27 April 2013

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (Dir. Derek Cianfrance, 2012, US) - Eclipse of the Son [Spoilers ahead!]

I'm still convinced that as Ryan Gosling gets older he's going to eventually look like Jimmy Stewart; it's that curvature of his elongated face and dewy eyes. Much has been made of Gosling's performance in this latest feature from director Derek Cianfrance and it is suggestive to the film. Gosling is a performer who is superb at conveying emotions through effective uses of silence. In fact, Gosling would be perfect in both a western by Sergio Leone as a gunslinger and a shadowy gangster in any Melville's polar films. In other words, the less dialogue for Gosling, the better. This was proven by a near wordless performance as The Driver in Refn's 2011 Drive. Gosling takes a similar approach in The Place Beyond The Pines, playing a disaffected and incorporeal young man who finds it insufferable to make a concrete connection between his responsibilities as a father and the demands of adulthood. Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver, who gets his thrills from entertaining crowds of enthusiasts at a travelling funfair. Luke is a drifter with no attachments other than his bike, which he considers to be family. He indulges his solitary existence in the transient, nomadic nature of the travelling funfair. The absence of any kind of family around him points to a potentially tough childhood, which is explored allegorically in the final third. The Place Beyond The Pines is essentially an old fashioned melodrama, framed against familiar social thematics including absent fathers, corruption, power and history. Luke's story turns out to be the first in a triptych narrative that transforms from an opening tale of desperation into one about class and exploitation. The narrative shift from Luke to Avery Cross, a police officer, played by Bradley Cooper strays into Sidney Lumet territory of corrupt cops but Ciafrance weaves into this overly familiar genre convention, the idea of class. When Cross shoots Luke as a result of a bank robbery that goes awry, the elevation of Cross into a local hero sees him become embroiled with some of the corrupt cops in his precinct. However, it is only later does it become more evident that Cross has a powerful father as a judge and he uses his privileged status to turn in his friends in order to further what turns out to be an ambitious, if not cynically opportunistic, political career. This is one of the more ideologically complicated statements as we witness a perpetual cycle of class struggle and more specifically exploitation in which power and status silence those like Luke who live and die on the margins of a vacant American society.

The final part of the film is arguably when the film falters. Although the central theme of fathers and sons comes to vivid fruition, the casting of the two teenage boys and their characterisation is uninspired to say the least, reminding me of an inept pilot for a new series about disaffected youth in the 1990s. While the presence of Luke is rendered symbolically in the last two parts, it is the character of Romina (Eva Mendes) who provides a narrative bridge in the triptych. Romina, who works as a waitress in a diner, is a social outsider and her ethnicity (likely Mexican) underlines separateness yet she is by far the most dignified of the broken characters we encounter. It is a dignity threatened by the insecurities of the men around her. Given the genre context of the melodrama, if Romina comes to embody an ideal about family then both Luke and Avery are deconstructed as fathers and men who cannot function within the realm of family as the past prevents them from doing so. What this means is that a crisis of masculinity emerges discordantly from the three parts and culminates in a moment at the end, which seeks to articulate a view of fathers and sons predicated on class. What I find disconcerting is when films longer than two hours are automatically labeled with the tag of 'epic' when in fact 'epic' means something entirely different in film. The epic was and still is considered a useful genre category but now the term has become associated with porridge like cinema of The Avengers kind. What I admire about Ciafrance's approach is that he takes his time with the storytelling but the way some characters are introduced and not even explored seems to be one of the recent detrimental effects of contemporary TV Drama upon film narrative. What gives this American independent film a certain edge is the masterfully atmospheric score by Mike Patton, which imbues much of the drama with a tone of dread, and uncertainty that recalls the work of Badalamenti for Lynch. Altogether, The Place Beyond The Pines makes for a superior American melodrama. 

23 April 2013

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST (Dir. Mira Nair, 2012, US/UK/Qatar) - The Changing Man

Director Mira Nair’s latest feature is somewhat of an uneven film but it is an important one in the context of post 9-11 cinema. Based on the best selling novel by Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist re-situates Nair’s Diasporic gaze to a post 9-11 geopolitical context in which commerce, politics and religion are intertwined. Given Nair has always been caught between two cultures, she has naturally been inclined to favour the social outsider in many of her films. This was a precedent set in her earliest films especially Salaam Bombay! in which Chiapau’s (Shafiq Syed) arrival in Bombay positions him as an outsider attempting to adjust and fit into the new environment around him. Chiapau’s desire to make enough money so he can return to his village in order to pay off his debts makes him a creature of survival but Nair’s later films such as The Namesake (2006) saw a shift to Diasporic anxieties to do with belonging, identity and a wider existential search. Sometimes it can be critical to have read the original source material when viewing an adaptation of such significance. Unfortunately I have not read the novel upon which the film is based but it may be worthwhile comparing the two and considering what compromises may have been made in the adaptation process. Nair says it took five years for the film to get made since financing kept falling through. The difficulty in attracting adequate financing can be attributed to the film’s supposedly controversial and commercially unappealing subject matter, that of contemporary Pakistan.

