on a Russian train for two days, was arrested several times, forced to camp out in hot, cold and mild weather. The journey cost him £5000.

Once he got to Britain, the process was relatively simple in the days when Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka were welcomed with open arms. Thuran is now a British passport holder and co-owns an off license shop in East London.

In spite of spending his entire time in the UK under the Labour government he will vote Tory on 06th May because he thinks Labour’s been “too soft” on immigration. He despises those new Tamils who continue to arrive in the UK. He believes that they are fabricating “atrocities” to gain asylum in the UK, conveniently forgetting his own fabrication of 14 years ago. Perverse, but he’s only wearing blue these days.

The enraged journalist…
Ashley is a 31-year-old journalist from India, married to an English lady and living in Slough. He’s not particularly keen on David Cameron. “People say Brown tries a little too hard but Cameron takes it to a whole new level!” says Ashley. “He was at a school the other day and he was so patronizing towards the kids.” Ashley however, is going to vote Conservative because he thinks the Tories in power will spell an end to the rampant political correctness in Britain. Ashley’s lived in the UK for 3 years. He was appalled when Muslim protestors demonstrated during a repatriation ceremony in Wootton Bassett last year, waving placards stating, “Baby Killers of Afghanistan”. “The soldiers were doing what the politicians asked them to do. So going there to protest at a time of grieving was unfeeling and just plain stupid. Even more appalling is that the authorities allowed it to happen. The political correctness is ridiculous and the Labour government just perpetuates it. We are guests in this country and we should show some regard” adds Ashley. Slough may have a massive Labour majority but David Cameron’s party is assured of at least one immigrant vote.

The Coopers of Palmers Green, North London
The Khambaita’s have lived in this leafy part of London for more than 35 years. Unlike The Coopers (Kapoors) of Goodness Gracious Me, they have rejected the temptation to anglicize their surname. When I first moved into the house across the street from the Khambaitas, I remember them staring intently. Initially they refused to acknowledge a ‘Good Morning!’ or even a friendly smile. However, an incident involving my car, its open sunroof and a disoriented OAP (don’t ask) has brought us together in the last 12 months or so. They are Punjabis but cannot stand the overcrowding in Southall, calling it a ghetto and swearing off it. The Khambaitas fled Uganda in the 1970’s thanks to the friendly Mr Amin but cannot stand immigrants and garlic naans and instead stuff themselves silly with scones and clotted cream. In the past few weeks they have literally, bathed their house in blue and white stickers, promoting the local Tory candidate.

Ask them anything about what the Conservatives stand for and they swiftly reach for more clotted cream. In their eyes, voting Conservatives is what “proper English” people do and that is precisely what they’ll do.

Nick who?

- Vijitha Alles

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Election 2010: Immigrant Stories

Evening Standard columnist Jackie Annesley wrote an interesting little piece last week…
“DISHWASHERS – how come they always break down in the holidays? A call to Miele and a few days later Santosh from the Punjab via east London arrives on our doorstep. Here is a man who was top of his class at school, who got so many immigrant points as a genius mechanical engineer that both the US and England offered him residency. He used to invent robotic toys for a British company until the Chinese swiped the work. Now he’s done changing filters that I could have done myself if only I had bothered to read the manual. As Frank Fields (Labour MP) bangs on again about cutting immigration, we should be thankful that Santosh and his brainy children are contributing to London life. Our failing is that we aren’t putting his intelligence – and those like him – to better use.”
…brought to mind a guy I recently met at a nightclub. ‘Praveen’ is from Calcutta and is a nightclub photographer selling key rings with little picture holders for £3 a pop. He is paid £5.50 an hour. Praveen has been in London for 8 months and has an MSc in Bio-Medical Sciences. “Disillusioned” with India, he came to London on the Highly Skilled Migrant Program. He’s applied everywhere to no avail but is philosophical about his circumstances; “My pride’s obviously suffered a bit but overall, things are okay. I do two jobs (the other is as a shelver at ASDA) and life’s comfortable.”

And contrary to what David Cameron says, Praveen is convinced Britain is not quite broken. “Whatever the difficulties, England is a fair and very compassionate country; I can’t stand the corruption and hypocrisy in India. So I’m happy to be a nightclub photographer than a researcher in India”, says Praveen, adding, “Gordon Brown is a good man and overall, Labour has made this a pretty fair country. He has handled the recession also very well; a lot of people have praised him for it but people in this country don’t recognize that. I’m definitely voting for Brown.”

