What does it mean to be black and European? If the work of Hanif Kureishi and Gurinder Chadha is any indication it has something to do with an enduring legacy of colonialism and migration, radiant bisexual encounters, Bengali hip hop and Pakistani punk, foamy-mouthed racists and their more discrete cousins, adolescent swagger, male strippers at seaside resorts, drug dealings, all night launderettes, unexpected pregnancies, interracial dating, newsstands, grocery stores, champagne soaked kisses, and urban insurrection. Born in Kenya and raised in London, Chadha came to film as a journalist. Her first documentary, I’m British But… looked at the vibrant experiences of Asian youth culture in Britain. Trained as a playwright, Kureishi came to film as a screenwriter, whose first effort My Beautiful Launderette, established him as a singular voice on both sides of the Atlantic. Although they both admit their earliest works attempted the screening of “positive” images, the futility of that endeavor has been passed over most recently in Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach and the BBC adaptation of Kureishi’s first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia. Both films are a wicked remix of flippant pop attitude and dangerous dignity. Kureishi and Chadha imagine characters whose complex humanity is an implicit challenge to the stifling conventions of traditional British imagery and the rigorous debates around stereotype. They do this with a cinematic language that is as distinctly British as it is specific to their own wildly different experiences as Asian settlers in Britain. In town for previews of their work at the Asia Society, the two sat down over caffeine, orange juice, and a tape recorder. I got to play chaperone.
Lawrence Chua One of the things that struck me while watching the BBC version of The Buddha of Suburbia was how informed it was by a kind of nostalgia. There was something very different about the way you were looking at contemporary British history in the film you directed, London Kills Me.
Hanif Kureishi Well The Buddha was always closer to me. London Kills Me was a researched piece, whereas The Buddha came out of my own memories and experience, my own family. The Buddha takes place in the 1970s, so perhaps because of the distance, as you say, the nostalgic element is more gently humorous.
LC: What do you mean by gently?
HK Well, there’s a great affection for the ‘70s. The clothes, and the hair, and the music, and all the politics. Which I enjoyed.
Gurinder Chadha Hi. I cashed my check for speaking tonight already.
HK Yeah. I’ve got my money as well. (laughter)
LC Hanif, you were talking about a “gentler” comedy. Can you elaborate on that? Around the time of London Kills Me, you were talking a little bit about the differences between an American comedy and a European comedy.
HK Buddha is a comedy of character. And of expectation, I suppose. When you see a character like Changez and what he expects from Britain, what he’s heard about Britain and then see where he ends up living when he comes to Britain, in a lesbian commune. It’s a comedy of class too. Changez comes from a rather rich family and ends up with people who are really middle-class but are pretending to be proletarian. Stuff like that just makes me laugh.
LC At this stage in your career, how effective do you think the comic idiom is for articulating certain political points? That criticism was leveled against Sammie and Rosie Get Laid.
HK The world amuses me, that’s my voice as a writer. I like 19th century Russian literature. Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, particularly, find a great amusement in catastrophe. Tragedy and comedy are closely interwoven. And I wouldn’t say I am particularly interested in making political points. I’m more interested in exploring character. And I think describing our lives in Britain is important. It hasn’t been done. People are starving to do it; Gurinder’s doing it. Other people are doing it. That kind of logging of experience: what was it like to come to Britain?
LC When you say “our” lives, what do you mean?
HK Our parents and ourselves as brown people in a white country. Gurinder is looking particularly brown today.
LC It’s the lipstick. Gurinder, you made a comment in Toronto that when you started making Bhaji on the Beach you didn’t want it to become another ethnic comedy.
GC I was setting out to not make a black film. I wanted to make a British film in a Britain that reflected the world I see here and now. I was trying to, like Hanif, deal with the specific; deal with the characters and the complexities of each character. This way, you throw up all kinds of antecedents and subvert all kinds of expectations. What that means is that you reach the universality of the situation rather than the ethnic specificity of it. I’ve talked to Hanif about this. What you also do is create a oneness out of all those disparities. The thing that I liked best about Buddha was precisely that Hanif had created that sense of oneness out of a condition that most people thought was problematic. Although you could always live with it, there was always this idea that you were going to be pulled apart by these two polarities of English-ness and Asian-ness. Buddha actually deals with an Indian boy doing drugs, having sex, and all this in a particular way that is very specific to Britain.
LC What you’ve described as oneness I saw as confidence. The crises in his life were maneuvered, by Karim, with a real swagger.
