Dissecting the Gaze in Selected British Asian Films
by: Rachel Ramsay with Students , October 5, 2023
by: Rachel Ramsay with Students , October 5, 2023
‘Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality.’ (bell hooks 1992: 116).
This article came into being via student essay submissions for an undergraduate advanced level writing course at the University of Oldenburg, Germany in 2020/2021, during the Covid-19 pandemic when all teaching was online. The module was titled ‘Written English: Writing about British Asian Cinema’. The article was prepared collaboratively, using online writing tools and meeting platforms for extensive peer and instructor review, conceptual work, and discussions.
We also interviewed Sarfraz Manzoor, author of Greetings from Bury Park (2007), the inspiration for Gurinder Chadha’s film Blinded by the Light (2019), to gain new insights into the topic.
The following sections were authored as follows:
Rachel Ramsay: ‘Introduction: British Asian Cinema and the Oppositional, Imperial and Male Gazes’.
Wiebke Gärtner: ‘Analysing Subversive and Objectifying Gazes in Brick Lane’.
Sena Harms: ‘Blonde Writer: Generational Conflict and Performed Desirability in Anita and Me’. Sena Harms
Alexandra Bock: ‘Bend It Like Beckham: Anyone can Cook Aloo Gobi, but who can Bend a Ball Like Beckham?’ Alexandra Bock
Lea Behrens: ‘’Mister I Ain’t a Boy, No, I’m a Man’ – Springsteen and the Process of Growing Up in Blinded by the Light’. Lea Behrens.
Marie Massoth: ‘Vindicating White Saviours of Postcolonial India in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’. Marie Massoth
Rachel Ramsay: ‘Conclusion: Opositional Sparks’.
Introduction: British Asian Cinema and the Oppositional, Imperial & Male Gazes
Drawing inspiration from bell hooks’ revolutionary theory, this paper sets out to discover sparks of the oppositional gaze (hooks), which may lay hidden beneath layers of the imperial gaze (Kaplan) and male gaze (Mulvey) in four films classified as British Asian cinema:  Brick Lane (2007), dir. Sarah Gavron; Anita and Me (2002), dir. Metin Hüseyin, Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Blinded by the Light (2019), both dir. Gurinder Chadha; and one that reverses the migrants’ situations and tackles British International Retirement Migration to India: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), dir. John Madden. The ‘oppositional gaze,’ coined by feminist, academic, and social activist bell hooks in her 1992 essay collection Black Looks: Race and Representation, defines a looking relationship that involves resistance against the historical repression of a Black person’s right to look. The looks, actions, and dialogues of the British Asian protagonists of many of these films directly and indirectly critique certain aspects of White British culture, while also identifying with others; thus they can be seen as approximating an oppositional gaze. It is important to mention here that we do not intend to conflate the historical oppression of Black people with that of Asian individuals, or British Asians, especially considering the importance of oppression due to slavery in the development of hooks’ term. Rather, we suggest that forms of the oppositional gaze may be visible in other post-colonial contexts, despite fundamental historical differences.
We also employ the term ‘imperial gaze,’ from E. Ann Kaplan’s Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film, and the Imperial Gaze (1997), which defines a gaze that positions the observed according to the observer’s own set of values and norms; often infantilising and trivialising its objects as it does so. Kaplan describes her understanding of the imperial gaze as ‘a gaze structure that fails to understand that, as Edward Said phrases it, non-American peoples have integral cultures and lives that work according to their own, albeit different, logic,’ explicitly linking her concept of the imperial gaze to the male gaze: ‘[t]he imperial gaze reflects the assumption that the white western subject is central much as the male gaze assumes the centrality of the male subject’ (Kaplan 1997: 78). Taking its psychoanalytical insights from Freud and Lacan, Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze, as theorised in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975), emphasises the passive role of women in narrative cinema: the cinematic apparatus of the male gaze places women on screen simply to be observed, from an objectified point of view.
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female … In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness (837).
Hence, in Mulvey’s schema, women on screen ‘as (passive) raw material’ (843) do not look back, as in hooks’s theory.
In Brick Lane, Nazneen’s perspective subverts both the male and imperial gazes, although the film also includes a second perspective that submits to the imperial gaze and makes Nazneen its object. In Anita and Me, Meena is the vehicle for an oppositional gaze back at the White society she had previously been trying to enter. Bend it Like Beckham and Blinded by the Light illustrate subversions of the imperial gaze and heteronormative gender roles via identification with male icons from popular Anglo-American culture: David Beckham and Bruce Springsteen, respectively. By contrast, attempts to subvert the imperial gaze through acts of generosity from White protagonists in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel transpire to be little more than White Saviourism. Thus, these films contain latent feminist messages and suggest a multitude of possibilities for turning the gaze both inward and outward—even if these emancipatory sparks are often subsumed within a wider, accommodationist narrative as part of the coming-of-age genre, as well as the dictates of aiming for mainstream appeal. By showcasing examples of the oppositional, imperial, and male gazes—as well as subversions of the latter two—this article aims to illustrate differences between them. In general, we connect and discover the gazes through the characters’ focalization, narration, visual imagery, and camera angles. Hence, ‘gazing’ describes not only the spectator and their interpersonal relations, but also reveals power hierarchies (Pereira-Ares 2012: 71).