Praveen’s unusual in that he can actually explain what Quantitative Easing is; the vast majority of us (this author included) have little time or inclination to understand such things, let alone vote; a fact that’s reflected in a new BBC Asian Network poll which showed that only 44% of Asians will cast their ballot on May 6.

Going by the opinions expressed by immigrants who ARE going to vote, it seems their choice of candidate is more likely to depend on how much of an impact that particular candidate has had on the immigrant’s life, than any broad policies promoted by the parties.
Some recent examples…

The Indian Work Permit Holder
An Indian friend – a work permit holder – who has been in Britain for the last 5 years, recently managed to get his first mortgage after 3 years of carefully building up his credit rating and saving up for the deposit. He got himself on the voter roll 3 years ago but only so that he could get himself a credit card. A few weeks ago he was still short of around £4000 for the deposit but went ahead with finalizing the paperwork, hoping to scrape the funds together; just then, Mr Darling of the peculiar eyebrows fame, announced that he was going to give my friend £2500 by scrapping stamp duty on houses valued up to £250,000. He has never voted in his life – in India or Britain – and he has little understanding of what any of the parties stand for. That one move by Alastair Darling however has won him another vote.

The ‘Systems Integrator...
Malintha is 42 and used to be an advertising executive in his native Sri Lanka. His wife is a bank manager, his son is at a good school; they have their own house in Colombo. Things were good. But a friend mentioned that things could improve significantly if he went to London; go there on a student visa, get the wife on a dependent visa and things would just be hunky dory. Malintha applied to an obscure college in North London in 2007 and came to Great Britain on the pretext of studying Systems Integration or something like that. He was hoping to secure a job in Sales or Marketing. In the entire time he’s lived in London, he has not so much as attempted to find out what Systems Integration means, let alone study it. In any case the college that he paid £600 to was shut down in early 2009.

He works 65 hours a week at a supermarket and two off license shops (legally he can only work 20). Whatever time he has to himself he spends fretting, wondering what he’ll do if he’s found out. He hasn’t seen his son or wife in 3 years; he’s overworked, underpaid, stressed out but admitting defeat and returning to Sri Lanka will be a huge blow to his pride and his family’s ‘standing’. He’s convinced that Labour will be defeated by the ‘Right-Wing’ conservatives and the streets of Britain will be swarming with Border Agency officials in knife-proof jackets and belts stuffed with Victorinox multi-tools asking people for ‘documents’. So he’s launched his own campaign, to promote the Labour party; pleading with everyone he meets to vote for Brown.

The ‘Reverse-Xenopobe’
Desmond is a Burgher from Sri Lanka. He came to London in 1958, in the days when people had to travel for weeks on creaking steam ships. His first memory of England was of a cheery immigration officer asking him if he would like to settle in Britain, to which Desmond replied, “I’ll have a look see and think about it”. That response today would result in a swift flight back home. Desmond subscribes to the Tory line that ‘Britain is Broken’ and is convinced this is due in large part to unchecked immigration during the last 13 years. He proudly calls himself a ‘reverse xenophone’ (whatever that is) and abhors South Asian migrants, including his fellow Sri Lankans. “They keep jumping the queue at the bank and the post office”, says Desmond. “They spit on the street, they can’t put together a proper English sentence and they’ve just given this country a bad name”. He constantly alludes to the ‘good old days’ and condemns new immigrants for paying little or no attention to learning English, English sensibilities, not assimilating in general and getting up to mischief. Desmond is certain his vote, along with those of ‘disillusioned Britain’ will ensure a Conservative victory and all these unsavoury immigrants will be pushed into the sea.

The first-time mother
The NHS is always a major issue during elections. Labour like to point out that more money has been invested in the NHS in the past 13 years than at any time in the history of the service. The Tories, while acknowledging that fact, say the money has not been invested properly and the NHS is still a model of IN-efficiency. Sadaf thinks otherwise. She’s from Pakistan and has lived in Britain for 9 years. She recently gave birth to her first child at a hospital in North London. She is astonished at the level of care and service offered by the NHS and can’t understand all the criticism aimed at the service. It shocks her that a service that sent a midwife to her house for weeks after the birth to help her, is consistently described as being in a horrible state. She says people should visit places like Pakistan and even the United States (where she studied) and see for themselves what a blessing the NHS is. She’s definitely voting Labour and says “Everything is Relative”.

I’ve you’ve got a similar story to share, email me at ukasiaonline@gmail.com

- Vijitha Alles