citizen khan

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

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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.

Bibliography

Akbar, Arifa (2012) ‘Citizen Khan is not just outdated, but lazy and offensive’, 29 August 2012, The Independent, http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/08/29/citizen-khan-is-not-just-outdated-but-lazy-and-offensive/ (accessed January 5)

Ansari, Humayun (2004), The Infidel within: The History of Muslims in Britain since 1800, C. Hurst & Co. Publishers

Ballard, Roger (1994), Desh Pardesh: The South Asian Presence in Britain, C. Hurst & Co. Publishers

Cashmore, Ellis (2004), Encyclopedia of Race and Ethnic Studies, Routledge

Chen, Kuan-Hsing & Morley, David (ed.) (1996), Stuart Hall: Critical dialogues in cultural studies, Routledge

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Dyer, Richard (2002) The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation, Routledge

Fiske, John (1987) Television Culture, Routledge

Gilroy, Paul (1987) There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack, Routledge

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Hall, Stuart (2004) Stuart Hall, Routledge

Hall, Stuart (1995), ‘The Whites of Their Eyes – Racist Ideologies and the Media’ in Dines, Gail and Humez. Jean M., Gender, Race and Class in Media – A Text Reader, Sage Publications, 29 – 52

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Langford, Barry (2005), ‘Our usual impasse: the episodic situation comedy revisited’ in Lacey, Stephen & Bignell, Jonathan (ed.) Popular Television Drama: Critical Perspectives, Manchester University Press, 15 -33

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Malik, Sarita (2002) Representing Black Britain: Black and Asian Images on Television, Sage Publications

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Ross, Karen (1996) Black and White Media: Black Images in Popular Film and Television, Polity Press

Filmography

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

cinematic representations of the black panther party

black panthers

I had been under the false impression that when it came to the representation of The Black Panther Party it would be limited to a handful of texts but on closer examination a number of films and documentaries have been made since the 1960s. How significant and decisive these films have been in shaping public opinion on The Black Panther Party remains unanswered. I would argue that Hollywood continues to side step black history and whilst films have appeared on Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali (both backed by influential and prominent black artists), groups including the Black Panthers and leaders like Martin Luther have been ignored. It seems extraordinary that Hollywood has yet to make even a standard mainstream biopic on Martin Luther given his iconic cultural status. Maybe it’s not surprising that Spike Lee has one time or another been linked to numerous projects on black America with little if any of them given the green light by the studios. I’m not arguing that black film makers have a social, moral and political obligation to act as a voice for the wider community but barring Spike Lee a stronger and more vibrant political cinema should be in operation right now for black film makers. What we are faced with at the moment is the buffoonery of Tyler Perry’s cinema which has been criticised by Spike Lee as a reversion back to the coon stereotype. Personally, I have very little time for such apolitical regressive work and whilst Precious was embraced as a revelation it could do little to exorcise its dependency on sentimentality.

The Black Panther Party is still projected as an extremist organisation and whilst literature offers a revisionist and realistic view the same cannot be said for cinema. Realistic, authentic and representative works have come from the documentary form whilst the brevity of films have tended to be melodramatic, fictionalised and one sided in their account of rise and fall of The Black Panther Party. In many ways, the Black Panthers continue to be a misunderstood, maligned and controversial black organisation/movement and in the light of contemporary political activism their brand of inspiring ideological Marxist militancy is actually somewhat refreshing and truthful. I am of the opinion that The Black Panther Party is potentially a very rich ideological area for film makers attempting to deal with black American discourse (past and present) as the organisation was littered with very memorable, highly articulate and impressionable socialist iconoclasts – Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, Bobby Seale to name but a few. Nevertheless, a handful of films and documentaries do stand out as rewarding, didactic and seminal in their representation of the Panthers.

THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON – (1971, Howard Alk, US)

Murder of Fred Hampton

In Howard Alk’s 1971 slice of verite Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party Fred Hampton comes across as a revolutionary political leader. Articulate, outspoken and defiant in his embrace of socialist ideology Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago police in a pre-mediated raid sanctioned by J Edgar Hoover. Whilst the verite aesthetics suggests an observational and even impartial approach this is not the case as Alk’s documentary steadily transforms into a murder investigation. Alk thankfully refuses to repress or disguise his sympathy and affections for the black panthers which is transparent throughout and the counter culture challenge to traditional symbols of institutional power and authority are plainly evident in the documentary’s criticism of the police as the enemy. Whilst documentaries have arguably become more sophisticated now many of them seem to lack the raw political energy of an era in which nothing was sacred anymore. It is clear to see why the FBI and capitalist establishment felt threatened by Hampton as his emergence as a potential black leader was imminent given his popularity with the black community. Many of the interviews, speeches and observational camerawork set out to prove the Marxist ideology of the Panthers steadily shifted from radical militancy based on racial grounds to a brand of internationalism that positioned the capitalist system as the true enemy of a worldwide class struggle. Outrage is expressed as the police attempts to deflect blame and basically lie in front of the news media whilst the panthers attempts to plead for an independent investigation and inquiry leads to inertia. Alk’s documentary is an angry one with much of it directed against the establishment and its repression of the Panthers as a so called extension of cold war communist propaganda.

PANTHER – (1995, Melvin Van Peebles, US)

panther film

Many of those members who were part of the Black Panther party in the 60s and onwards rightfully distanced themselves from director Mario Van Peebles 1995 biopic on the Panthers. No one is questioning the motivation behind such a subject but Peebles takes extensive liberties with the truth and the end result is a film that embellishes, sensationalises and in a way ends up mis representing the Black Panther Party. The biggest criticism is the lack of objectivity – all of the Panthers and the party are simply depicted as untarnished angels of virtue and morality; ambiguity is absent. By effectively whitewashing the inner conflicts, problems with violence and political interests Peebles paints a picture that bears little resemblance to the real Panthers. Whilst it is true most historical films need a level of dramatisation, Panther is let down by the skills of an ordinary director who seems out of his depth when compared to some one like Spike Lee and the Malcolm X biopic. The noble political intentions of the Panthers are bathed in a disturbing romanticism that shows little critical distance from the director and those involved. Peebles based his screenplay on a novel written by his father – Melvin Van Peebles but for me the soundtrack was too obvious and much of the TV style in which the film has been shot means the material suffers from hyperbole. Interestingly Peebles says he struggled many years to get the project of the ground and it was the moderate success of New Jack City and Posse that finally convinced the studios. The lack of narrative coherence and poor characterisation makes it difficult to differentiate between what were some of the most intelligent, provocative and inspiring black figures of that era. Writer David Gritten for The Independent offers a sustained analysis of the film’s historical re-workings.

ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE! – (1996, Lee Lew-Lee, US)

Emory Douglas

The Black Panthers evolved continually throughout the 60s and beyond which meant their ten point program to enact revolutionary change amongst the dispossessed within American society was constantly under review. Ideologically and structurally the Panthers were a complex political party and whilst this documentary by Lee Lew-Lee may at first seem conventional in its approach it actually offers one of the most comprehensive and engaged accounts of the Black Panthers. Using interviews, archive footage and an investigative manner we are taken on a journey through the civil rights era supported with exhaustive research. It does become a study of the rise and fall of a political ideology with much of the commentary and evidence coming straight from Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver. What really interests Lee Lew-Lee is getting behind some of the major reasons why the party came to prominence in an era of non violence and more importantly what led to the loss of the Panther’s power base and international standing. Firstly, the assassination of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King certainly opened up a new space for the Black Panthers within their own community and the increasing collations they formed with other oppressed minority groups also widened their ideological appeal. Whilst Martin Luther King is represented as a symbol of non violent appeasement it is Malcolm X who is largely credited with developing the notion of intellectual violence. The Panthers saw themselves as natural successors who were carrying on the work of Malcolm X. Nevertheless, the documentary never loses sight of the fundamental truth that all of these different factions, leaders and ideologies were committed to ensuring the right to self determination was a universal value.

Given the fact the Panther Party started to create a united front that stretched around the world against the forces of American imperialism and capitalism it was inevitable the establishment would retaliate. A systematic campaign of covert operations run by the CIA and FBI to dismantle the Black Panther Party were mounted throughout the years in which we saw the party at its peak of political power. This led to high profile assassinations, harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, detention and propaganda used to discredit the ideological legitimacy of the group and its leaders in the eyes of the black community. In the documentary we are told that infiltration was rife and informants were used to compile psychological profiles on Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. One member of the Black Panthers argues the FBI used psychological warfare on Huey Newton during his time in prison thus radically affecting and influencing decisions the made after his release. The documentary also draws telling parallels between the rise of the Black Panther Party and the emergence of the American Indian movement which was also dismantled by the FBI. All Power to the People! offers an accessible and entertaining historical overview of the Black Panther Party but it lacks the rawness and vitality of Alk’s 1971 documentary on Fred Hampton.