This is certainly Nair’s most ambitious film to date and its rich, sympathetic depiction of Lahore echoes similar Punjabi sentiments evident in her most successful film, Monsoon Wedding (2001). In fact, Nair’s husband has referred to the film as ‘Monsoon Terrorist’. Given the dire security issues in Pakistan, which makes it an impossible place to film in, Nair found an area in Delhi to act as a replacement. Although the film has a global feel to it, taking place across a number of cities including New York and Istanbul, it is Lahore that offers Nair the opportunity to deal with her own ancestral connections and prescient ones to do with America’s hegemonic foreign policy towards Pakistan and its people. This is why Nair chooses to use a framing device in the form of an on going dialogue between Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) and Bobby Lincoln (a journalist turned ‘spook’ working for the CIA played by Liev Schreiber) because it becomes an extended symbolic exchange of ideological perspectives between America and Pakistan in regards to foreign policy. The story of Changez sees him become a successful financial analyst at one of the top firms on Wall Street but after September 11, anti Islamic sentiments triggers a reawakening within him concerning his direction and place in American society. Changez's decision to return to Lahore and teach at a university makes him an enemy in the eyes of an American government that acts with impunity when it comes to protecting western interests. Given the references to Ahmed Shah Masoud, a potential future leader of Afghanistan who led the resistance against the Soviet Union, it is clear to see that Changez is represented as a potentially transformational figure with an intellectualism that would appeal to the youth in Pakistan.

Riz Ahmed does a splendid job in the lead role and continues to show great range as a leading British actor with an increasingly international profile. Intellectualism as resistance is a theme evident by his father who is a famous Punjabi poet and the rejection of his exploitative role as a financial analyst condemns capitalist ideology as a form of internal oppression that inevitably leads to a loss of identity. In the film, two particular moments stand out in the opening half which probably explains why the film struggled to attract financing. Nonetheless, they are exceptionally significant ideological moments since Nair daringly allows us to see the reaction to 9-11 through the gaze of a Pakistani male. Such subjectivity is important as it has barely registered in many films that have tried to depict the so called war on terror. The first moment concerns the pleasurable reaction of Changez as he watches the planes crashing into the twin towers in his hotel room. I'm not sure if this moment breaks a taboo but it certainly offers an unsanctioned truth about the way a lot of oppressed people around the world reacted to such events and its a moment that will more than likely have some reviewers in America condemning the film for even attempting to humanise a Pakistani like Changez. The second moment concerns the the xenophobia which was rife in the wake of the attacks. On his way from a business trip, Changez is detained at the airport and dehumanised when he is strip searched by the security. Such open and discriminatory persecution is really the beginning of the end for Changez and his American dream. Both of these moments are critical in delineating the alienation of Changez from his environment.

Nair's films are also important in their use of music. The Reluctant Fundamentalist returns to a similar musical pattern of a film like Monsoon Wedding which saw a fusion of classical and contemporary music on the soundtrack. Nair taps into the contemporary Pakistani music scene which over the last few years, sponsored by The Coke Studio, has produced some eclectic and innovative collaborations between old and new artists. The film opens with a lengthy traditional Punjabi Qawwali (devotional Sufi music) ‘Kangna’, performed by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, which is used to underline the middle class tastes of what seems to be a progressive Pakistani family. Interestingly, the film opens with the professor Anse Rainier and his companion exiting a showing of Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor’s most recent film Bol (Speak, 2011), a portmanteau of stories that depict the oppression faced by Pakistani women on a daily basis. Bol is used predominantly to anchor the events within a contemporary Pakistani landscape and remind us of the centrality of Lahore as a key milieu in the narrative. Perhaps the most ideologically significant deployment of contemporary Pakistani music is when Changez leaves his job and makes the decision to return to Lahore. This sequence is juxtaposed to the introspective song ‘Mori Araj Suno’ (Hear My Plea) which makes explicit use of the poetry by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of Punjab’s most famous and revered poets. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a radical leftist who used his poetry to criticise the state of the nation and Nair makes a striking parallel here by juxtaposing the song with Changez’s transformation from capitalist to eventual teacher. Nair and all those involved especially the writers should be praised for their refusal to demonise Changez and let the film reach a conclusion that opens up a space for a dialogue and discourse that lets the Pakistani male become an active symbol of social and political change. I have still have a suspicion this one will end up in my end of year list since I find both Mira Nair and Riz Ahmed to be inspirational figures.

Here is a recent version of the song 'Mori Araj Suno' by Ghazal singer Tina Sani which was tweaked somewhat by Nair by incorporating the popular singing voice of Pakistani singer Atif Aslam into the final recording used in the film:

20 April 2013

SAHEB, BIWI AUR GANGSTER RETURNS (Dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia, 2013, India) - A Royal Affair

Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster Returns is an uninspiring title to what is one of writer-director Tigmanshu Dhulia’s best films to date. Less of a sequel and more of a continuation, Dhulia reunites the main leads of Jimmy Shergill and Mahie Gill in a story that reaches back to the past. Unlike the first film which utilised more traditional noir narratives, with echoes of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, this seeks to frame a contemporary power struggle between Aditya Pratap Singh (Shergill) and his enemies (including his duplicitous wife) against a quest for revenge led by fallen prince Indarjeet Singh (Irfan Khan). This time round Dhulia adds a layer of political intrigue to the narrative but his thematic focus on the decadence of the royal families of India still remains a central concern. The role of Aditya Pratap Singh as a seemingly untouchable Nawab (prince) belonging to a once important Royal family based in the state of Uttar Pradesh and whose power and prestige has faded away a long time ago is a poetic, tragic and sinister figure. It is a role, which Jimmy Shergill performs with real assurance, offering a charismatic yet flawed symbol of India’s past. Pratap Singh’s faded power is rendered even more symbolically as his incapacitation in a wheelchair, as a result of the gunshot wound from the first film, becomes both an intertextual nod to masculine impairment in the noir universe and points to an incapacitation related to a deeper ancestral powerlessness. Estranged from Madhavi (Mahie Gill), Aditya has a desire to remarry and sets his eye on Ranjana, the daughter of a wealthy Nawab, played surprisingly well by Soha Ali Khan. 