Analysing Subversive & Objectifying Gazes in Brick Lane
‘If Allah wanted us to ask questions, he would have made us men’ (0:03:27). This is the perception of women Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), the protagonist of the 2007 film Brick Lane, directed by Sarah Gavron, grew up learning. She is sent from Bangladesh to England to marry a husband she did not choose in order to live a life in a place that does not feel like home to her, while depending on her husband financially. Once Nazneen finds work and meets Karim (Christopher Simpson), she emancipates herself more and more from the traditional structures of her marriage and upbringing and learns to rely on herself. The film is based on the eponymous novel by Monica Ali. In her 2012 article, Noemí Pereira-Ares makes a compelling argument that the focalization in the novel works to subvert both the imperial and the male gaze (Pereira-Ares 2012: 72). The film, however, tells the story of Nazneen’s liberation not only through the depiction of a storyline from Nazneen’s perspective, but uses the display of nature shots contrasted with shots of fabric symbolically. Therefore, while Nazneen’s perspective subverts both male and imperial gaze, there is a second perspective in the movie which submits to the imperial gaze and makes Nazneen its object. This perspective only becomes evident when deconstructing the symbolism attached to the shots depicting either nature or fabric.
The subversive nature of Nazneen’s perspective is rooted in the way she perceives others. This is especially obvious when analysing the depiction of her husband Chanu (Satish Kaushik). Chanu takes pride in being well-educated and quits his job after being denied a promotion (0:11:13), feeling sure he will find a prestigious job quickly. Nazneen’s perspective, though, highlights his inadequacies, allowing the viewer to see Chanu through her critical eyes. Nazneen also controls and limits how much people see of her by wearing the veil. When meeting Karim the first few times, she always wears a veil, inhibiting his gaze. This only changes after hearing him speak about protecting the Muslim community at a meeting and supporting his suggestions. After the community meeting, Nazneen stops wearing the veil when Karim visits her in her apartment, thus relinquishing control and power (cf. Foucault 1991). Another way Nazneen exhibits power through her gaze is by watching people through the kitchen window. This perspective allows her to look and scrutinize freely without being noticed, and thus without being watched in return.
While Nazneen’s perspective is indeed subversive in the way she scrutinizes male and western characters, there is also a second perspective solely focused on her as a character. This becomes specifically evident in scenes that depict either Nazneen’s relationship to her sister and her childhood in Bangladesh or her relationship with Karim. These scenes are often underlined with shots showing natural scenes in Bangladesh or, in the case of her relationship with Karim, the fabric of the clothes she is given to alter. The shots of nature are connected to Nazneen’s idea of Bangladesh being her home. This is established at the beginning of the film when we see Nazneen as a child in Bangladesh, with extensive scenes of the local nature accompanied by sounds such as the chirping of crickets. Throughout the film, these scenes are repeated whenever Nazneen is reminded of Bangladesh or expresses her desire to return. One example of this can be found in the scene where she replies to her sister after having found a job. While hearing her response, the viewer sees images of her and her sister running alongside a lake, through a forest. Besides her connection to her home country, the shots of nature are also connected to her relationship with her husband. When Nazneen and her husband have sex in the first part of the movie, we see Nazneen as very passive, enduring the physical intimacy. The scene blends into a shot showing a field and Nazneen as a child hugging a tree (0:13:48). This suggests a connection between her marriage and her understanding of Bangladesh as her home country (Scott 2008). Considering that their marriage was arranged, and that her husband is from Bangladesh as well, this strengthens the theory that the shots of nature symbolize a connection between Nazneen and the very traditional values she was brought up with. It is interesting to note that the frequency of these nature shots decreases with the growing distance between the spouses, especially after Nazneen meets Karim. 
Nazneen and Karim meet very early in the film but, because of their age difference, their affair does not begin right away. Once they do sleep together for the first time, there are extensive shots of fabric (the curtains, Nazneen’s dress, and fabric that is hanging outside to dry) (0:43:41). Since the relationship between Nazneen and Karim starts when Nazneen begins to sew clothing, the fabric can be seen as a symbol of their relationship. The affair with Karim can be seen as one means of emancipation for Nazneen. Once she is with him, she begins to stand up to her husband when it comes to decisions that affect the whole family. She also starts to enjoy life in England, particularly in her neighbourhood, and becomes more outgoing and social. While her husband is connected to her past understanding of home (symbolized by the shots of nature), Karim is connected to her evolving understanding of England as her home (symbolised by the fabric). The shots of fabric do not just appear in combination with Karim but also in the context of her job as a seamstress. When she first visits the storage unit for the clothing, there are again extensive shots of fabric. This job, in common with the relationship with Karim, is crucial for her independence, as it offers the possibility to earn her own money. At first, she wishes to save that money in order to return to Bangladesh, but as the film progresses, her concept of home changes as well. Ultimately, she decides to stay in England and ends her relationship with Karim (1:16:21).
The different symbols (nature and fabric)  are closely linked to the process of Nazneen’s emancipation, however they are not a part of her perspective but of an extradiegetic narrator. The visual symbolism of nature and fabric connects and groups the different elements, and therefore also connects Karim and her economic independence, while her role as housewife and mother is clearly linked to her husband and the more traditional understanding of a woman’s role. Connecting the East with nature and the West with fabric (and thus culture) submits to the imperial gaze as it depicts anything relating to Nazneen’s heritage as archaic and exotic ‘Other’ (cf. Said 1981). This dichotomy however only becomes evident upon closely analysing the symbolism in the movie and its meaning.
