Yesterday: The film with representation better than the music

yesterday-movie-poster

The Beatles may have been above my time and beyond my pop culture interests, but ethnic representation in film and media certainly isn’t. This is why I was so drawn to the film Yesterday, released in British cinema in June 2019. The premise of the film is perhaps a little whacky, and you have to roll your eyes just a little at the familiarity of the plot (think: near-fatal accident, some strange sort of global phenomenon, selective amnesia, overnight fame). 

However, it was the casting of the film that really got me going. When I first saw the trailer, I thought it would be a film akin to the likes of The Hundred Foot Journey, where a Brown Boy meets a White Girl and must navigate all sorts of cultural issues to be with her (because any worthy love interest is always a white girl in Hollywood, right?). Despite the film being a love story above all, I was wrong, and I stand corrected.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of this film can be explained through one line in the trailer alone, where the words ‘yesterday Jack had a normal life’ flash up on the screen, followed by a wistful shot of Jack…who is brown. And yet he is seen as your average struggling musician, hoping for his lucky break. There is no strong connection to a problematic past, or a seemingly impossible fight against South Asian cultural expectations or identity.

The film follows the musical career of our main character and protagonist, a young Jack Malik, brought up in a small Suffolk town, who recreates music by The Beatles to worldwide acclaim, because miraculously the entire global population’s memory of the iconic British band has been wiped out. Jack is played by Himesh Patel, perhaps best known as Tamwaar from EastEnders. Himesh shines in his role. 

Maybe it is the lack of on-screen cultural baggage often synonymous with brown characters that really lets him shine through? Sure, his second name is Malik, but that is really the only marker of his ethnic identity. Other than that, he is just a young British musician who loves The Beatles. 

The depiction of normality played by a South Asian actor (if you can call a career as a famous musician normal) is important. It is a positive step in the right direction in terms of media representation. It is the kind of representation that the likes of Riz Ahmed have been advocating for, which eventually resulted in Ahmed’s move to Hollywood in the hopes that it would open acting roles which weren’t confined to racial stereotypes of South Asian/Muslim/Pakistani/Arab men. For so long, actors with a South Asian or Arab heritage has been restricted in their on-screen lives, reduced to a life which is rife with stereotypes of people of colour. From your typical Pakistani taxi driver, your Indian corner-shop owner to your local Arab terrorist. It’s boring. Actors from a South Asian or Arab background are multi-dimensional, just like their counterparts in real life; their acting skills are broad, just like their white acting school friend. The casting of Himesh Patel simply as Jack, the struggling musician who finds fame through The Beatles, is a refreshing step towards better representation in the media. I would even sit through a film full of music I don’t enjoy to be here for it. 

This post was written for publication in Amaliah, an online platform to amplify the voices of Muslim women. The article can be found here: https://www.amaliah.com/post/56391/film-review-yesterday-tamwar-masood-hemesh-patel-representation-in-film

The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Being Brown

I wrote a piece over on one of my favourite books ever, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and my personal connection with it. This piece originally appeared on Vocal.

Exploring identity politics through the fictional lens of Changez:

Five years ago I picked up a book that I never finished, but I fell in love with its title and the promise of a narrative so perfectly laced with a train of political and religious of thought that would fall perfectly in line with mine.

Five years on, I have finally finished this book. I was not wrong.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, written by Pakistani-born, London-living author Mohsin Hamid, is so full of rich expression and irony, I half expected the words to take a bow on the last page. A reluctant one perhaps, all things considered.

There is a kind of humility that only comes from a confident self-assurance. The main character, Changez, exudes this in a way that left me wistful. You see, Changez is the literal expression of myself that I never had the courage, nor the quiet intelligence to display. Despite many hours spent in seminars discussing the state of America in global politics, and its position of arrogant assumed superiority and the repercussions of 9/11, I always came across too angry, emotive, passionate; understanding politics from a defensive position rather than an intelligent one.

Changez said everything I never mustered the ability to. He perfectly articulates the dissonance between Western and South Asian identity; a developing country citizen relaying first hand experiences of the impact of Western “development” and foreign policy, specifically in a post 9/11 context.

