parallel cinema : an introduction

garam hawa

With a low budget, no stars and the absence of any songs, Ankur (1973) truly was an unconventional Indian film. Benegal’s social critique even bypassed the newly established FFC for funding, finding an unlikely partner in Blaze, an advertising company with which the director had close ties. With direct access to cinema exhibition across India, Blaze Films was established as an independent production company and distributor. Benegal says he was the one who approached Blaze with the idea of directing a feature film and their willingness to act as both producer and distributor was critical in breaking the monopoly of mainstream Hindi cinema by rejecting many of the established rules and helping to popularise the art house film as a commercially viable movement. Academic Madhava Prasad underlines the political relevance of Blaze as an independent distributor,‘Sensing the existence of a market for a cinema different from the popular as well as the ‘middle class’ variety, [Blaze] engaged one of its ad-film makers, Shyam Benegal to direct Ankur, thus inaugurating the commercial exploitation of the political dimension of the FFC’s aesthetic project.’ (Prasad, 1998: 130)

With the unexpected commercial success of a film like Bhuvan Shome which performed tremendously well for a low budget art film, Blaze sensed that the emergence of a middle class audience versed in the language of European cinema could potentially evolve into a lucrative niche market. This hunger for the art film was qualified in the success of Ankur, cementing the development of a parallel cinema with which both Benegal and Shabana Azmi would become synonymous icons. However, the conditions for a new realist cinema spearheaded by Benegal were in no way a sudden phenomenon. The core argument for an alternative mode of cinematic address had originally been touted by the IPTA, a leftist theatre organisation that found many of its members actively involved in using film as an ideological instrument. However, the state’s subservience to Hollywood imports and a reluctance to heed the advice outlined in a 1951 report by the S.K Patil Film Inquiry Committee delayed the inevitable emergence of an indigenous parallel cinema. Ashish Rajadhyaksha (1994: 25) says the 1951 report highlighted ‘the shift from studio system to independent entrepreneurship’ whilst also recommending ‘major state investment for film production, the setting up of a film finance corporation, a film institute and archives.’

The monopolisation of the distribution and exhibition network by the major film making hub in Bombay would have definitely had an influence on why exactly the report was ignored as the recommendation for state investment would have raised concerns amongst many of the major producers who were not willing to share a market in which certain films would have favourable support from the government. State sponsored cinema even today tends to provoke a strong reaction amongst some directors who argue that such a situation in which the political values of the state and those of the film maker co exist is problematic in that the two will inevitably come to a consensus, thus diluting and compromising the ideological purity of the film’s initial aims. Of course, this might be true of countries in which the ruling government does make use of ideological state apparatus like cinema as a means of circulating dominant values but the films that have been financed either partially or fully by the NFDC arguably share a leftist perspective that runs contrary to much of the conservative rhetoric espoused by consecutive Indian governments.

Taking just under ten years for the government to respond to the recommendations of the report, in 1960, the film finance corporation was established by Nehru with a remit that centred on supporting good quality films through financial assistance in the form of low interest loans. Admittedly, at first the FFC initially aligned themselves with established directors in the film industry, backing in particular Satyajit Ray. Rajadhyaksha argues that the commercial success of Bhuvan Shome was the turning point, encouraging the FFC to fully support ‘low budget, independent films’. The acceleration of loans between 1969 and 1979 made to over fifty films launched the careers of numerous directors, leading to a vibrant and politically conscious cinema. Though the FFC continued to face a virtual embargo in terms of distribution and exhibition, Prasad (1998: 127-8) argues that ‘the middle class movement in the mainstream industry was strong enough to prompt a suitable expansion of exhibition outlets’. This was subsequently supported by opening the first FFC art house cinema in 1972 whilst ‘in many cities, new theatres with reduced seating capacity were built specifically for the middle class film’. (Prasad, 1998: 127-8) Simultaneously, the promotion of film culture through the emergence of film societies coincided with a new cine literate middle class audience.