The first film drew its strength from the antagonism between Aditya and Madhavi, and this bitter rivalry between husband and wife provides the film with much of its narrative tensions. Dhulia is careful to never lose sight of the centrality of Madhavi’s character to the overall narrative and she is deadly as ever. Madhavi is a contemporary variation on the traditional femme fatale and unlike the first film in which sees uses his sexuality to cause havoc, Dhulia expands such predatory instincts by depicting her rise to power as a means of re-working the femme fatale vernacular. A new addition is Indarjeet Singh, a prince whose entire family was wiped out by the ruthless Pratap Singh family, now headed by Aditya. Indarjeet’s revenge quest is complicated by his relationship with Ranjana whom he intends to marry once he is avenged his family’s honour. If Indarjeet has any hope of ruining Aditya completely he has to woe Madhavi, which he does, and she becomes an ally in exchange for political power. However, it is not long before Indarjeet is embroiled in an affair with Madhavi. Ultimately, Indarjeet succumbs to the poisonous sexual manipulations of Madhavi, eventually taking up the position of the doomed noir protagonist. Yet such a doomed and fatalistic state gives the relationship between Indarjeet and Ranjana a genuinely tragic dimension.

Dhulia knows his cinema and pays homage to numerous classic Hindi films. The tragic love story, fraught relationships and decadent settings suggest this is a film in love with the past and could easily have been made in the 1950s. One striking connection to Hindi cinema of the past is the deployment of the title track ‘Lag Jaa Gale Ki...’ from the 1964 film Woh Kaun Thi? (Who Was She?). The song, a notably haunting one and sung beautifully by Lata Mangeshkar, is about doomed love and is used sparingly by Dhulia in key moments of the narrative to underline a loneliness that afflicts the main characters. Although the film is set in Uttar Pradesh, the first film (and I am assuming this one too) was shot in Devgadh Baria, a small town in Gujarat with a royal past. Remarkably, the history of the town’s royal kings that were abolished after India gained independence may have in fact formed an inspiration for the film itself. A key ingredient in conjuring up a strong sense of the past is channelled through the architecture of the royal ancestral house in which much of the film takes place. The house is a disembodied place and the characters are made to seem uncomfortable, dwarfed by a faded grandeur in the empty rooms. Moreover, the ruined fort, once occupied by the ancestral family of Indarjeet, is another site of ghostly memories and tragedies inevitably consuming those who refuse to reconcile.

Only Indarjeet’s narrative is resolved, tragically though, while the other remaining dilemmas faced by the characters of Aditya, Madhavi and Ranjana are left open. Indarjeet succumbs to pride and commits suicide when he realises his sweetheart Ranjana has betrayed him. However, Indarjeet convinces Madhavi to smuggle Aditya’s gun out of the house and he uses the gun to commit suicide, thus directly implicating Aditya in the murder. As Aditya is arrested and taken away, Kanhaiya, his loyal bodyguard and shadow, is seen lurking in the background, hinting at Kanhaiya’s potentially decisive role in the final part of the trilogy. Like the first film in which men are the casualties and victims of Madhavi’s scheming, Dhulia ends on a similarly refreshing note, with the camera tracking a transformed Madhavi as a fashionable politician making her way to a meeting. Out of all the characters, Madhavi is the one character that manages to consolidate her power and Dhulia relishes transforming her into a proto-feminist icon, leaving the film open for a potentially fascinating third part in which arguably political power relations will be contested in a grand finale. 

11 April 2013

OBLIVION (Dir. Joseph Kosinksi, 2013, US) - Hollywood's first anti drone film? [Spoilers Ahead!]

Oblivion is a disappointing slice of mainstream science fiction cinema that meanders aimlessly for little over two hours. I haven’t much noteworthy to comment about this underwhelming studio project. Nonetheless, mainstream escapist genres such as science fiction have this innate propensity for allegorical pluralistic reinterpretation that can thankfully on some occasions salvage the cinematic dignity of those involved. Robin Wood was one of those critics that had this capacity to read between the lines of mainstream cinema and although I am weary of applying such a noble approach to a film like Oblivion since it is such a tiresome affair, I could not help but read into the film in terms of a latent socio-political subtext concerning drones, insurgents and Pakistan. What I am saying may at first seem a little far fetched but it was the ending to Oblivion, the one in which two suicide bombers defeat the master controller in the skies, that got me intellectualising the following hypothesis; what if Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and the Scavs (code word for troublesome insurgents) are in fact an allegory for a real and potential insurgency that has appeared in Iraq and which may in fact emerge on the Afghan-Pak border which has claimed the lives of so many innocent civilians in drone attacks orchestrated by Obama and company. If I was to take this allegorical interpretation to its fruition then a source of validation may lie in the film’s anti-drone ideology. 