The story is largely centred on Changez’s initial perusal of the American Dream, which is soon shattered by suspicion and internal conflict following the bombing of the Twin Towers. It follows his journey back home to Pakistan, and eventually his perceived identity of a “fundamentalist” by an American journalist/member of the intelligence services (the lack of clarity adds to the dynamism of the novel). However, it is the covert nuances of the novel; the unwritten edge of irony which leaks out of every line of the dramatic monologue; the *nudge nudge wink wink* inside political jokes Changez cracks at the American’s expense; the bittersweet reality of his predicament at somebody who has fallen victim to the post-9/11 racial profiling; the underlying mutual understanding between Changez and the reader of the reality of the situation which mirrors true for so many outside of the pages of this novel.

It may seem that Changez has been forced to “pick sides” (America or Anti-America), but the reality is that the colour of Changez’ skin, the accent in his voice, the hair covering his chin—all determined his position before he even had a say in the matter. In this regard, Changez draws upon the experience of many Muslims living in the Western world following the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing “with us or against us” paradigm. Such a binary is damaging, counter-productive even, (and one needs only look at the statistics of those who have turned to violent extremes in order to voice their frustration and political indignation at being targetted for the colour of the skin or the God they pray to), to understand this. It is 2017 now, and it continues to be this way. The Reluctant Fundamentalist raises pertinent questions about the value of government programmes intended at reducing the perceived threat of other deadly attacks, and whether the ensuing result of wrongly shattering and dissolving the lives of ordinary citizens along the way is really the answer.

Most importantly perhaps, it raises the issue of “Muslim identity and beyond”; can you be Muslim and be multi-dimensional? It explores how the post 9/11 division created a tunnel vision when concerning Muslim identity—almost as though being Muslim meant subscribing to a concrete and homogeneous identity. And yet the reality of the lived Muslim experience is so far beyond this flawed notion, and the novel serves a useful reminder of this. Perhaps this is best captured in the words of Changez when he says “Yes, I am Pakistani; yes, I am Muslim. But that is not all I am.”

I have personalised Changez here, but I ought to pay due respect to his creator. Since completing The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I have gone on to read all of Mohsin Hamid’s fictional works, and I am yet to be left disappointed. Never before have I been so taken aback by an author’s ability to weave irony, humour, anthropology, relationships, political commentary, wit, and dialogue in a blanket of pure literary perfection. Hamid has a particular talent of allowing you to so fully enter another world and yet feel so connected with your own. That is my experience of a brown girl reading his work, and I can only hope he continues to fly the flag for cutting South Asian talent in literature.

 

A little bit of Persia

I reviewed my favourite restaurant, Shiraz, for The Halal Plug.
“Tucked away  on the decidedly non glamorous Hagley road, amidst various off-licenses, bookies, a stuffy Subway, your standard fried chicken shop, and a scattering of little cafes, Shiraz is a true gem. Okay wait, I should backtrack and paint a more accurate picture: Hagley road isn’t so bad – conveniently located just off the mammoth 5-ways roundabout, walking distance (if you’re brave) from the city centre, and home to the infamous Akbar’s and a rather stunning Catholic church, it’s an integral part of the bustling Birmingham centre. It just happens to feel a little peculiar past 8pm on a Friday or Saturday night (I try to avoid walking alone), and parking is a myth. So that’s that. Back to Shiraz.”
Read the rest of the post here.

A slice of Syrian cake, please

I wrote a piece for The Halal Plug, reviewing Damascena, a gem of a place in Birmingham, UK.
“Birmingham, for all of its quirks and charming little coffee shops scattered around Temple Row/Colmore Row/St Paul’s Square, had been missing something with a little more depth, a little more character, and (most importantly for me), a decent halal sandwich. Whilst some of the more seasoned Birmingham readers may argue that those *more Muslim friendly* places can be found in the areas of Sparkhill and Small Heath, I’d really rather not have a large side order of male-dominated environment and greasy tables with my sweetly brewed tea, thank you very much.”
You can read the rest of the post here.