Another equally significant factor often overlooked when contextualising parallel cinema is the decision taken by the government in 1971 to reject the renewal of a ‘5 year contract for the import of Hollywood films.’ (Prasad, 1998: 190) The dislodging of Hollywood’s domination was useful in opening up a new area of indigenous cinema as it meant Indian film makers no longer had to face the indignity of subservience. Even in light of today’s American hegemony, India is one of the few nations in which the domestic box office each year is made up of home grown films. Ironically, it was Satyajit Ray who was the first to personally criticise the idea of a New Indian Cinema arguing it was merely a pretentious euphemism connected with Godard and the French New Wave. Unlike Benegal and Nihalani who considered themselves ‘middle of the road’, the experimental and avant-garde cinema of European influenced Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul represented the fringes of what had evolved into a rich national cinema. The drop in Hollywood imports inevitably led to a greater opportunity for indigenous films to negotiate with exhibitors. It was around this time in 1973 that Blaze released Benegal’s debut Ankur, scoring an unexpected commercial success.

It was during the emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 75 and onwards that the FFC faced its first real crisis. An investigation by The Committee on Public Undertakings in 1976 criticised the FFC for an art film bias and also failing to choose projects that stood a chance of turning a profit at the box office. As a direct consequence of the investigation, the FFC had to adopt a new‘aesthetic criteria for future film funding including human interest in theme, Indianness and characters with whom we can identify.’ (Rajadhyaksha, 1998) In 1980, the FFC merged with the Indian Motion Picture Export Corporation, becoming the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation). Two years later, the NFDC was involved in co-financing Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi (1982) and throughout the early 1980s, it experienced it’s most instrumental and productive decade, distributing a catalogue of quality Indian films that have come to be regarded as the high point of parallel cinema. This period of prominence includes award winning films such as Aakrosh (Cry of the Wounded, Govind Nihalani, 1980), Anantram (Monologue, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1987), Ardh Satya (Half Truth, Govind Nihalani, 1983), Bhavni Bhavai (A Folk Take, Ketan Mehta, 1980), Chakra (Ravindra Dharmaraj, 1980), Ghare-Baire (The Home and the Word, Satyajit Ray, 1984), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (Who Pays the Piper, Kundan Shah, 1983),Khandhar (Mrinal Sen, 1983), Salaam Bombay (Mira Nair, 1988), Sati (Aparna Sen, 1989) andTarang (Wages and Profit, Kumar Shahani, 1984).

It was in the nineties that Indian cinema started to change yet again with both the family film and image of the romantic hero revived in the films of new stars like Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan. Today, the NFDC continues to support Indian art films and still finances a number of films year each year. However, growth of independent production companies, the rise in cinema screens and the dominance of television have obscured the role of the NFDC. Even the leading light of parallel cinema Shyam Benegal turned to UTV Motion Pictures, a newly established international production company, for the production and distribution of his 2008 comedy filmWelcome to Sajjanpur. No equivalent art-film movement as that of parallel cinema exists today but the new wave of film makers including Ram Gopal Varma, Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap certainly acknowledge the realist aesthetic of auteurs like Benegal, Nihalani and Shahani on their own work.

navketan films: chetan, vijay and dev anand

NEECHA NAGAR / Lowly City (Dir. Chetan Anand, 1946, India)

(Dir. Chetan Anand, 1954, India)

Dev Anand in one of his many publicity poses – one of the overlooked stars of 50s Hindi cinema.

Trapped amongst the ideological sincerities of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt was Dev Anand – the suave, sardonic and gentlest of screen heroes who came closest to perfecting the charismatic yet unpredictable persona of Hollywood noir film stars like John Garfield. It was in 1949 that the Anand brothers got together, establishing Navketan Films, an independent production company. Between the creatively enriching period beginning in 1952 with Afsar and reaching its artistic zenith in 1965 with Guide, Navketan helped ttransform Dev Anand into one of the most popular Indian film stars of the 1950s whilst offering a slew of great films which attempted to and largely succeeded on occasions to bridge the sacred gap between art and commerce. The Anand brothers were comprised of Chetan, Dev and Vijay. Chetan Anand, the eldest, was also the most political and his deep ideological involvement with IPTA during and after partition led to him directing one of the earliest examples of an emerging social realist style imported from theatre. The film in question was none other than Neecha Nagar, the first Indian film to be screened at Cannes and the first to win a prize. It’s not surprising that Chetan’s strong socialist beliefs would leave a lasting impact on both Dev and Vijay Anand.