In the film, Harper is told by his superiors that the drones which he spends his days repairing are killing Scavs to protect humanity. In truth, the drones turn out to be machines controlled by an alien life form who have been programmed to kill humans. Drone attacks have become quite common in Pakistan and is an ongoing source of controversy that will inevitably be associated with Obama’s legacy. America’s war by proxy conducted criminally and immorally from the skies by unmanned drone technology is not only a cowardly form of murder but seeks to sanitise death as guilt free for the hegemonic perpetrators. Such a precedence exists in Oblivion with the drones targeting innocent civilians including women and children. However, the film offers a fantasy wish fulfilment in which a sympathetic rag tag band of human survivors come together as a mini insurgency, retaliating against the drones. Is the film covertly advocating the right to self defense as an accepted norm given the war like circumstances? If so, then it is an ideological proposition that would only come about through an oppositional reading of the film situated within a wider geopolitical context. The reading of an insurgent ideology is complicated by race as most of the insurgents are white aside from the tokenism of Morgan Freeman. Had the Scavs been more racially diverse and visibly so then an insurgent reading would have been much more explicit. It is the case that mainstream genres especially science fiction are open to endless allegorical interpretations and perhaps then Oblivion can lay claim to being Hollywood’s first anti drone film. Too bad the film is barely competent.

1 April 2013

‘They all know me’: Re-imagining the British Muslim in Citizen Khan

This is an extended essay I have written as part of the MA in Screen Studies which I am currently completing over 2 years at the University of Manchester. The focus is on the recent BBC sitcom Citizen Khan and involved extensive research into past representations. The second series of Citizen Khan is due to be broadcast on the BBC later this year. 

Introduction: ‘Number One – Citizen Khan

Citizen Khan has been hyped as the first British Asian sitcom and was broadcast on 27 August at 10.20pm on BBC One. The first episode drew an audience of 3.41 million viewers. The critical response was polarised with some declaring the sitcom an innovative portrayal of a British Pakistani Muslim family while others criticised the regressive stereotyping and poor humour. The star of Citizen Khan is Mr Khan (created by and starring Adil Ray[1]) the self-appointed community leader of Sparkhill, Birmingham:
The capital of British Pakistan. The broadcast of the first episode led to over 700 complaints to the BBC and 20 to Ofcom, with claims the sitcom caused offense to Islam and ridiculed British Pakistanis. The first series of Citizen Khan ran successfully for six episodes, leading the BBC to commission a new series. Citizen Khan, given its mainstream status, is a rarity since both Pakistanis and Muslims are marginalised within the British media.

I want to start by delineating the major areas of this essay. The first section traces the fragmentation of Black identity over the last decades, leading to the emergence of terms such as South Asian, British Asian and now British Muslim. I will also frame my investigation by contextualising British Muslim identity as a highly politicised one, positioning it within broader historical events. The next section will cover a transitory history of Black representations in the British sitcom. Discussion will moreover converge on the significance of contemporary British films such as Four Lions in paving the way for a reimagining of the British Muslim in Citizen Khan. The following section will examine citizenship, assimilation and segregation as key themes and their relationship to immigration and settlement policies implemented by the New Labour government in 2002. The final section addresses racial and ethnic stereotyping and the relationship to the sitcom form. Discussion will revolve around the types of representations (the deployment of the coon stereotype) normalised in a mainstream sitcom and if it is possible to question, subvert or challenge hegemonic racial and ethnic representations.

The evolving language of identity

The 1970s in Britain was a time in which the cultural politics of race was deliberated in terms of a Black discourse:
Prohibited from taking on a British identity, black migrants began to search for more solid ground in their history. The new identity they took on was black, a term which had emerged from the Civil Right movement. (Ross, 1996: xiii) Black identity was politicised by cultural academics such as Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, whereby its metonymic potential was used to contest identities along not just racial lines but wider ethnic and cultural ones. Black identity incorporated migrant communities such as West Indian, Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi. A mutually inclusive and heterogeneous discourse sought to articulate a collective voice of solidarity, resistance and protest in a time of endemic racism. A paradigm shift in the late 1980s in the way race was constructed in popular discourse was reflected in the fracturing of the inclusive definition of black (Gilroy, 1987: 37), signalling a shift away from political definitions of black based on the possibility of Afro-Asian unity (Gilroy, 1987: 36). The dissolution of an Afro-Asian united front, although it may have been symbolic, led to redefinitions of race along the lines of ethnicity and specific notions of cultural difference (Ross, 1996: xiii).

The emergence of a South Asian discourse questioned monolithic perceptions of Black identity: However similar all Asians may seem to outsiders, they actually constitute a far more diverse population category than is commonly realised (Ballard, 1994: 3). Comparably, research on diasporic identities[2] accelerated a transference from conventional ways of thinking about race to a concentration on how the South Asian diaspora in the UK made active use of popular culture, most notably the media, to construct their own identity. The discourse of racial politics has changed over time so that minority groups have continuously pushed to reclaim an ethnic identity that has often been suppressed through economic, political and cultural marginalisation. A more apposite historical explanation for the reconfiguring of race along the lines of South Asian identity was to do with the racism of the past. In truth, the language of identity for subordinate groups is concomitant to racial hatred. It is the traumatic, on-going dialogue of renegotiation with past historical narrative(s) of racism that opens up a space for legitimising their integrated position within the national community.

If South Asian identity equated to a symbolic form of integration then reaction from conservative Muslims to the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1998 led to a new discourse addressing religious identity. South Asian identity may have brought together all ethnicities under one aegis but this also meant the dissolution of religious diversity. As Muslims in Britain reclaimed their religious identity under the politically contentious term of British Muslim, the tabloid press amplified British Muslim identity as a source of extremism. The 1990 Gulf war and the genocidal invasion of Iraq galvanised a resentment amongst the Muslim population, mainly British Pakistanis, questioning their relationship to the nation-state:
Muslims, more than ever, came to be imagined as outsiders, excluded from the essential notions of Britishness (Ansari, 2004: 1). Imaginings of Muslims as outsiders essentially laid the origins of Islamophobia.