GC One of the scenes I always remember is when Karim and Jamilla are frolicking around in the park. They were both fumbling about, and no one quite knows what they are doing, and they are cousins as well, so it was weird, outrageous stuff. But it was also honest. The strength of Buddha is that it pulls away from not only the images that white people expect an Asian person to construct, but also what Asian people expect, too. So it touches you, but also challenges you. That’s what I really like, anyway.
HK By the time of Buddha, I’d lost any sense of being bothered by people’s expectations. In Launderette, we were thinking, people expect Asian people to be this, and to be that, and we can play with that and turn it around. But by Buddha I just thought I’d do my work. I could release that sense of wanting to play to an audience, or to turn an audience around. It was liberating.
GC That’s a real breakthrough and it comes out of confidence and experience. When I started Bhaji I was still on that kick, and somewhere along the way, I thought, fuck this, I’m going to do what I want. So, the result was more complex, a combination of the two. I’ve included the Bollywood style Indian film fantasies that Asha has, where 99% of the audience will never get the references or the jokes. But I get them, and my sister gets them, and a few other people get them as well. Now, when I’m looking at what happens next for me, and I’m getting all these calls and scripts, I don’t care about what anyone else thinks. I’m fed up with trying to challenge this image or that image or whatever. I’m going into the heart of what I really want to do, which is a film in Africa. But you have to go through that cultural-examination process in Britain, and I think that’s very specific to being Asian in London. The events of the 1970s were a real political awakening with the rise of the National Front, which Launderette covered, and then all the Rock against Racism campaigns, and then, how all that died down in the 1980s. We had a very self-satisfied, Thatcherite existence in the 1980s which we were all part of in some way. Now we’ve come out the other side, and are expressing those “experiences” through our work. But I’m part of a generation that’s grown up with racism always around the corner—rarely directed at me, but it has affected my parents a lot, because they used to have a shop, and so they were always on the front line in that respect. That has really shaped what I do and why I do it. So, while I think it’s important that we might not be out there to challenge expectations or stereotypes in a conventional way, there’s something in us that will always do that. Hanif, your next novel is set in the Pakistani community in Britain. It doesn’t have to be. You could have gone off and done something in Florence. (laughter)
HK But, yes, it’s difficult for us to do something like that. It will be very interesting to see what happens to people like us. After all, we do have an English component, me more than you because of my mother. But if we were to make films that were about English people, it would be interesting to see what the response to that would be. It will be very interesting to see what happens to us, whether we’ll ever be considered not to be marginal.
GC It’s about money and it’s about commerce, and if you make money, then you can do anything. I’ve just turned down a BBC series. It’s white guys, basically, and they wanted me to direct three of the episodes. I had a meeting and really liked the guy, and the scripts were really good. They were wonderfully, politically alive. It’s going to be a really good series, I’m sure.
HK Why didn’t you do it?
GC It didn’t move me. There were no strong female protagonists.
HK Are you going to write your own material, or are you always going to wait for scripts?
GC No, I’m writing now.
HK Can you write?
GC Yeah, a bit. I find it hard because I think very visually, and so when I write, I can’t be bothered to do all the setting up of the scenes because I know what I’m trying to say. That’s my block, because I know the end result in my head. But it’s getting to that position, which comes through practice and experience. Hanif, you must have had other offers, to write other stuff, nothing to do with Asians or whatever. Why haven’t you done it?
HK Because I can write. I can generate my own material. I am going to do a script in May, a costume drama.
HK I’ve got so many things that I want to say. You think, well, why should I spend a year, or two years, worrying about that, when I’m really hot to write my own stories. If you can get your own stuff made, you’re in a good position. If you have a hit film, you get two more films.
GC My biggest problem is white people who see my films and can’t get beyond the race of my characters or their own notions of ethnicity. They place these fucked up notions of “identity crisis” migration as a problematic. I strive to show the universality and often the joys of my diasporic existence. But you know the other side of that: Bhaji opened in England in January and it’s still playing in the West End of London. That’s because all kinds of people—black, white, gay, straight—are keeping the figures up because they recognize the England we all know up there: even though it’s an Asian woman’s vision. That makes me really happy.
LC Weren’t there also offers at some point, to do a British television series based on Bhaji?
GC There’s been talk of that. (laughter) Which is not at all interesting and appealing.
HK They wanted to do that with Launderette, I remember, and your heart sinks.
