Beyond 'Bending it like Beckham'

The appeal of Gurinder Chaddha's latest film, 'Bend it like Beckham', is in its refreshingly candid depiction of a section of the Indian community in the UK. When Chaddha made the film, she probably had no idea how close her script was to reality.

Recently, Aman Dosaj, a young Sikh girl living in England made history in English football by being the first Asian ever - of either gender - to be selected to play for England. Events in her life resemble those shown in the film, right down to the finale. Like Jess in Chaddha's film, Aman too has won a scholarship to study and play in the US.

But the similarity between Aman and Jess ends where Jess's struggle with her family begins. For Aman had the encouragement of her parents in her choice of career, and their complete support in the face of family pressures. Chadha of course, has focused on the almost incestuously conservative milieu of the Indian community in the UK, and she has done that with remarkable wit and honesty.

The film, however, ends up reinforcing the stereotype because the reality today is quite different. For, besides the very traditional first-generation Indians' fierce attempts to preserve their culture, there
are other settlers who have, over a period of two generations, opened up to the influences of the host culture. And educated professionals who moved to the UK for better opportunities in the knowledge industries have found their space with relative ease.

According to the General Household Survey for 1990, almost 36 per cent of the Indian settlers were actually born in the UK. And factors governing the strict immigration laws have ensured that Britain's ethnic minority communities have less elderly and more younger people. This population therefore, had an average age of 27 years as of 1995.

The question that assumes importance is: what is the pattern of life for teenagers of Indian origin in the UK today? How do girls and boys of the younger generation, born and raised in Britain, identify themselves? How rooted are they in Indian-ness, probably never having visited the country of their origin? Is there a strong cultural clash or a wide chasm in thinking between the older and younger generation?

Several teenagers from liberal-minded families have parents who encourage them to integrate themselves into the society they live in. Kanika (16) lives in Port Stewart, Northern Ireland. Apart from her name, there's nothing apparently Indian about her. She looks and talks, dresses, thinks
and eats like her Irish friends. Adores chicken goujons, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lopez and Shah Rukh Khan. Thinks it's such a sin that she still doesn't have a boyfriend. "Take a chill pill, Mom," she says, when asked to study.

On a Saturday evening, heading for Kelly's, a popular nightclub, she's encouraged by her mother to use a bit of make-up and wished well in her search for the 'Right Guy'. Expected back at 2 a.m., she and her two friends surprise everyone by returning at midnight. "Oh, it was just a bit boring", says Kanika, "and everybody kept looking at me 'coz I'm brown." To her friends' laughter she adds, "But Jennifer tells me, too bad, I'm a nigger lover 'coz I love Indians."

But in a more private conversation, Kanika reveals her confusion: all her girlfriends have boyfriends, and she doesn't. More, she's worried - when she does fancy someone, she'd be scared to say yes to a date because "Boyfriends expect you to sleep with them. All my friends do. But I couldn't 'coz I'm Indian and I wouldn't feel comfortable till I'm very sure."

Her sister Leah lives another reality. She's 18, attends an art course at University, is easygoing and very talented. Her passions include sleeping, mutton biryani, Hritik Roshan, her dog, and chunky, ethnic Indian silver jewelry. She's keen to do a course on Indian Art but doesn't want to stay in India, "Because India smells, the showers don't work and people stare at you." Talk to her about identity, and she promptly says, "I'm Indian." Born and raised in Ireland? "Yes, but I'm Indian."

That might sound contradictory, but for many teenagers of Indian origin, it's for real. Generally, they don't seem confused, unsure, or unable to find a space within the society they have grown up in. They come across more like normal teenagers bewildered by peer pressure and the problems of approaching adulthood.

However, a pattern is discernible in the tapestry of their relationships with friends and relatives. Their identities seem related to a distinct cultural context and to determine a particular way of life, without turning them into misfits in British society. And they represent a growing breed of confident individuals, comfortable with their Indian-ness, as they pursue their interests and much the same passions as their white peers.

Radhika (20) was educated at William Perkins, a private school in London; she is now attending a course in business studies at Birmingham University. "I'm British Indian," she says, "and there's not much Indian about me except the color of my skin." Without any prompting she adds, "But my
morals and values are very Indian."

Kabeer (21) is at the University in Glasgow. He shares an apartment with a motley bunch - three boys and a girl - and origins don't come into the picture. But when all of them are watching a cricket match between England and India, there's a clear division. Kabeer is the lone Indian cheerleader. At the recent Indian victory at Lords, all Indians, including British-born and -raised youngsters, unabashedly rooted for India.

And it is this new, emerging youth that is more representative of the 'British Indian' living in the UK: educated, confident, freethinking individuals fairly certain of their identity.

The facts on the ground substantiate the clout of this upwardly mobile generation. A Labor Force survey data reveals the narrowing of the gap between employment rates. Between 1992 and 1996, the male unemployment rate for whites was 10 per cent while for Indians it was 12 per cent. Facts and findings from various studies of race and nationality, and specific studies by Rochdale and Burnley suggest the disappearance of the income gap between male employees of Indian origin and white males.

Today, 25 per cent of ethnic households earn over 30,000 pounds a year, and ethnic consumers contribute in excess of 40 billion pounds to the UK's GNP. These then, are the harbingers of a successful, prosperous and proud Indian community in Britain.

"You've got this perception of Britain all wrong," said Gurinder Chaddha to her interviewer on CNBC recently, in response to a question on Jess's struggle. According to Chaddha, trends reveal that Britain "is moving towards a multi-cultural society". This seems true because more and more Indians are well settled in British society, borrowing freely from the host culture to bring a positive influence to their work and outlook.

The extent to which Indian and British cultures are tied or fused is reflected in the little details of daily life. When Leah is preparing a music video for her art course and she copies an Indian motif onto an Irish girl's back, she is beseeched with similar requests by other friends. At another level, a debate rages in England on whether chicken curry can officially be part of British cuisine.   


More by :  Shikha Mehra

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