A Blonde Writer—Generational Conflict and Performed Desirability in Anita and Me
‘Blonde! Blonde Writer!’ In the introductory sequence of Metin Hüseyin’s film Anita and Me (2003), this is the 12-year-old protagonist Meena Kumar’s (Chandeep Uppal) response to the well-known question, ‘And what d’you wanna be when you grow up?’ This is quickly followed by her mother’s (Ayesha Dharker) false clarification, ‘Blind Doctor! A doctor who treats blind people. Or a lawyer.’ (0:03:33). This distinction in identifying an acceptable goal for the preteen protagonist is the foundation for the depiction of this mother-daughter relationship. Throughout the film, the mother figure plays an important role in the way Meena views the world around her, and in understanding how the predominantly White and Christian world (represented by the residents of her fictional hometown Tollington in the West Midlands in 1972) views her British-Indian Sikh existence in return. Understanding the dynamic in the relationship between Meena and her mother is crucial in order to understand her character development and the titular friendship between blonde adolescent Anita and dark-haired pre-pubescent Meena. The contrasting juxtaposition of the first-generation immigrant Mrs Kumar and the second-generation immigrant Meena represents a generational conflict that will be examined by taking a closer look at the main symbol of Performed Desirability  in Anita and Me: Meena’s wish to be blonde. This will prove to have deeper connotations to physical appearance, self-expression and, overall, assimilation.
The first thing that Meena says about her mother is that she has the ‘face of a princess’ (0:03:07). However, the beauty, kind-heartedness and grace of her mother do not prompt Meena to see her as a role model. Instead of proudly embracing her heritage as her mother does, Meena wants to be blonde and ‘normal’ like her White peers. Meena’s desire to be blonde reveals deeply rooted colourist beauty standards that she has unwittingly internalised. Her vision of desirable femininity does not coincide with her own physical appearance. This becomes obvious when she writes a letter to Jackie magazine. She compares her hair to that of Dusty Springfield but adds, ‘I am also coloured. Well, no. I am brown. Will that stop me from getting a guy? Ever?’ (0:18:49). This reveals that she views femininity and beauty as dependent on how desirable she is according to her male peers. The columnists from Jackie Magazine, Kathy, and Claire, all tell her to love her colour, to smile in order to ‘get guys’ and to remember that the ‘most important thing is to love who you are. And to learn how to apply lip liner successfully.’ (0:23:02). It is not until the last third of the film that Meena follows their advice about self-love. 
Still, over the course of the film, Meena’s clothing and hairstyle increasingly resemble that of her idolised best friend Anita. However, it is important to note that Meena’s wish to be blonde is expressed even before she befriends Anita. Therefore, Meena does not aspire to mimic Whiteness because of her idolisation of Anita. Quite the contrary: Meena glorifies Anita because she is the manifestation of Meena’s desire for assimilation, as well as a personification of everything Meena has learned is desirable through the imperial and patriarchal gaze: feminine, White, blonde, pretty, and adolescent.
Her age plays an important role here: From Meena’s point of view, Anita is grown up and mature, but not in a way that equates her with the adults that Meena feels dismissed and misunderstood by. When they meet, Anita fills the free position of a mature role model that Meena had been looking for. Someone whose ethnicity, appearance and self-expression coincide with Meena’s already existing perception of the most desirable womanhood – even though Anita is merely 14-years-old herself. Ultimately, Anita is the exact opposite of Meena’s self-perceived identity as much as Mrs Kumar is. Meena views the former as a personification of everything she wants to be and the latter as a blueprint of who she is afraid she will have to become.
Mrs Kumar holds on to her Indian heritage and, like Nazneen, constantly reminisces about the natural landscape—‘The sky and the trees … is the closest we get to home,’ (0:08:14), for example—and carefree way of life she had before emigrating to England. When Meena complains about the lack of flowers and decorations in their garden—distinguishing it from the gardens their White neighbours cultivate—her mother explains, ‘It’s earth. It’s alive. And we can eat everything that grows here. Where I grew up, I pulled sugar cane from the fields for my breakfast and … we had peacocks on the roof,’ (0:45:55-0:46:14). Meena rejects this romanticisation of her parents’ homeland— ‘she is not the character who suffers great homesickness and the nostalgia within the film emanates from the adults, the immigrants,’ (Claydon 2008: 32)—and yearns for a daily life in which she does not have to feel inferior for neither being able to speak Hindi nor for not appreciating her mother’s home-cooked Indian meals. Mrs Kumar wants to ensure that Meena grows up well-nourished—not only physically but also spiritually, ‘English food is easy. Just boiled till it tastes of nothing. But this—this is home food, it doesn’t just fill your tummy’ (0:14:24). Meena assumes life would be easier if she had fish fingers on the dinner plate and gnomes in the garden like her White peers.
However, the idea that assimilation could save her from contempt is disproved halfway through the film. On their way to the temple, her mother asks her to get out of the car and tell the drivers behind them to drive backwards. Meena feels highly uncomfortable having to do this while wearing a sari: ‘In my nightmares, I’m always dressed exactly like this’ (0:43:16). She is confronted with three different people in the vehicles behind them – the first two are men, who treat her in a dismissive and patronising manner but ultimately follow her request. The last driver is an elderly White woman who refuses to drive backwards and refers to Meena with a racist slur. This is one of many instances in the film where Meena experiences racism, but also a turning point in the narrative and Meena’s perception of herself as well as the world around her, given that, once she is at the temple, Meena states that she does not think of herself as ‘the one who needed saving anymore’ (0:44:34).