GC You can’t do it anyway, because you’ve gone in for a moment in time, and you’ve done it, and you walk out. You can’t extend that process. It’s also quite insulting, because it’s people saying, there’s only one experience, and it’s the experience of Asian women in Bhaji, or the experience of a young guy growing up in Deptford in Launderette. If Bhaji can be faulted for anything, it’s that it’s got everything but the kitchen sink in it.
LC Do you think the conclusion is inescapable: that no matter what you produce it’s going to be written about or commodified as the essential black experience in Britain?
HK That happens less as there are more films.
GC There is so much in Bhaji, on so many different levels, because we’ve tried very hard to transcend the Indianness in it, all the way through. Though these are Indian women, they are out of their community, and no one can say, oh, this is what’s going on in the community at the time. You have to say, this is what’s going on in Britain, and that’s been a very careful construction, to take them out of that community, and put them in Blackpool. You end up with feelings and issues and dilemmas, and desires and decisions which have less to do with their Indianness, but to do with them as women.
HK There isn’t such a thing as an essential Asian experience any more than there is any other essential experience. Nobody’s life can be reduced in that way.
GC What’s interesting now are the responses from the Asian community to our work. I didn’t see Asians jumping up and down about Buddha, whereas ten years ago they did when Launderette came out.
HK They’re getting used to it now. (laughter)
GC They’re getting used to it, used to…
HK Used to being represented as gay drug dealers. (laughter)
GC Of course, I’m a good Indian girl so I’d never put sex or drugs in any of my work. But, you’ve smashed those definitions, so people can’t jump up and down and say, he’s being pejorative about the community. Well, who’s the community? Is it Gin and Tonic from Buddha? Who is it?
HK Well they exhausted themselves with The Satanic Verses as well.
GC Exactly, that’s the other thing.
HK Which was the crisis and also the end of the crisis, really.
GC I don’t think it’s died away totally. I’m sure that once a feature comes out that’s really raunchy, with two gay Asian men or Asian lesbians, that will get them all going again. With Bhaji, most of the criticism has been for one scene where a woman lights a cigarette in a Hindu temple. That got a lot of older Hindus jumping up and down, but nothing on the scale of Rushdie. It was much more about those groups wanting publicity, and we had to starve them of oxygen. Another problem has been that a lot of men have not liked the fact that it’s such a women’s film. We had a screening in Nottingham for Asian women only, and when the outreach worker from the cinema was going out to youth clubs to get girls in, community leaders were actually stopping girls. Some guys said they would park outside the cinema and were going to watch girls coming in, and then watch them leave, to make sure they knew who’d actually gone in. There is this real sense of animosity toward me, because I’m encouraging all our girls to run off with Afro-Caribbean guys, or to leave their husbands, and that’s been quite interesting. There’s been a discussion on a scale I’ve not seen before.
HK The idea that the Asian community can insulate itself, and control the way it’s represented, is over now. You can do that in India and in Pakistan where there are not commercial films like this made. But in the West, it’s not possible to control the way they are represented. We’re going to be represented in all kinds of ways.
GC I was quite shocked with the hostility shown toward black people by some sections of the community. I went to see my film with a woman I used to go to school with and we were watching those scenes with Hashida’s Afro-Caribbean boyfriend, Oliver. She was going, “He’s disgusting, he walks like a gorilla.” I was absolutely horrified that this Indian woman felt comfortable saying this to me. After school I went off and had a career, and she went off and got married and had kids and I hadn’t seen her for many years. When Hashida and Oliver kissed, she went off: “That’s disgusting, that’s so horrible, how could she do that, how could she let him do that?” I just didn’t know what to do. At the end, I tried to get myself together and I couldn’t even have a discussion with her about it. And as we left, I turned around, and Paul Gilroy was sitting behind me…
HK Oh, really?
GC (laughter) I have to say, the only time in my life I ever wanted the ground to open and eat me up was then.
HK He found it really interesting.
GC Of course he fucking did! I was just dying and I went and sat next to him, and told him how horrified I was at that, and he said he heard the comments. (laughter) I mean I didn’t know what to do. But look, I’ve moved on, so many of my family have moved on. People have moved on from these ideas, and I still get very shocked when I see a young Asian person having these kinds of stupid ideas. We deal with sexuality, race, class, nationalism, and all these issues, we go off and merrily write these scripts, or create these images that construct an Asian identity, but I think there is a lot of reactionary element still. That incident taught me a lesson. I was upset about it for days. My dad heard I’d been really upset by this incident. He said, “Don’t worry, you made a controversial film and there’s bound to be controversy. People are not educated but don’t let it get to you.” That really touched me so much, that a 70-year old guy who’s been educated, if you like, through the process, through me, rang me up to leave a message of support. But I’ve been shocked by how reactionary people still are in the community.
