Saturday 7 November 2020


There is a beat before an Indian person manifests on screen. In the American superhero drama ‘Heroes', just before Mohinder Suresh, played by Sendhil Ramamurthy, walks into his father’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York, the motif of Indian music via sitar or tabla or female vocalist in any one of the many Indian languages that are entwined with South Asian music, is initiated by deliberate choice. Who decides on this choice? 

Why is this motif necessary? No other character on screen needs such preparation given by musical hint. Certainly none of the white American actors are introduced by a corresponding cultural audiology. The presence of the Japanese hero, Hiro Nakimua, played by Masi Oka, is not punctuated by whatever would constitute a cliched version of Japanese culture, but when Oka tears down the streets of New York, Punjabi MC’s ‘Jatt Ho Goya Sharabee’ kicks in and I so hoped it was just a cool commentary on the fresh mixing of international community life in NY, but I really feared that an Indian character was about to appear. Granted, not dropping into Bhangra moves, but still...

In 2017, watching white nationalists surge onto the streets of Charlottesville, demonstrating a centuries long belief in the white right to rule, Joseph Biden was galvanised to begin his campaign to run as the 46th President of the United States. Meanwhile, also in 2017, the British actor and rapper, Riz Ahmed, gave a speech at the House of Commons in Westminster, ostensibly on ‘Diversity’, while stretching the meaning of that word towards ‘Representation’. ‘Diversity’ as a term, meaning side-dish to the main course, still is in abundant use but ‘representation’ is now also equally abundant and much more effective in its impact. To represent is to re present, to present again that which was hidden, silenced or otherwise deemed unworthy of popular appeal. We present ourselves, again, even though we have never not been here. 

The British Film Institute just made ‘Mogul Mowgli’ available to rent since a second national lockdown ends a cinematic run for a film that needs more than four days out in the world. My viewing experience therefore has not been immersive in the large scale sense of theatre, rather it has been intimate, almost private. This, I think is the spirit in which the film was made. Intimate sharing, intimate recollections and even intimate soul baring by the actors, all of whom are South Asian by heritage and many of whom, like myself, are inheritors of the history of Partition. In my case, more recent history, in the form of the Hindu-Muslim riots, which followed the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque by Hindu nationalists in December 1992.

As a result of which, every time I heard the sound of a train, or watched glimpses of Zed’s father, played movingly by Alyy Khan, as a boy on one of those trains, I expected violence and bloodshed to erupt on my screen. Not until the film was finished, and Zaheer/Rizwan’s hopeful face was the last image I saw, did I exhale. 

One other aspect of intimacy that perhaps would not be a common theme in most viewers’ experience, is of course that I have lupus, an auto-immune illness, and I watched the film while slowly injecting sub cutaneous immunoglobulin serum into my upper thigh. Slowly, because no matter how many months pass, a needle penetrating flesh never gets easier. Flesh remembers pain. The swelling always appears like a curious detached phenomena, and my body begins its temporary dance with adjustment, again and again and again. 

Bassam Tariq, the director, and Rizwan Ahmed, the co-writer, creator and central figure of representation, locate the unresolved trauma of both Partition and of being an often unloved and unwelcome South Asian in Britain and the United States, in the cells of an auto-immune patient - self attacking self, before self is attacked. A kind of masochistic preemptive violence. A desperately slow suicide. 

Love is the answer. Love from within, radiating without. Love in spite of. Love because of. Love humbled. Love grateful. Love angered. Love hopeful.

Love, when Kamala Harris, the first woman to be elected Vice-President, holds the traditions of Jamaica and India in her blood and bearing. History is the long arc. Where on that arc will ‘Mogul Mowgli’ be? Rizwan is right when he claims that we, seventy years on, have not ‘dealt’ with Partition, but the United/Divided States have not dealt with either the genocide of native peoples or slavery of black Americans. The Civil Rights war, a bloody Partition, still fog horns through that land, so perhaps we are only at the beginning of our own long walk to healing. And the inheritors of Rizwan Ahmed’s work, two hundred and fifty years from now, may rejoice in the ones who began that conversation. If, at that time, his music is used as a motif, I won’t mind. 


Sherry Blue Sky said...

How I love your writing...and your worldview. I feel such relief tonight, after four years of what felt like an abusive relationship, an assault on my sense of justice. How ready we are to turn to positivity and hope again. Kamala is awesome. So real. So warm. Biden is so decent. I knew i could not do four more years like the last four. Nor could the planet afford it. I hope you are staying safe and away from covid, my friend. It has finally come to Tofino. I am being careful, as i have from the beginning. Chat soon.

Kriti said...

I feel slightly more hopeful today. Thank you for your beautiful insights, Shaista. Virtual hugs from across continents.

Geri said...

Helllo. first of your writing really brings so much raw emotions. This has to be my most favorite line : in the cells of an auto-immune patient - self attacking self, before self is attacked. A kind of masochistic preemptive violence. A desperately slow suicide. Just Wow!

As someone who lives in NYC, I cried when it was announced that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would take office. It just brings hope for a better tomorrow.

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