Meena dislikes wearing the sari but the experience of being mistreated while wearing her traditional clothes makes her question the validity of her desire to appeal to the imperial gaze by mimicking Whiteness through her western clothes. She realises that bigots would look right past her British accent, her good manners and how well-articulated she is.  Instead, they would focus solely on the ‘Otherness’ they see her shrouded in through the imperial gaze—her ethnicity; here, even more pronounced due to the sari she is wearing. No longer does she feel responsible for the actions of those who discriminate against her due to her heritage and instead, through the oppositional gaze, concludes that it is them who are in need of self-reflection, re-evaluation of their behaviour and divine guidance. The scene serves as a pivotal point in the narrative, as it prompts her to reassess the illusion that through effort she could pass a designated threshold of Whiteness, making her valuable through the imperial gaze and justifying her existence in Britain—just as being ‘pretty’ would justify her existence through the male gaze in a patriarchal society. Therefore, the goal of becoming a blonde writer represents what Meena thinks she owes to society: being assimilated and ‘pretty’ as the rent she needs to pay for existing as a British Asian woman. 
So far, the sari has seemed to clash with Meena’s efforts towards achieving this performed desirability. After rejecting her mother’s traditional clothing style (and the traditional mindset that Meena thinks it represents) throughout the film, this scene depicts the oppositional gaze by making her reconsider her need for White approval and question the moral superiority she had been internalised to assign to White people with a western-centric worldview. Her mother wears saris throughout the movie, except in the aforementioned introductory sequence. There, she wears a blouse and a knee-length pencil skirt. This marks her workplace at school as the only place where she cannot express herself freely, which feeds into Meena’s perception of the sari as unfit for daily life in England. However, outside of work, Mrs Kumar does not give up on the sari even once, and proudly wears it as an identity marker that bears value for her, even after being confronted with the rampant racism and xenophobia displayed throughout the film—a hatred that increases in the mining village of Tollington until it finds its climax in the murder of the Kumars’ new Indian family friend, committed by Meena’s pubescent peers, who have radicalised into right-wing extremists over the course of the film. By the time Anita admits to having taken part in the hate crime, attempting to trivialise it by stating that the man ‘wasn’t anybody’ and that Meena is not ‘like the others,’ Meena has become so ‘culturally secure and individually independent’ (Claydon 2008: 32) that, through the oppositional gaze, she is able to reclaim the identity of ‘the Other:’ ‘I am the others!’ (1:11:25) she shouts as she charges towards Anita. Here, being confronted with her White best friend’s involvement in the violent, racially motivated attack on her parents’ Indian friend makes visible the opposing influences that affect Meena. She grows up in the midst of an, at times violent, culture clash. Bolognani et al. explain that the ‘narration of the diasporic community develops through comparison and clashes with the host society’ (Bolognani et al. 2011: 164). In this case, the ‘host society’ is overly aggressive as can be seen in the countless bigoted remarks, the racist violence by White people, and the instances of domestic violence taking place in the White families around Meena.
In the end, Meena understands that she is neither defined by the desirability she is assigned according to the male gaze nor by the hatred that bigots have for her. She achieves self-actualisation without bleaching her hair. Claydon sees this development in direct relation to Mrs Kumar: ‘[Meena’s] own sense of cultural identity becomes more secure and the home her mother has created for her the cure for her own sickness, wanting to be blonde.’ (Claydon 2008: 32)
All in all, as the film progresses, Meena matures and comes to appreciate her mother and, by extension, her cultural heritage. Meena recognises that complete assimilation is not the way to self-acceptance and that her power is not defined by adherence to western beauty standards. By learning to understand her mother’s values as well as the dynamics affecting her environment, Meena’s desire to perform slowly vanishes and is replaced by displays of self-love and perseverance.
Bend It Like Beckham—‘Anyone can Cook Aloo Gobi, but who can Bend a Ball Like Beckham?’
Jesminder ‘Jess’ Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) counters Meena’s mother’s assertion that ‘English food is easy’ by claiming the same of the above traditional Indian dish (0:23:17) in the coming-of-age film Bend It Like Beckham (2002) that deals with Jess’s identity, her parents’ gender role expectations, and her career dream. Her passion for football forces her to confront stereotypes at home and racism on the field. In common with Meena, Jess has an intense female friendship, with Julia ‘Jules’ Paxton (Keira Knightley), but unlike Meena, Jess does not at any stage perceive her female friend as a model of White femininity to imitate. In fact, Jess’s idol is the British football star David Beckham. In the film, the male gaze is obfuscated as the focalization of Jess, a female protagonist of colour, encourages the viewer to take up her position and identify with her. Although there are many shots of young women in scant clothing during training, the camera refuses to fetishise them (e.g. 0:16:45, 0:18:45), which also undermines the male gaze.
The Bhamra’s house contains various significant identity markers of Indian culture such as Indian food, Indian television programs, the Punjabi language, and religious symbols (0:08:26-0:09:30; 0:29:08). Jess initially rejects the stereotypes and identity markers associated with her Indian identity because she sees them as an obstacle to becoming a football star. From Jess’s perspective, her parents’ beliefs, and their failure to acknowledge her independence, are the main reasons for their conflict at home. In a key scene, the camera pivots from a low-angle shot of her mother, with a portrait of Guru Nanak, the Sikh deity, behind her, to a high-angle shot looking down on Jess’s angry, worried face (0:21:10-0:22:49). This scene builds tension by making the parents and their religion seem powerful and Jess and her identification with Beckham powerless. The film draws a direct parallel between her parents’ appeals to their picture of Guru Nanak and Jess’s ‘conversations’ with her posters of Beckham. She prays to Beckham that her parents will understand one day, just like her parents pray to Guru Nanak that Jess will come to her senses and become a ‘good’ Punjabi girl (0:00:51; 0:07:24; 0:21:10).