LC And they can still enjoy the film.
GC They can still say, it’s really funny, it’s really true, it’s really this. But they can still shout, “nigger lover.” Ugh.
HK Well, that’s our job, partly. To provoke people in that sense. Make them think. Challenge ideas.
LC Hanif, the character of Jamilla, in The Buddha of Suburbia is one whose attributes we’ve seen in other work of yours: an outspoken woman whose political activism is constructed as a sort of hysteria. Similarly, Gurinder, in Bhaji, the woman who’s driving the bus has taken her political agency one step too far, so that it’s almost laughable. Where does that come from?
HK The ‘70s were laughable too. All my characters are laughable in the way that all the world is amusing to me. We’re all amusing.
GC It’s about what you’re comfortable with. I have to say, though, I do think Jamilla comes off much better in your book than she does in the TV series.
HK Oh, really.
GC There’s more of her, and in the series it’s been reduced more so you end up with this character analysis, because you don’t get the other sides to her dilemmas.
HK You can lose that complexity when you adapt something. In a novel you can put somebody’s past in, you can have three pages explaining how they came to this state.
LC Having worked with film and the novel, do you find that there are things you can represent in a film that are not possible in a novel? Are there certain complexities of character that are at your disposal when you’re working with a more visual medium?
HK Well, yeah. You can see people’s faces in a way that you can’t in a novel, because you have to imagine them through words. And the other thing is that you can see the scenes. You get something in a punk club, and you get all the details, you know, the club, and the clothes, and the era. You couldn’t write all that down. You wouldn’t want to. It would be a pain to read. But you can get psychological complexity in a novel that you can’t get in a movie. Usually. Not always, just sometimes.
LC Hanif, after writing all these screenplays and directing your own work, why did you choose to write a novel?
HK I’d always wanted to be a novelist, really. I got waylaid. I got involved in theater in the ‘70s because of politics, and because the theater was very attractive at that time. There were good directors and writers working in it, and you met girls. Then I got involved in films because Channel Four was commissioning new people. Then, after Launderette and Sammy and Rosie I had some money, for the first time in my life. I knew I could buy two years and I could do what I wanted. I wanted to write a novel which was about the ‘70s. I couldn’t see how you could do it as a film, because it was quite a long story. Funnily enough, of course, The Buddha of Suburbia did become a film. But originally I thought, because of the number of characters and the duration, I’d do it as a novel. I still want to be a novelist, really. I still think the novel is a fantastic form. The BBC bought it when the book was in proofs and wanted to make it.
LC Was there ever any question about you directing it yourself?
HK No, I didn’t want to do it. Originally, I didn’t even want to write the screenplay. Various other people wanted to direct it, but I wanted the BBC to do it, because the BBC is very good at costume dramas. You reach a much wider audience for the book with something on the telly. Tons of people came up to me and said, “Oh, we didn’t realize you’ve done a book of The Buddha.” People never go to bookshops. We reached a wider audience like that.
LC Writing a novel seemed like such a rarefied undertaking for you. In America you’re known as a populist film writer.
HK Well, everything ends up on the telly, these days. Somehow. So much of the cinema are adaptations, anyway. So you can get both. I like the novel because it’s such a private form. You write it down and there isn’t anybody else working with you. Sometimes it’s wonderful to collaborate with other people. But you have it both ways when you write a novel and then you adapt it.
GC Especially when you’re going into such a specific world, that’s really it, isn’t it? You’re creating, you’re weaving together such a specific world. You can’t do that with collaboration.
HK Nobody else would have understood what it was for a Pakistani to be a punk in the 1970s, for instance. As Gurinder says, it’s very specific, a rather odd thing.
LC The question of audience is integral to being a filmmaker, but when you talk about more literary forms like the novel, those kind of questions become inappropriate.
HK You don’t know who your audience is. You write your stuff in the best way you can, to the best of your ability, and then you find an audience. When I read Launderette, I didn’t know if anyone would want to see a film about a gay Pakistani running a launderette with a Nazi. But you find an audience, or not. You can’t cater to an audience in any way and you can’t second-guess them. You create an audience, actually. Gurinder found an audience with her film. It may not have been there, but she made it.
GC The power of the form is that it ends up appealing to a much wider group of people, which you can never imagine. I could never imagine the way with which people have taken to Bhaji in terms of backgrounds and nationalities and cultures. But that just might be me, coming into this for the first time.