On July 7 2005, four suicide bombers carried out coordinated attacks in London. The suicide bombers were British Muslims, three of Pakistani descent, who had been radicalised. Subsequently, British Muslims were reimagined yet again, this time as a social problem by the media. British Muslim youth radicalised by Islam is a moral panic that finds comparative resonance in the work of Stuart Hall. In Policing the crisis (1978) Hall acknowledged the amplification of mugging during the 1970s in Britain as a way of labelling Black youth as deviants and displacing wider social anxieties. The recent politicisation of British Muslim identity has meant a further narrowing of cultural representations but it has also led to an Islamophobic mainstream visibility and invisibility contested by an emerging discourse (encompassing film, television and literature) questioning notions of national cultural British hegemony (Ansari, 2004: 1) and arguing the media have deliberately construed alienation, assimilation, religion and tradition as social anxieties. Contestation in terms of identity and representation is on going and Citizen Khan needs to be framed as a text that negotiates readings through which various social groups can find meaningful articulations of their own relationship to the dominant ideology (Fiske, 1992: 126).

Representing Race in the British Sitcom

The sitcom form has a long and complicated history with race and the discourse of racial politics. One of the most ideologically potent sitcom creations of the 1960s was Till Death Do Us Part featuring Alf Garnett as a flawed, bigoted and reactionary character (Malik, 2002: 92). Writer Johnny Speight sought to confront racial prejudices and the sitcom was broadcast against the hardening of attitudes to immigration as typified by Enoch Powells Rivers of Blood speech in 1968. Malik (2002: 93) argues that Alf emulated some of Powells real-life panic towards immigration, symbolising wider white working class racial anxieties. Speights original intention of taking on the problem of racism within contemporary British society seemed to backfire as the right wing views of Alf Garnett reinforced similar prejudices harboured by viewers. Speights follow up Curry and Chips was even more antagonistic in dealing with racial anxieties. Comedian Spike Milligan browned up as Irish Pakistani Kevin OGrady (Paki Paddy) and represented the kind of bumbling foreigner stereotype that was to be recycled again and again in other popular television comedies (Malik, 2002: 94). In episode one, when OGrady refuses to eat pork he is lampooned by his workers for his religious beliefs and his difference becomes a source of unease. Later in the same episode, Kenny who is the token black character tells Arthur (Eric Sykes) that all Pakistanis are puffs. Not only does this moment underline the sitcoms repugnant homophobic attitudes but also naturalises British Asians as threatening and aberrant.

Next I want to briefly reflect on some of the major breakthroughs that were
achieved at the end of the 1990s[3]. With multiculturalism firmly on the race
relations’ agenda in Britain during the 1990s, the first Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on BBC2. The major problem with comedy shows of the past had not been with racist stereotyping but that a further disempowerment existed for Black audiences since the writers were in many cases exclusively white. Goodness Gracious Me was a comedy show written and performed by British Asians and labelled as interventionist: Part of the trick of the series is the way the comedy team go inside the stereotype, often reverting to it’ (Malik, 2002: 102). More decisively, much of the humour was generated at the expense of white middle class culture. Goodness Gracious Me opened up a new space in television for Asian comedy, neutralising racially motivated representations of the past and reversing the butt of the humour.

Citizen Khan
s reimagining of the British Muslim is a result of shows like Goodness Gracious Me but we should not discount recent British films such as Four Lions. With the success of Four Lions it is the comedy genre that has been the most substantial to confront the radicalisation of British Muslim youth. Four Lions made it safe for white audiences in particular to laugh at British Muslims for both their foolishness and intimacy. Satire is used to neutralise the Otherness of British Muslim youth who became the ethnic Folk Devils during the 1990s (Malik, 2002: 54). An oppositional reading would be that by satirising religious fundamentalism Four Lions trivializes the ideological complexity of contemporary identity politics, closing off British Muslim discourse. This is made more problematic given that the director and writers are of a white middle class background. What Four Lions underlines is the complex way in which audiences interpret representations; the process of contestation occurs both within the text itself and amongst the audience.    

Questions of Citizenship, Assimilation and Segregation

The imaginings of British Muslims in Citizen Khan are predicated on themes
such as citizenship, assimilation and segregation, recalling the explicitly integrationalist project of multicultural programming in the 1980s that hoped to eradicate any problems which Asian people faced in Britain by the assimilation of Asianness into Englishness’ (Malik, 2002: 57). The title of the show offers an ideological link to New Labours advocating of citizenship[4] as a questionable attempt to reconstruct national identity through old age principles of allegiance to the state. If the title emphasises Mr Khans status as a citizen and his superficial integration into mainstream British society, it also suggests incorporating subordinate groups into the hegemonic mass is dependent on a degree of assimilation by acknowledging a direct association with the state. Today citizenship ceremonies demand immigrants pledge allegiance to Britain, questioning the existence of a dual or global citizenship that marked the identity of first generation British Asians.

The title Citizen Khan is also misleading in many ways since Mr Khan is more of a citizen for the Pakistani community than the state. If Mr Khan does selfishly self promote his own interests then such a representation reinforces a right wing ideological rhetoric propagated by both the BNP and EDL since they continue to advocate that ethnic communities are segregated on the basis of choice rather than wider socio-political determinants. The duality of identity is made clear in the opening montage in which the title appears on screen with the Pakistani flag separating the word Citizen from Khan. In many ways Pakistan as the distant, imaginary homeland comes in between Mr Khans duties as a citizen for the community and his role as a father/husband to his family. New Labour credulously propagated the concept of active citizenship after the 2002 Bradford and Oldham riots. In this respect, Mr Khans activism within the religious and business affairs of the Pakistani community can be read as a response to the promotion of active citizenship. Yet progressive notions of citizenship in which everyone partakes in protecting British values within the community was questioned by British Muslims as a way of forcibly assimilating ethnic differences into the mainstream.