Learning to cook traditional Indian food and the wearing of saris appear frequently as motifs in the film; both are connected to the pressure Jess experiences from her mother to conform to heteropatriarchal norms and Indian traditions, as Jess prefers to spend her time honing her skills on the field rather than cooking, and wears sports clothing. The resourceful Jess, however, ‘juggles’ an iceberg lettuce to develop her ball handling skills (0:25:55) and uses saris hanging on the washing line as obstacles to dribble around (01:16:04). Embracing her Indian identity, Jess wears a traditional sari at her sister Pinkie’s wedding (1:17:34) and learns to cook a ‘full Punjabi dinner: meat and vegetarian’ (0:21:23). Jess’s utilising these symbols of her putative repression in creative ways, along with acquiring cooking skills and wearing the sari at the wedding, can be seen as rebuffing the imperialist gaze.
The relationship between Jess, Jules, and Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and the exchanges of looks between the three, compounded by the disapproving looks of their mothers, also sheds light on a variety of gazes. On the one hand, both teenage girls resist the male gaze by actively desiring Joe. The long shots that include them playing football also mean that they connote much more than passive ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Mulvey 1999: 837). Jules initially appears to desire Jess as well (0:13:23-0:14:15). The flickering sexual possibilities between Jess and Jules, however, are only dealt with superficially in the film, which aims for mainstream appeal. Nonetheless, they offer enough light to illuminate a different gaze. Jules’s mother fears that Jules is a lesbian because of her gender performance, expressed through her masculine clothing style and desire to play sports (0:38:01). In her mother’s opinion, women should perform hyper-femininity and lust after footballers instead of desiring to be one. Ultimately, Joe falls for Jess, but she rejects him in favour of pursuing her career in football. By dismissing the advances of a White male without punishment, Jess repudiates both the male and the imperial gaze. The many parallels the film draws between the two girls also work against the imperial gaze, which seeks to spot cultural differences and claim that the non-White variety is inferior. The similarity of the girls’ names and their suburban homes; their passion for football and their mothers’ disapprobation; their mothers’ obsession with their daughters’ marriageability (Hussain 2005: 82-84) all contribute to showing that it is not only Indian girls who are subject to heteropatriarchal restrictions and constrictions. As Hussain points out, though, these similarities should not be overplayed, as Jules does not experience the same level of pressure as Jess: the latter ‘has to negotiate a careful path between the traditional views of her family and those of the women in her football team’ (84); Jess must keep her membership of the team a secret, hides her kit in the bushes, and lies about a job.
All in all, the film overwhelmingly challenges the male gaze through its focus on women in football. Its challenges to the imperialist gaze, through the motifs and cooking, saris and the aforementioned parallels between Jess and Jules, are also significant. Jess’s newfound ease with her hybrid identity, demonstrated by her team members helping her to put on a sari for Pinkie’s wedding (1:26:29), demonstrates a gaze that could be considered oppositional, since it engenders a newly liberated hybrid reality.
‘Mister I Ain’t a Boy, No, I’m a Man’—Springsteen and the Process of Growing Up in Blinded by the Light
In a world where every important phase of one’s life is accompanied by a catchy rock song, growing up might not be as difficult as it seems. Gurinder Chadha’s 2019 film Blinded by the Light, released seventeen years after Bend it Like Beckham and also featuring an idol from popular culture who serves as a point of identification, as well as a White best friend, proves otherwise. The coming-of-age film with Viveik Kalra in the lead role as Javed Khan explores, among other topics, the process of growing up as a second-generation immigrant living in 1980s Luton, a place Javed feels he does not belong. His desire to lead a ‘western,’ British life like his childhood friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) constantly fuels the conflict with his Pakistani family and results in a full-on identity crisis in which Javed’s only way out is none other than the Boss himself, as he can relate to the values and struggles expressed in Springsteen’s music.
What frames his narrative is not necessarily an imperial or paternalistic gaze, but the expectations imposed upon the focalizer—or narrator—Javed, as a postcolonial subject. This section will discuss how Javed subverts these expectations and how he forms an oppositional subjectivity through Springsteen’s music, and how that in turn influences his narrative. Hence, in Blinded by the Light, the process of growing up is realized through a coming-of-age narrative in which Springsteen’s music paradoxically acts as the catalyst for Javed finding his own voice. However, maturity and identity consolidation are only truly realized through Javed accepting his own hybridity, resisting and dealing with imperial and paternalistic expectations, and in the end relating back to his family background.