HK No, the only person who can second-guess is Andrew Lloyd Weber. He knows how to make a product for an audience. But most of us just do our work and hope there’s an audience. If there isn’t, it doesn’t matter. If you make a good film, or write a good book, you educate an audience at the same time. When you see Annie Hall, you think, most people in England don’t know about rich Jewish people in Manhattan at that time, but the film tells you about them, and if it’s a good film, you get absorbed in the world and you can then tell your story.
LC Gurinder, we spoke a while ago about the evolution of black filmmakers in Britain, and you’ve taken a more populist road than a lot of your contemporaries, like Black Audio Film Collective.
GC It’s important that the people who are in the films can see themselves. That’s always been very critical for me. The idea of making a film about Asian women that ordinary Asian women from where I grew up would be able to see and enjoy was important. I hate the idea of making films about black people and black people not going to see them. I’m very happy when other people go and see them too, but that’s always the thing that excites me more, and that’s always the thing that hurts me more, when Asian people criticize it. I don’t think I’ve ever made a film that’s what I would call avant-garde, and I’ve never made a film that’s particularly experimental, but I would argue that I’ve made films that are very layered, and many debates are there, within the layers, but then they are stated in an overt way. Rather than appeal to you immediately on a cerebral level, they appeal to you on an emotional level. If that’s what being populist is, that’s really where I’m coming from.
HK Gurinder has a sense of wanting to speak to Asian women about these issues and challenge them and have a dialogue with them. I wouldn’t say that I had any particular sense of that, that I wanted to speak to, say, Asian men, or to Asian women. Or say anything particular to them. I think I did once, but now I don’t. Now I’m in semi-retirement.
GC He’s a dad now. He’s too busy washing nappys. (laughter)
HK We don’t wash nappys anymore, Gurinder, we have disposable ones.
GC You were saying it’s the novel and that art form that ultimately moves you, and the importance and value of that, politically, socially, entertainment-wise. I’m only just coming to that stage now. I haven’t even been to film school, and I’m a filmmaker. It’s only now that I have an urge to make different types of films, different genres, and develop certain directorial skills.
HK You find that as you get older, actually, your craft, the work you do, becomes more and more interesting to you, and you’re more and more interested in doing it well. It satisfies you, when you shoot a scene, and you’ve got the actors in the right place, and the sound is right, and it looks right. I find that when I write a sentence, I want the sentence, the words to be in the right order, and the right words, and I find that more of a struggle, more interesting, than trying to say something to the Asian community like, wake up, there are gay people out there. That is important to say, but I am more interested in the aesthetics of it now. Well, both, but I think the craft of it fascinates me.
LC But the two are inseparable.
HK They do work together.
GC I might be sounding a bit jaded, but I have to say that this is actually the first time in my life when I am not thinking, oh my god, oh my god, it’s been three days and I haven’t sat down and written anything. I always have been pushing toward something, and I’ve suddenly stopped. I have this sense of having said everything now, and it’s all out there. I’ve achieved whatever I might have wanted to achieve in the space of three or four years. That’s why I’m looking for my motivation again, really, and what’s obviously not appealing to me is money. It’s the craft.
HK Wanting to do good work.
GC Yeah, but it’s moving beyond just saying something now, it’s saying it well, to a white audience and a black audience.
Hanif, do you think fatherhood’s changed you in any way?
HK Yes, it’s made me more concentrated, it made me work harder.
HK I’ve got less time now. The rest of the time I’m worrying about the washing machine, and going to the Gap. So I know that the few hours I do have, I can’t stare out the window, or watch the TV, or go to a party. My time is circumscribed. I think that’s been very good for me. It makes me work harder, in a more concentrated way. It also makes your life richer and more interesting if you’ve got kids. Your life has another dimension to it, suddenly. It closes you down in ways, because you can’t go to parties, but it opens you up in other ways, to feelings you didn’t have before.
GC Bhaji is about someone close to me being divorced and someone else close to me being married to an Afro-Caribbean guy, and the impact that had on my family, and my extended family and friends. It’s those things that really move you. I value things around me a lot more now, since I’ve got this body of work. Looking back at it, I get this real sense of British-Asian history, from a very female, Punjabi, Southall point of view. It’s made me realize just how critical it is as an artist to be in tune with yourself and to be aware of what’s happening around you, and how that feeds your work, because it’s that honesty you put into your work that ultimately connects with the audience, whoever the audience is.