The question of assimilation is exemplified in the character of Alia, the younger of the two daughters, who wears the hijab as both a way of masking her desire to assimilate while retaining a link to her identity as a Muslim. In episode one, Alia is first seen in the kitchen. She is wearing makeup, false eyelashes and reading a glossy fashion magazine. In front of her is a blackberry mobile phone. Initially, Alias ordinary teenage construction is familiar enough to us yet her separateness from the rest of the family positions her as someone who feels the most uncomfortable with her Muslim identity. As soon as Alia hears Mr Khan in the distance, she hurriedly puts on the hijab and begins reading the Quran. Alias desire to integrate fully is hampered not because of cultural traditions but religious obligations. Yet Alias manipulation of her father undercuts any dominant interpretations of Mr Khan as the controlling patriarch commonly associated with representations of British Asian families. If Alia symbolises the ideological progressiveness of contemporary British Pakistani youth we need to reflect on why her character is the least developed and most invisible in the series. In many ways, Alia seems trapped in the family and although this is a convention of teenage representations often associated with the sitcom form, it is an entrapment brought on by the politics of segregation.

Karen Ross (1996: 109) says that television series in the 1980s with Black or Asian characters were
usually placed in ghettos. The ghettoisation of Asian communities in Britain is linked to on going debates centring on segregation. The opening montage of Citizen Khan is ideologically complex in its imaginings of British Muslims, establishing segregation as a key thematic. The montage begins with a yellow 1970s Mercedes making its way through the streets of Sparkhill juxtaposed to the Bhangra beats of Kam Frantic. The collision of the Mercedes and Bhangra underlines an underlying ideological contest between tradition and modernity, between the old and new generation of British Pakistani Muslims. If the Mercedes is a symbol of Mr Khans associations with the past then the deployment of Bhangra music taps into a hybridity of cultural forms signifying Alias progressive generation. The voice over that accompanies the montage depicts Mr Khan as a delusional figure echoing Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses. As the Mercedes moves along the high street, segregation is presented as a social reality and imagined in a public space. Race is not the only exclusive segregatory political statement. The intercutting between the women (Alia, Shazia and Mrs Khan) in the back of the Mercedes to Mr Khan waving at the people offers a reading of gender segregation. This is made explicit by the space occupied by the characters within the Mercedes - Mr Khan is literally in the driving seat and in control of his family. Nevertheless, this is a reading contested in the series and best encapsulated by episode five in which Mr Khan loses the battle to watch a cricket match in his own house because his wife has organised a prayer meeting.

The opening montage ends in calamity as Mr Khan drives the Mercedes up a public footpath to park outside their terraced house, obstructing an old woman on a mobility vehicle. This final moment is substantial since the violation of public space, in this case the street and footpath, contradicts Mr Khan
s positioning as a cooperative citizen of the community. The ideological implication of the old white woman coming to an abrupt halt suggests Mr Khan is presented as an obstacle in the path of integration. Such public space cannot be shared, implying that racial coexistence is a near impossibility. Another reading of this racial encounter can be contextualised further still in the reports of no go areas in Pakistani communities such as Oldham in which whites were likely to be chased out. The media amplified such reports, implying it was widespread within British Pakistani communities especially in the North of England. Segregation and integration are themes that reappear in the series. In episode two, Dave, the white Muslim convert and mosque manager agrees to Mr Khans suggestion that he should take the old lady pensioners out to the shopping centre in Birmingham: 'It will help to integrate the mosque worshippers with the wider community. This repeats the anxiety of religious segregation not only with wider British society but also more specifically within ethnic communities.

The final shot of the montage contests such a reading of segregation as Mr Khans two daughters and wife react with dismay since in their view Mr Khan’s actions are embarrassing and socially unacceptable. We must not neglect the comic value of such a moment as it establishes Mr Khan as a bumbling fool and since he is the butt of the joke it makes the text problematic as we are already laughing at him rather than with him, and this even before the sitcoms narrative has started in earnest. Citizenship, assimilation and segregation are themes that intertwine, presenting a discourse of ethnicity that are directly related to many of the New Labour policies which failed to create a dialogue of trust with a generation of British Asians who in truth are more integrated in the mainstream of British society than their parents.

Contesting Racial Stereotyping in the Sitcom Genre

The representations of British Asian women (not British Pakistani) have been much more progressive and are in many ways broader than the stereotypical way in which Asian men have been depicted since the 1970s. Representations of British Asian men (mainly from the Indian, Sikh or Pakistani ethnic communities) have resulted in narrow and regressive stereotyping: the violent husband, the repressive father, and the religious fanatic. Such stereotyping is predicated on a notion of hyperbolic disruption whereby British Pakistani men are rarely ever seen within a normative state. The mainstream media has found it incessantly impossible to disassociate British Pakistani masculinity from Islamic ideology. Even in recently contested texts such as My Son the Fanatic, Four Lions and Britz, the British Pakistani males radicalism is ultimately depicted as a political threat to the norms of British society. Given the mainstream status of Citizen Khan, in terms of representation the stakes are much higher but we have to bear in mind that stereotyping is bound by genre and in the case of the sitcom, narrative energies are directed towards containing transgression and reasserting norms (Langford, 2005: 18).