For Javed, a central issue within his character development and identity formation is the relationship with his father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), as Javed feels as though his life is already strictly pre-determined due to the latter’s expectations. Malik can be seen as representing a paternalistic position, as his expectations for Javed at the beginning of the film actively limit and suppress parts of Javed’s personality and identity. His wishes for Javed do not simply include getting an education, but also getting a well-paid job so that Javed doesn’t ‘end up driving a taxi like the other Pakistanis in this town’ (0:49:57). Furthermore, Malik does not initially wish Javed to be educated to ‘broaden [his] mind, learn about the world, be inspired to make a difference’ (0:49:49) or to fulfil his wishes to be a writer, he instead wants Javed to find a career within a pool of Malik’s choices (0:50:34). With Javed being the only son, Malik wants him to work after school so that Javed can give his whole wage to him and support the family (0:37:54). Moreover, Malik interferes and limits Javed’s dating life. This, in particular, is a central theme for Javed and the coming-of-age narrative, as Javed also wishes to find a girlfriend, but Malik states that he will ‘find [Javed] a wife in good time’ (0:09:45). These expectations, originating in the fact that arranged marriage was the norm in Pakistan when Malik was young, are accompanied by Malik projecting his ideals, namely hard work and success in a traditional workplace, onto stereotypes of Jews multiple times throughout the film. On Javed’s first day of college, Malik urges him to ‘stay away from the girls, follow the Jews’ (0:09:59), which reveals Malik’s own prejudices against a minority group despite him being at the other end of racist remarks and actions as well. These utterances also collide with his statement that Javed will ‘never be British’ (0:17:00). Lastly, a culmination of Malik’s paternalistic expectations can be seen when Javed articulates his own wishes to his father, but Malik replies with ‘I… what is this I?’ (1:08:01), therefore questioning Javed’s whole subjectivity and marking it as inferior to his.
Despite the paternalistic expectations placed onto Javed by his father, he finds a way to deal with and subvert them as the film proceeds. For Javed, his character development and way out of hopelessness begins with the moment he first listens to the cassettes of Bruce Springsteen his newly acquired friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) has lent him. On the one hand, the scene gains its meaningfulness through the moments before, in which Javed had thrown his poems out of the window because he had thought it impossible to ever realize his dreams anyway. On the other hand, what marks this moment as a true epiphany for Javed is the usage of the right music at the right time, which is ‘shamelessly engineered to maximise catharsis’ (Hans 2019). In this case, Springsteen’s The Promised Land as Javed’s personal soundtrack represents the opposite of his family simply due to being by a male American singer, while still being universal enough to relate to Javed’s specific identity conflict. And when Springsteen sings ‘Mister I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man’ (Springsteen 1978: track 6), it relates perfectly to Javed’s struggle to emancipate himself from his family and grow up. The scene is then further intensified through cinematic devices such as the wind blowing his poems through the street and into the hands of the Khans’ neighbour, or the projections of the lyrics on the wall behind Javed, who dramatically tries to reverse his actions and catch his poems within the carefully constructed storm scene (0:24:45-0:29:00). All of these devices and the music in particular create a moment that is inherently cathartic as, through Springsteen, Javed feels understood in his experiences of being culturally othered and the ‘out of order’ Pakistani son for the first time (Loughrey 2019).
A more active resistance against both imperial and paternalistic notions is only shown later in the film. Similarly to the storm scene, Javed’s subversion is again realized through the implementation of music. The film has, until now, displayed how Springsteen’s music offers Javed an escape into his desire to be British. However, for the first half of the movie it also pulls him away from his Pakistani roots as he indulges in the feeling of disentangling himself from his family’s narrative of how life is supposed to be. Nevertheless, as the film continues, Javed is able to connect back to his South Asian roots. When Javed is forced into accompanying his sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta) to a daytimer,  Javed first finds himself in conflict with the idea of having fun at an event that reminds him of the Pakistani side of his identity (1:14:46-1:16:55). This can be seen when Javed puts his headphones on and listens to Springsteen while he and his sister join the crowd on the dance floor. Yet his perspective changes as he sees how the crowd is dancing to the beat of his music as well. This moment not only represents the universality of Springsteen’s music once again, but also stands for a newly forged connection between his British and Pakistani identities and the roles Javed associates with them. This is a key moment of subversion for Javed, as he not only resists the expectations of his father by visiting a dance party, but also resists the imperial imperative to act like a British person by going to an event that is distinctly connected to South Asian culture. However, Javed takes his subversion to another level by first listening to Springsteen instead of dancing to the Bhangra music, displaying a sense of hybridity by playing American music at a South Asian event. As he then proceeds to take off his headphones and dance to the South Asian music, Javed experiences an enlightening moment that reconnects him with the culture of his British Asian peers, seeing that connecting to South Asian culture does not necessarily mean being compliant with traditional values. Thus, this scene acts as a key moment not only for Javed’s process of growing up, but also for him subverting cultural expectations on both the British and Pakistani side and occupying his own, hybrid ‘third space’ (Bhabha 1990: 211).
In sum, it can be argued that while Springsteen’s music and the subversion of both paternalistic and imperial expectations that it triggers clearly initiates Javed’s growth from boyhood into manhood, his actual narrative is far more complex. In the end, Javed is able to reconnect to his cultural background and come to terms with his hybrid identity. Blinded by the Light creates a narrative that is circular, as it depicts the process of breaking free from and finding the way back to one’s family. Furthermore, it shows how paternalistic and imperial expectations impact Javed’s life negatively, but how music pushes him towards critically interrogating these expectations and finding pleasure in that resistance (hooks 1992: 112-3). Nonetheless, the film also shows that, at least when it comes to his father, Javed is able to find common ground, leaving an optimistic outlook on hybrid identities. Because when Javed initially expresses his desire to ‘make loads of money, kiss a girl, get out of this dump’ (0:07:52), he does not realize that these dreams are in part aligned with those of his father, only in a different way. And as Javed and his father head to Manchester in the end, Javed’s emancipation is literally and metaphorically realized by him driving the car into his new future and waving his inner child goodbye.