Released in 1954, Taxi Driver, is perhaps their best known film of the 50s period and whilst it takes much of its aesthetic influences from film noir, the combination of all three brothers – Chetan as director, Vijay as writer and Dev as main lead produced a semi realist tale about the proletarian imprisoned in a new urban dystopia of broken dreams and class divisions. In principle the vision of the city as a hostile landscape in which the anti-hero (though romantically inclined) must struggle to preserve his moral integrity was shared amongst many of the major film makers of the era including Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Zia Sarhadi. The accents of the angry young man as personified by the Vijay persona of Amitabh can be traced directly back to films such as Awaara, Boot Polish and Taxi Driver in which the proletarian must come to terms with his lowly position within the grand scheme of things. In many ways, the repeated thematic pronunciations of the family coming under attack and the corruption of the innocent rural woman was common place in the narratives of melodramas, indicating strongly popular cinema’s subservience to the ordinary dilemmas that plagued the mainstream.


Taxi Driver came about as an economic necessity rather than a committed political dictat. With Navketan under pressure to deliver a hit after two consecutive commercial disappointments, Taxi Driver was quickly put together and shot on a low budget almost entirely on the streets of Mumbai. Released in 1954, the film was a resounding success story with audiences and seemed to continue an interest in film noir first initiated with Baazi in 1951 which was directed by Guru Dutt, one of Dev Anand’s many exciting discoveries. Interestingly, the period between 1949 and 1965 is generally considered to be one of the richest creative periods in the history of Indian cinema, explaining why Navketan flourished in generating new cinematic ideas. Hailing from Punjab, Dev Anand started his career as an arts graduate at the University of Lahore before making the decisive journey to Bombay. Alternating between his own production company and the illustrious and commercially successful Bombay based Filmistan Studios, Dev Anand cultivated a gentler and more romantic persona than those of his contemporaries like Guru Dutt who embraced a vein of fatalism and tragedy. Mixing comedy with heroism and largely rejecting the Devdas complex, Dev Anand’s naturalistic approach can still be detected today in contemporary Indian film stars including Akshay Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan; in many ways along with Shammi Kapoor it has strangely become the dominant star persona, though few would like to admit so preferring to point unashamedly to both Amitabh and Dilip Kumar.

Chetan Anand’s directorial debut Neecha Nagar (Lowly City) was released in the same year as its counterpart Dharti Ke Lal, directed by K A Abbas, another advocate of the IPTA cause. It is important to bear in mind that Chetan Anand later broke away from Navketan citing creative differences only to re-emerge after an extended hiatus in 1965 with the seminal war film Haqeeqat. Whilst Dharti Ke Lal was an official IPTA production, Neecha Nagar aligned itself more with a Gandhian ideology of passive resistance. Director Chetan Anand had in fact left the IPTA before embarking on Neecha Nagar, criticising the organisation for exploiting its position to propagate leftist dogma. Film critic and journalist Rajiv Vijayakar offers a detailed overview of Chetan Anand’s career in his piece for Screen India. Inspired rather than based on Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Neecha Nagar represents an almost dystopian vision of Indian society in which rampant class divisions are extenuated by the clear geographical demarcations that exist between the wealthy, ruling elite who reside in the mountains and the poor, oppressed workers in the lowly city below. Such an acute political and economic dichotomy echoes that of Lang’s Metropolis. Similarly the figure of the corrupt industrialist despot attempts to placate the worker’s revolt, buying influence and openly breeding disunity. A thematic recurrence of the rural village as a place of utopian socialist ideals struggling to counter the corrupting weight of modernity would eventually become a defining ideological characteristic of the Hindi realist melodrama.

The despotic landowner is indifferent to the concerns of the poor villagers.
The leader of the village revolt and voice of the oppressed.