If Mr Khans buffoonery recalls dysfunctional characters such as Basil Fawlty, Alf Garnett and Del Boy then racial stereotyping needs to be positioned within a broader argument regarding the way sitcom opposes character development, contains radical social and political thought and functions to reinforce dominant ideological values (Langford, 2005: 16). Nonetheless, I would argue Mr Khans ethnic status as a British Muslim Pakistani complicates simplistic genre interpretations since it is his ethnicity that separates him from past sitcom protagonists. Mr Khans buffoonish antics actually need to be read within the discourse of Black stereotyping such as the Coon. Stuart Hall (1981: 39 – 40) in his ‘grammar of race’ identifies three racial constructs: ‘the slave figure’, ‘the native’ and ‘the clown or entertainer.’ The clown/entertainer is a variation on the Coon stereotype (extending from minstrelsy) that depicted the black man as lazy, stupid and comical. The Coon stereotype functions largely to make a white audience laugh at the Black mans foolishness.

Much of the humour generated in Citizen Khan is largely at the expense of Mr Khan. He is first introduced in episode one with a bag of light bulbs bought on special offer from the local cash & carry. The problem with the humour is not Mr Khans depiction as a cheap skate, although this is an old stereotype, but its deployment within the narrative since we are constantly laughing at him and his antics. Mr Khan may lack the typical characteristics associated with the coon stereotype such as laziness and while it is the primary function of the protagonist in a sitcom to make us laugh, it is a representation bound up in the discourse of Muslim, Pakistani and British identity. Interestingly, the private space within which Mr Khan is ridiculed, usually at home amongst his family, can be contrasted to more public spaces such as the Mosque in which humour is generated at the expense of Dave and Omar (the Somali immigrant with a funny accent).

Therefore, Citizen Khan is significant in depoliticising a public and religious space such as the Mosque, which has taken on damaging ideological associations with terrorism. The mosque as a space is neutralised and made safe since the office in the mosque becomes a symbol of progressiveness, as it is a space occupied by a white Muslim convert. The mosque office can also be read in opposition since it is a space that replicates the existing power relations of Britain today. Although Dave is a Muslim convert, his status as a white manager indicates his power and authority over Mr Khan, thus reiterating the position of social and economic inferiority occupied by British Pakistani Muslims in reality. In many ways, the characters of Dave and Omar are used to extrapolate the racial prejudices harboured by Mr Khan who says: Im not an immigrant. Ive been here more than 30 years. Immigrants are Eastern European, coming over here, taking our jobs, jobs meant for us Pakistanis. Such racialised address recalls Alf Garnetts attitude to immigration and normalises Mr Khans status as an accepted member of mainstream British society, transforming the discourse from exclusionary racial politics of the past to more current inter ethnic prejudices.

Citizen Khan propagates the notion that on screen bigotry is no longer exclusively white, but has been complicated over time by the ways in which certain ethnic groups have become accepted as part of the mainstream. Nevertheless, it is religious identity that remains a problem in Citizen Khan. Mr Khan as the Muslim patriarch is a compromised stereotype (maybe slightly inverted) since it is a construction that keeps more of the dominant rhetoric at a critical distance such as violence, oppression and fundamentalism. In some respects, by reimagining Mr Khan as just another father normalises Muslim identity but only to a certain extent.

A key tradition of the British sitcom is family. Citizen Khan is arguably one of the first contemporary television texts to fully represent a British Pakistani family. Yet why are we not presented with a prosperous, middle class family with aspirations? By representing the British Pakistani family as economically defunct, obsessed with religion, socially segregated, and suspicious of other ethnicities may conform to the sitcom lexicon of family as dysfunction but in fact such a problematic representation is counter productive, undermining the intentions of giving a voice to an invisible minority, since it reinforces pre existing misconceptions regarding the British Pakistani community. Although the sitcom form denies the potential of subversion, be it gender or political, Citizen Khan depicts a British Pakistani family in which no one except for Amjad is shown to be in full time employment. Interestingly, the only character who is ‘shown’ to be working happens to be white: Dave, the mosque manager.

Nonetheless, both The Desmonds and The Cosby Show offered representations of middle class black families who were moderately affluent, educated and integrated. With The Cosby Show in particular, social mobility for the black community in America may have been illusionary but at least it was on display for audiences to witness. The star of Citizen Khan Adil Ray mounts a paradoxical defence predicated on genre, excluding potential ideological consequences: Citizen Khan is not a Muslim comedy, its a British family sitcom. It doesn’t represent all Muslims or all Pakistanis, theres no way it could do that because theyre not all the same (18/11/12, Birmingham Mail). This may be true but Adil Ray seems to overlook what is at stake. Very few mainstream media representations of British Pakistanis exist in the first place and the ones that do are situated within the ideologically contentious and predominantly realms of religious fanaticism. As Ross (1996: 4) argues, Images thus become transformed over time, from being mainly symbolic to connoting reality. In many ways, who has the power to represent and how they represent in this case a particular ethnic group returns to the burden of representation (Ross, 1996: 50) that was faced by Black artists in 1980s Britain. Since Citizen Khan is uniquely singular in its representation of British Muslim identity, it inevitably faces criticism for what it includes and excludes.