Vindicating White Saviours of Postcolonial India in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
‘He can wash all he likes; that colour is not coming out’ (0:05:01). This quotation from John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach (2004), provides an example of the imperialist gaze in its starkest form. Seven retired Britons follow an advertisement to the ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful’ in Jaipur, India, advertised as ‘a luxury development where all residents are in their golden years’ (0:10:49), but the actual site presents an old, run-down hotel without any guests. The film is framed as showing how India could profit from old-age migration—‘the Western world’s farming out of elder-care’ (Ciafone 2017: 157)—due to the failing health care and retirement systems in Western countries (Bell 2017:1978). Sonny (Dev Patel), the hotel’s proprietor, explains to his mother: ‘I have a dream, Mummyji. A most brilliant one. To outsource old age. And it is not just for the British. There are many other countries where they don’t like old people too’ (0:45:27). In this section, key scenes are analysed to showcase representations of the imperial and patriarchal gazes as well as differing depictions of racism. The protagonists’ seemingly generous acts of charity represent White Saviourism; typical of characters ‘whose innate sense of justice drives tales of racial cooperation, nonwhite uplift, and white redemption’ (Hughey 2014: 7).
To Muriel Donelly (Maggie Smith), at least at the beginning of the film, Indians are an undifferentiated mass of uncivilised, bloodthirsty, thieving Others; ‘brown faces and Black hearts, reeking of curry. You never see them on their own, do you? I mean those Indians, they move in packs. Makes it easier to rob you blind, cut your throat’ (0:11:07). Muriel’s initial racism is showcased many times in the first part of the film—for example, trying to smuggle food through the check-in, refusing aloo ka paratha because she ‘cannot pronounce it,’ asking for a pen to mark the hip which needs replacing, and yelling at children playing with her wheelchair. Later on, however, the narrative attempts to redeem Muriel’s character by showing her as more benign. She befriends a Dalit housekeeper, Anokhi, and offers her expertise to Sonny with the hotel’s finances (0:59:15, 1:45:00). The gaze, however, remains distinctly imperialist, as Muriel is shown to instruct the housekeeper on how to clean better (0:43:33) and installs herself as deputy manager of the hotel as Sonny is deemed incapable of doing this alone. Thus, as Chivers remarks, ‘[e]ven the most racist British guest is cast as a Saviour of the Jaipurians.’ (90). Unlike the other pensioners, Muriel is working-class and her surname codes her as Irish, like Joe in Bend it Like Beckham. She is also shown to be subject to the disparaging gaze of those higher up the social ladder (1:11:27). Towards the end, there is a shift to a more accepting mother-son-relationship.
With her cut-glass accent and winsome demeanour, upper class Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) is also both a subject of the imperial gaze and an object of the patriarchal gaze. She is in debt after her husband’s death. When discussing Evelyn’s options after her husband’s passing, her patronising son tries to persuade her to live with him. She refuses and counters ‘[t]hat’s just what your father used to say, there’s never been any discussion at all’ (0:08:06). When he sees her off at the airport, he does not expect her to succeed in being independent, saying ‘[y]ou’ve never done anything at all without Dad’ (0:12:17). Thus, her son designates her as entirely dependent on another man. Evelyn’s character is gentle and benevolent—she is shown to have a positive attitude towards India. She becomes the narrating self in certain scenes, blending in her blog posts while exhibiting nature and the city of Jaipur. ‘Can there be anywhere else in the world that is such an assault on the senses. Those who know the country … just go about their business. But nothing can prepare the uninitiated for this riot of noise and colour, for the heat, the motion, the perpetual teaming crowds’ (0:28:03). Her choice of the words ‘riot’ and ‘assault,’ intended to convey her sense of being confronted by a maelstrom, unwittingly echo Muriel’s characterisation of Indians as thieves and murderers. The British residents of the hotel seem to be ‘White people … [who] are unable to “see” that race informs their looking relations’ (hooks 1992: 129).
Moreover, despite the film’s refashioning of Evelyn into an independent, working woman, she is, yet again, rescued by a man, Douglas Ainslie, who protects her from a motorcycle on a nocturnal visit to the market after reminiscing about a similar incident with her late husband (1:17:38-1:18:50). Yet her instructions in the call centre, simulating a call with Sunaina as the employee selling a product on how to speak to the elderly in a more empathetic manner leave a distinctly imperialist aftertaste. In a humorous work atmosphere, she emphasises her competence at the expense of putting into question Sunaina’s, unknowingly profiting from the privilege of being a respected elder.
In conclusion, like Muriel’s subjection to middle-class disapprobation, Evelyn is shown to be subject to the patriarchal gaze; her wellbeing is akin to a possession passed from father to son. Madge and Norman are informed by overly sexualised colonial representations of Indian culture and subjects as well as objects of the male gaze; closeted Graham Dashwood shows the Indians how to play cricket better (0:31:07, 0:57:21). One particularly problematic aspect of the film is that the combination of the overtly racist imperial gaze (Muriel) and the seemingly benign imperial gaze (Evelyn) encourages the audience to regard them as a binary ‘racist’ and ‘not racist,’ although both are. This becomes even more problematic if we consider that racism is clearly linked to being working class and, more subtly, Irish; both of these identities having been historically stereotyped and discriminated against.