An open letter to specialist dvd labels on indian film titles

Specialist DVD Labels

The Criterion Collection (Janus) 
Masters of Cinema (Eureka! Entertainment) 
Second Run 
BFI 
Artificial Eye 
Mr Bongo 

A word of warning before you read on: This letter is in no way definitive and should be best viewed as a working document that is subject to change. Also I’m not sure how accurate I have been with my numbers on Indian film titles released by specialist DVD labels. 

I have been buying films for little over twenty-five years now. As a self proclaimed cinephile my tastes in film are varied and I have DVDs and now increasingly Blu-ray’s that reflect such interests. Conversely, what I have observed over the years is that many of the specialist DVD labels such as Masters of Cinema and Criterion have chosen to make available newly discovered, influential and cult films to a global cinephile community. The significance of specialist film distribution should not be underestimated in terms of enriching our understanding of film. Nonetheless, while many labels have no such obligation when it comes to ensuring they release titles that represent film in its varied global diversity, the absence or should say I say lack of Indian film titles is underwhelming and needs elucidation. 

Firstly, the absence of Indian film titles (I am arguing here for art-house, independent and cult films not mainstream titles which are well supported by most of the major distributors) suggests Indian cinema is not deemed as important as other cinemas, a point I would refute and vehemently argue against. One only has to survey the richness of the Indian New Wave in the late 1960s and beyond to sustain such an argument. In fact, such an absence reiterates the cultural inferiority of Indian cinema that is sometimes perpetuated by mainstream film discourse. Consider even the way 100 years of Indian cinema has been neglected by major highbrow film publications such as Sight and Sound & Film Comment. 

Secondly, the cinema of Satyajit Ray, who has become the most revered Indian film director in the West, does not accurately reflect the contemporary state of Indian cinema. The rise of an educated middle class and a Multiplex film culture in India has led to a vibrant, innovative and edgy independent film scene. No one is denying that Ray is one of the great filmmakers but the unending focus on his films is a default position to adopt since it limits the way we think about Indian cinema. I’m a huge fan of Ray and find it deeply encouraging to see his films gradually being restored and released definitively but whereas French or German cinema has a plethora of auteurs with films that can be accessed easily through specialist DVD labels, the same cannot be said for Indian cinema. Some would reason Indian cinema might have begun with Ray; however, it certainly didn’t end with him.

Satyajit Ray is still Indian cinema’s most revered filmmaker.

Thirdly, if none of these aforementioned DVD labels have a duty or obligation to pursue Indian cinema then why is it that French cinema or even Japanese cinema is given preferential treatment? Perhaps one of the answers is that both French and Japanese cinema are more widely respected among the cinephile community since a greater body of scholarly work exists. If the notion of authorial expression is more closely attuned to French or Japanese cinema then we could attribute this perception to academia and the way film studies is taught. Indian cinema is rarely thought of in terms film auteurs. This seems to be an obstacle since many of the films released by specialist labels are predicated on the auteur myth and consequently Indian cinema becomes marginalised in such a context. That Indian cinema doesn’t produce auteurs is of course an absurdist view.

Lastly, many independent and art Indian films don’t make it to UK cinema screens so it becomes even more important that DVD labels act as a meditator, making available films that are often ignored or dismissed in the face of mainstream film distribution. Given the way many of these labels now hold real weight amongst cinephiles, academics and critics alike, what they choose to release and make available in a way inevitably establishes a discourse that selectively accentuates auteurs, movements and films. For a film to be given preferential treatment and be canonised, as is the case with films that are given the ‘Criterion treatment’ reiterates their cultural worth, contributing to the flow of cinephile discourse.

Ray films that have been given the Criterion treatment.