In terms of racial and ethnic stereotyping, contestation is most visible in the characters of Shazia and Alia. Since Islam is often represented in the mainstream as a religion that oppresses women, it is here in the opening up of a new space for British Muslim and Pakistani female voices that have long been silenced and rendered invisible does Citizen Khan offer an ideologically progressive discourse. Much of the early criticism of Citizen Khan was directed to the character of Alia and the responses on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook brought forth a familiar reactionary religious conservatism that wish to render such counter hegemonic texts illegitimate solely on the grounds of racism.

I want to finish by taking a brief look at Shazias character. The choice of representing a British Asian family with two girls reverses the common assumption that boys hold a more valued position in the British Pakistani community. Shazia is older than Alia but we are given very little in terms of backstory. We assume since she is living with her parents it is a decision determined by tradition rather than choice. Determining to what extent Shazia is stereotyped as a typical British Asian girl is complicated by the dearth of British Pakistani representations in British television especially those of girls. In episode six, Mr Khan spreads a malicious rumour about Shazia and a boy Imran Parvez. Mr Khan does this so he can invite Mr Javed, a respected figure in the community, to the wedding and hope that the Parvez family stay away. The plan backfires and momentarily jeopardises the relationship between Shazia and Amjad. When Shazia discovers what has happened, she is furious at her parents: My body is my own. It doesn’t belong to anybody else. It shouldn’t matter to Amjad what Ive done in the past and it shouldn’t matter to you either. Shazias words articulate a collective speaking out against the way British Pakistani girls are judged on a value system based on honour, duty and chastity. Innumerably, Shazias words momentarily contradict the argument that the sitcom form suppresses radicalism. The contextual allusion to a wider debate centring on honour killing in British Pakistani communities is a pertinent one, hinting at the subversive potential to incorporate social commentary into the sitcom form. The radicalism of Shazias gender status is contained by the limited spaces (living room, bedroom, kitchen) in which she is situated, reinforcing traditional gender roles. The significance of Shazia as a British Pakistani Muslim girl is merely symbolic and like her mum who is stereotyped as the oppressed housewife both remain, invisible in the public domain and trapped within the family framework while ultimately they lack any active agency to change their condition (Ansari, 2004: 252). Still, Langford (2005: 17) argues change is an impossibility since the cyclical structures of sitcom induces a particular amnesia, in which whatever lesson has been learnt one week is forgotten the next.  

Conclusion – Incorporating Otherness

To falsely dismiss Citizen Khan as populist entertainment with instantaneous escapist pleasures would negate the ideological implications of a text that reimagines the British Muslim as a contested site of social anxieties. If this a serious attempt by a mainstream broadcaster, in this case the BBC, to naturalise and normalise (Hall, 1981: 42) the presence of British Muslims, then, by posing questions centring on assimilation, segregation, citizenship and patriarchy leads back to an argument posed by John Fiske (1987: 38) on the relationship between form and ideology: the effect of putting a socially interrogative view of the world into a conventional form is debatable. Whether Citizen Khan is interrogative should not detract from its attempts to show fictional acceptance of the British Muslim.

Neutralising the threat of the Muslim as the Other is complex since we also see examples of incorporation in the sitcom. As a reaction to Islamophobia, Muslim women sought refuge in the hijab and it was transformed from a symbol of religious oppression to a political one articulating an opposition to mainstream western culture. In Citizen Khan, incorporation works to rob the radical of its voice and thus of its means of expressing its opposition’ (Fiske, 1987: 38). This certainly is the case with Alia’s de-politicisation of the hijab. If Citizen Khan incorporates and legitimises the Muslim as part of mainstream dominant culture then we can see a hegemonic process at work since it is our consent that is being sought over such representations.

Perhaps the proof that such consent has been won is evident in the re-commissioning of Citizen Khan for a second series. If this is true then we need to find out who exactly has given this consent and why – is it the traditional white middle class BBC television audience or is it an integrated audience also made up of British Asians? Whichever is the case, we must never lose sight of the struggle and contest over meanings that takes place in the cultural discourse produced by Citizen Khan.

[1] Adil Ray co-writes Citizen Khan with Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto who both worked on Goodness Gracious Me (1996 - 2001) and The Kumars at No 42 (2001 - 2006).

[2] Roger Ballards work is of importance here since he undertook a qualitative examination of the characteristics of South Asian settlements in the UK addressing family, religion, difference, migration, caste and the hybridisation of youth culture.

[3] My essay does not have the scope to detail sitcoms like Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language, The Fosters, Tandoori Nights and Desmonds. For a detailed reading of the aforementioned texts, see Maliks (2002, pg. 91 - 107) chapter on The black situation in television comedy.

[4] Not only do we have The Citizenship Test (first introduced in 2002) immigrants must take before they naturalise and settle in the UK but Citizenship was also introduced in the English Curriculum in 2002.


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My Beautiful Laundrette, 1985, Stephen Frears
My Son the Fanatic, 1987, Udayan Prasad
Four Lions, 2010, Chris Morris

Television texts cited

Till Death Do Us Part, 1966 – 1975, BBC
Curry and Chips, 1969, LWT
Love Thy Neighbour, 1972 – 1977, Thames Television for ITV
Mind Your Language, 1977 – 1979, 1986, LWT for ITV
The Fosters, 1976 – 1977, LWT for ITV
Citizen Smith, 1977 – 1980, BBC
Only Fools and Horses, 1981 – 1996, BBC
The Cosby Show, 1984 – 1992, NBC
Tandoori Nights, 1985 – 1987, Channel 4
Goodness Gracious Me, 1998 – 2000, BBC
Kumars at No. 42, 2001 – 2003, BBC
Britz, 2007, Channel 4
Citizen Khan, 2012, BBC