The story of Neecha Nagar sees the landowner, representing the forces of elitism, approve of and build a sewage system that cuts through the village of the poor oppressed farmers. Indifferent to their plight, the sewage corrupts the water supply, destroys the crops and spreads disease leading to a shallow attempt on behalf of the landowner to construct a hasty makeshift hospital offering free treatment to the sick. The politicised face of the villagers represented in a secular and transparent manner view the hospital as yet another extension of the landowner’s hegemonic grasp and openly instruct all of the villagers to resist by refusing free treatment. For the hard liners of the village, to get treatment and use the hospital would in fact be giving into the rule of the wealthy elite. It is a defiant stance and one that claims a number of emotional sacrifices but most significantly it develops into a resistance openly rejecting violence and relying on dissent. Whilst the film does feature some songs and dance sequences with music by Ravi Shankar, the raw aesthetics offer one of the most striking examples of early neo realism. Interestingly, Neecha Nagar’s achievements at Cannes were shared amongst a number of films including Rossellini’s Rome, Open City – both films were fashioned on similar humanist sensibilities.

However, the cinematography of Neecha Nagar articulates expressionism imported from German cinema which is very much absent from Rossellini’s historically determined canvas. In a way the expressionistic vein jeopardises the validity of the realist agenda so emphatically stated through the overt political symbolism of the ideologically sentimental characterisation. Despite the criticisms concerning expressionism and realism invoked by Chetan Anand, a third and perhaps more pertinent stylistic tendency emerges in the form of documentary. This may in fact be the common link between Rome, Open City and Neecha Nagar as they both claim to be realist texts because there are sacred moments when both films blur the line between fiction and reality reminding us of an actuality being embraced. Take for example the moment in Neecha Nagar when the villagers realise the landowner has cut off the only clean water supply to the village. A montage is used, documenting the gaunt figures of the poor villagers – we know these are not actors but real people who are photographed without any sense of romanticism. Their existence in neo realism terms is declared by their perpetual gaze and marginal status – rendering them visible makes them doubly political. The ideologue of Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray were all formed in the spirit of such moments and it is not hard to see why Neecha Nagar continues to occupy such a privileged position in the realist trend that would only really come to fruition in the 1950s and beyond.
Here is a fantastic interview with Dev Anand who talks at length about his illustrious and at times brilliant career:



This new blog/site will attempt to catalogue and represent my writings on Indian Cinema. Posts will include reviews, essays, video essays and editorials on Indian Cinema ranging from mainstream Hindi cinema to regional output. My main intention is to engage, appreciate and highlight in particular non-Bollywood cinema, offering a platform to films which can sometimes be marginalised or be pushed to the fringes, films that usually have something quite original or iconoclastic to say about India, history, politics, gender and cinema itself.

I have been blogging and writing about Indian cinema for over seven years now and intend to re-post much of the longer pieces from my old blogging site which will continue to remain active. I also have written a book on Indian Cinema and intend to post materials linked to specific chapters on the book and as a means of expanding case studies to bring the content in line with current trends in Indian Cinema. I have decided to name the blog/site after the seminal TV series on Indian Cinema directed by Nasreen Munni Kabir in the 1980s which first introduced me formally to the joys of Indian Cinema and especially Bollywood.

Omar Ahmed

citizen khan

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


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 Powell’s ‘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. Speight’s 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. Speight’s follow up Curry and Chips was even more antagonistic in dealing with racial anxieties. Comedian Spike Milligan browned up as Irish Pakistani Kevin O’Grady (’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 O’Grady 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 sitcom’s 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 Labour’s 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 Khan’s 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 Khan’s 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 Khan’s 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, Alia’s 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. Alia’s desire to integrate fully is hampered not because of cultural traditions but religious obligations. Yet Alia’s 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 Khan’s associations with the past then the deployment of Bhangra music taps into a hybridity of cultural forms signifying Alia’s 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 Khan’s 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 Khan’s 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 sitcom’s 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 male’s 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 Khan’s 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 Khan’s ethnic status as a British Muslim Pakistani complicates simplistic genre interpretations since it is his ethnicity that separates him from past sitcom protagonists. Mr Khan’s 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 man’s 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 Khan’s 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 Garnett’s attitude to immigration and normalises Mr Khan’s 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 one’s 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 Shazia’s 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.’ Shazia’s 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, Shazia’s 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 Shazia’s 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 Ballard’s 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 Malik’s (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