But is it even necessary to plead with specialist DVD labels when so much of Indian cinema is readily available today? This truth is that the biggies have no problem appearing on DVD. The problem remains that much of regional, art and independent cinema receives inadequate distribution in the UK. Nonetheless, today the situation for a discerning cinephile in India may in fact be the reverse since accessibility has become less of an issue. Getting access to Indian films has never been easier especially with YouTube and various VOD services. Additionally, DVD labels like UTV Motion Pictures, Yash Raj, Shemaroo and NFDC to name a few distribute varied Indian film titles. I am not arguing specialist DVD labels should enforce a more balanced policy when it comes to selecting films since this would inevitably lead to a kind of cinematic political correctness. Films need to be judged on their artistic merits alone and film canons have never been compiled solely on the basis of ‘country of origin’. Yet if this is the case then why is it that Indian cinema is so poorly represented in the catalogues of so many DVD labels. In an attempt to support such a claim I surveyed the number of films from India that have been released by some of the major specialist DVD labels. It was fairly obvious what I learned:

The Criterion Collection (owned by Janus) – 7 titles 
Eureka! Entertainment (which owns the Masters of Cinema label) – 1 title (Abhijan by Ray which is currently listed as out of print) 
BFI – 6 titles (although I have not included films by Franz Osten) 
Artificial Eye – 16 titles (all of these except for one are films directed by Satyajit Ray) 
Second Run – 3 titles 
Mr Bongo – 4 titles (all films by Ray again) 

Artificial Eye wins hand down and it certainly has the strongest track record in terms of making available titles from the Middle East, Iran and even Africa. However, Satyajit Ray dominates the titles, which is not surprising since he is still promoted by western film discourse as the only Indian filmmaker with widespread acceptance amongst a predominantly middle class western audience. Dare I say it but has Ray become a problem in the way we perceive Indian cinema today? It may in fact be a problem exacerbated by the way Ray continues to a primary focus whenever Indian cinema appears in mainstream film publications such as Sight and Sound. Criterion, perhaps the most reputable specialist DVD label, has seven Indian film titles in their catalogue (I decided against including the Merchant-Ivory films) and aside from Monsoon Wedding, which one could argue isn’t even indigenous, Ray dominates again. In fact, Finland is better represented than India, which seems especially bizarre given the exponential output from the Indian film industry. Eureka! Entertainment, which owns Masters of Cinema have just one Indian film title; Abhijan. This is yet another Ray film and since it is currently out of print, one could argue a complete absence of Indian cinema in the catalogue of Masters of Cinema seems perplexing considering so many contemporary Indian indie titles have bee made of late that are artistically significant and commercially feasible. Peepli Live, the only recent Indian film title that appears in the catalogue of Artificial Eye, is representative of a new wave of Multiplex indie films that have emerged more frequently over the past few years but one title hardly accounts for the prolific creative output of this particular lively film scene. The BFI, which relies partially on public funding is exemplary at promoting British film culture yet has only six Indian film titles in their catalogues. All of these films are quite old now and while the BFI were the first in the UK to make available the films of Ritwik Ghatak, such a concern for Indian cinema in terms of specialist distribution has been inconsistent to the say the least. 

Non-Ray films that have been given a specialist film release by DVD labels include few contemporary Indian films.

One reason, often cited, why Indian film titles are rarely distributed by specialist labels is related to the complicated area of distribution rights in India which I am told are highly problematic when compared to other countries. Unfortunately, my reluctance to expand on this argument is to do with a lack of information about the process. I’m guessing locating an adequate print, usually from an archive, is just one of the obstacles complicating this process. It may be the case that some Indian films have been released on DVD and are available to buy but we can say the same for some of the films that have been acquired by Masters of Cinema and Criterion. Consider the way Double Indemnity, Touch of Evil and Two Lane Blacktop have been re-released more definitively than ever before. Acquiring distribution has been in an issue in the past especially for classic Indian films. I doubt the same circumstances exist for contemporary independent films since they depending on alternate platforms in terms of reaching the widest possible audience. Another question arises here: why should it be the responsibility of DVD labels in the west to reclaim Indian films from the past? Such a question may seem pertinent at first but given the way DVD labels in both the US and UK have fallen over themselves to focus squarely on Europe as a benchmark for quality arthouse cinema renders such a question irrelevant because isn’t it the case that cinephilia is predicated on a singular motivating factor; the promotion of good cinema?