Conclusion: Oppositional Sparks
The films connect to and represent imperialism and encounters between different cultures at different stages of their protagonists’ development. Preteen Meena, along with the somewhat older Jess and Javed, all feel disregarded and misunderstood by their families and go against their parents’ wishes by defying the traditions and values of their upbringings. Nazneen, by contrast, is the only protagonist who is a first-generation immigrant, much older than the others, who resists pressure from her husband to return ‘home,’ as well as rejecting her lover. All the British characters in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are shown to be subject to pressures regarding their advanced ages (sickness, financial precarity, a lifetime of concealed homosexuality, loneliness, unwanted celibacy), but in different ways are all bearers of an imperialist gaze. The films also document racism on many occasions: open attacks on Pakistanis, nationalist marches, and urination through the letter box in Blinded by the Light, racist characters like Muriel Donnelly or the parents of Javed’s girlfriend, racial taunts and abuse at the hands of their peers for Meena, Jess and Javed; exclusion from sporting activities in Bend it like Beckham; the murder of the Kumar’s Indian friend in Anita and Me. These incidents are all witnessed by the protagonists, which in itself constitutes an oppositional gaze: ‘subordinates in relations of power learn experientially that there is a critical gaze, one that ‘looks’ to document, one that is oppositional’ (hooks 1992: 117). Nazneen’s refusal to be a passive object: beginning a career as a seamstress, refusing to accompany her husband to Bangladesh, and rejecting her lover, all counteract the force of the male gaze, which attempts to objectify her and render her inactive and powerless. One could also argue that her description of two different kinds of love: ‘the kind that starts big, and slowly wears away … and then one day it is finished … [and] the kind … which adds a little bit to itself every day’ (1:28:44-1:29:13); romantic love versus the love that is supposed to develop in an arranged marriage, counters the imperialist gaze, which situates arranged marriage as the lesser version—and probably no different from forced marriage. However, the imperialist gaze, via the extradiegetic narrator, ultimately positions East as nature and subjugation and West as emancipation and culture in Brick Lane. As hybrid British Asian subjects who identify with aspects of White culture but also embrace aspects of their specific Asian cultural heritages, Meena, Jess, and Javed all resist the imperialist gaze.
Meena, the youngest protagonist, is in fact the most radical in her oppositional gaze as she explicitly rejects elements of White culture that she had previously identified with, namely White femininity as embodied by her friend Anita. Both Jess and Javed also identify with White cultural icons, and playfully imitate them: Jess by practising bending the ball like Beckham and Javed by cutting off his shirtsleeves and striking a pose in order to imitate Bruce’s style in the 1980s (Roberts 1984), but they find their own hybrid identities via their idols and do not turn them down in the same way as Meena does. Jess does, however, reject her coach Joe to pursue her career, and Javed does take his headphones off at the daytimer and at least momentarily silences ‘The Boss’ in order to embrace the other side of his identity. This article has attempted to outline how the male, imperial and oppositional gazes may co-exist, and how these may be disentangled, in a selection of British Asian films. This approach could be productively applied to other films from this genre to discover more ‘oppositional sparks.’
 Whilst acknowledging that the term British Asian cinema could be problematic due to its generalising tendency, Sawhney nonetheless finds that ‘it is possible to identify a notion of British Asian film, and these films do often have Asian themes and may be seen to share a number of features, including relatively low budgets.’
 Nazneen is considerably older than Karim.
 From Latin fabricare ‘to make, construct, fashion, build;’ an additional meaning that lends a new dimension to the visual metaphor (Barnhart 1988: 364).
 This is what Meena is trying to accomplish with her dream of becoming a blonde writer: She thinks that in order to be assimilated enough to be accepted, she needs to put on a persona. Being blonde to distinguish her appearance from the appearance of ‘the Other’ and a writer to distinguish her mindset from the mindset of ‘the Other’ (represented by her parents and auntie Shaila). Similar to neurodivergent people consciously or subconsciously ‘masking’ their symptoms to pass as neurotypical, Meena desires to perform Whiteness under the assumption that by doing that she can perform desirability.
 When it comes to the rest of the response letter, it should be noted that this coming-of-age film lacks the make-over sequence that is typical of the genre.
 Her powers of articulation are something Meena takes pride in as can be seen in her wish to become a writer.
 Original quote by Erin McKean: ‘Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’’.
 A South Asian daytime dance party.
Lea Behrens is a Master’s student majoring in English Literature and Art at the University of Oldenburg and works as a tutor for English Literary and Cultural Studies alongside her studies. Her research interests include postcolonial literature and film, feminism, and ecocritical studies.
Wiebke Gärtner is a Master’s student majoring in German Literature at the University of Oldenburg. She is currently spending a semester abroad at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Sena Harms is a Turkish German undergraduate majoring in English and Philosophy at the University of Oldenburg.
Marie Massoth is an advanced Philosophy and English undergraduate at the University of Oldenburg, Germany, with an exchange at California State University, Long Beach. Her teaching and research interests include Practical and Political Philosophy (particularly political judgements and Philosophy of Social Sciences concerning democratic decision making processes), the intersection of film, feminism and postcolonialism, and German as a foreign language teaching.
Alexandra Bock is a Master’s student majoring in English and Economics at the University of Oldenburg.
Anita and Me (2003), dir. Metin Hüseyin.
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Bend It Like Beckham (2002), dir. Gurinder Chadha.
Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), dir. John Madden.
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Blinded by the Light (2019), dir. Gurinder Chadha.
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Brick Lane (2007), dir. Sarah Gavron.
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