It would be wrong to bring forth accusations to do with discrimination but I feel film canons that have popularised movements, auteurs and films in the West have done so at the expense of Indian cinema. This was evident in Sight and Sound’s recent poll. The Eurocentric bias that I have written about before continues to circulate in the way film is written about in mainstream film journalism and academia and I personally feel this is a decisive factor in the way discourse on Indian cinema takes place within a marginal space obfuscating the rich output of regional cinemas. The recent London Indian Film Festival which is currently touring the UK with examples of new Indian cinema needs to be embraced for it’s programming since it draws attention to an alternative counter hegemonic cinema which is very much alive in India. An interesting case in point and one that allows me to test my theory of the way edgy, independent and art films never reach UK shores especially in terms of specialist DVD distribution can be illustrated by simply looking at the 2012 programme for the London Indian Film Festival. Although these films were exhibited before a select audience, how many of them actually saw the light of day in terms of home video distribution? The answer would probably be a handful. Many of these films will probably be available in the Indian domestic home video market, creeping through on VOD but most of the still remain unreleased in the UK, failing to get either a theatrical or home video release. This in many ways doesn’t seem particularly revelatory considering so many films in general, regardless of the country in which they are made, face such a struggle when it comes to getting an adequate distribution deal.

A key festival in the Indian film calendar which is playing a hugely significant role in helping to offer an alternative to populist Hindi cinema or Bollywood with an emphasis on the Indian ‘indie’ film scene.

Recommending a body of film titles suitable for distribution on DVD/Blu-ray may seem a little presumptuous but I am going to anyway. An invaluable starting point is a list of ‘landmark films’ compiled by the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), to mark 100 years of Indian cinema. Films canons obviously discriminate but this list avoids the crime of simply defining Indian cinema by the populist Hindi films, instead striking a tone of inclusivity by accounting for regional output. In spite of some of these films having been released on DVD, a release via a specialist label would not only bring the films to a wider audience but force the cinephile community to reformulate their understanding of Indian cinema by entering into a new dialogue with the contemporary scene rather than remain fixated on a singular film auteur. 

Another false perception of Indian cinema is through the prism of Bollywood (mainstream Hindi cinema in Mumbai). Extravagant ‘masala’ spectacles offer hyperbolic narratives that can still be equated with lowbrow culture. In spite of that, Indian cinema has its fair share of auteurs, from the past and present. For example, just consider the work of documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, who has had a retrospective at the BFI Southbank yet whose work is unavailable in the UK unless you purchase directly through his website – Patwardhan’s output in itself calls for a substantial box set treatment. DVD labels like Criterion and Masters of Cinema excel in their comprehensive approach, ensuring each film title is presented with the finest transfer, recompensing extras and striking packaging. 

Whereas I am in agreement with the NFAI’s list, I want to finish by proposing a personal list of ten films that I would argue deserve a specialist release: (the films appear in no particular order) 

1. Gulaal (Anurag Kashyap, 2009) 

2. Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan / Alms for the Blind Horse (Gurvinder Singh, 2011)

3. Road, Movie (Dev Benegal, 2009)

4. Garam Hawa / Hot Winds (M. S. Sathyu, 1973)

5. Calcutta 71’ (Mrinal Sen, 1971)

6. Uski Roti / Our Daily Bread (Mani Kaul, 1970)

7. Neecha Nagar / Lowly City (Chetan Anand, 1946)

8. Hey Ram (Kamal Hassan, 2000)

9. Ganga Jumna (Nitin Bose, 1961)

10. Baazi / Gamble (Guru Dutt, 1951)

Some personal choices that deserve a specialist release by DVD labels.

Understandably DVD labels have to think commercially about film titles and this can be an abiding, if not, fundamental principle guiding their selection. If this is true and Indian cinema is considered commercially unsound in terms of the cinephile consumer then perhaps the changes I am advocating are unrealistic, hence the exclusion of Indian cinema from specialist cinephile distribution is without prejudice. I want to end by saying that specialist labels that have the means to distribute must take more of a considered approach when it comes to selecting film titles but this means taking Indian cinema seriously as a genuine cinephile concern. Even if a label as influential and revered as let’s say Masters of Cinema were to release at least one film each year in this way, it would be a step in the right direction.