Indian Tales

Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by revisiting an unpublished piece of writing whilst I get back in the groove of film watching.

When I wrote part of the following I had watched Indian Tales (1994) approximately a year ago and I was also incredibly fortunate to have spoken with the award-winning writer and director of the short film, Asif Kapadia. Then something happened in the job I was working in at the time which left me in a bad place mentally. What happened is completely unrelated to the short film or with Asif Kapadia, however, work from that period just felt difficult to return to, both professionally and personally. In recent months I have been reflecting on the fact that Kapadia kindly give me the time to discuss his work and I feel selfish for hoarding the following, so here is my dive into Kapadia's first short film.

Digital illustration of Indian Tales, Amita Dhiri’s protagonist.
Indian Tales, digital illustration by Hamish Mèk Chohan.

Asif Kapadia is the director of documentaries such as Diego Maradona (2019), Amy (2015) and Senna (2010) as well as the sublime, The Warrior (2001), starring the immensely missed Irrfan Khan. It was through the BFI Player that I also had the opportunity to discover some of his short films including Indian Tales, The Waiting Room (1996) and The Sheep Thief (1997).

In Kapadia’s Indian Tales, which he explained was his graduation film from university, the core narrative revolves around a young South Asian woman, Amita Dhiri, seeking retribution after discovering her boyfriend, Ray Emmett Brown, has cheated on her. But more than this, Kapadia’s short explores South Asian folklore by putting visuals to proverbs as they occur in and around the young woman’s everyday life.

What I adore about Indian Tales is the delightful way folklore, or superstition, is presented in serendipitous scenarios experienced by characters in the film. From the implications that a child’s legs may have literally fallen off because, “If you waggle your legs they fall off.” To the reason why a sneeze happens to have happened at a specific moment, “If someone’s thinking of you. You’ll sneeze.” There’s a great understatement to these moments wherein Kapadia perfectly captures how I believe my own grandmother may have justified her belief in folklore. That cause and consequence is not enacted immediately, on some grand scale or display, but experienced during the mundanity of life.

What Indian Tales allows me to feel is a real celebration of identity in such a personal way. Enabling me to show to others a recounting of folklore tradition which is so seamlessly entwined in a lived South Asian experience. I take these sayings for granted, ones which would definitely be picked on or called out, away from my family, if I had non-South Asian friends around when I was younger. Then, I would feel a slight embarrassment at having to explain them, now I adore remembering their often over dramatic consequences.

Kapadia’s inclusion of the extended family household consists of the young woman protagonist, her younger sister and their Bollywood watching grandmother. Inhabiting a very modern - well 90s modern - house, the film is set in the present. The younger sister is fascinated by her older sister’s bedroom, adorned with band posters, fashion images and holiday photographs - the sister sneaks into the room and tries on her sister’s make-up and sunglasses. The grandmother sits in the living room watching the only colour images shown in the otherwise black and white short, garish 80s and 90s Bollywood cinema in all its fantastic melodramatic glory with a noisy soundtrack, contrasting with the everyday lives of Kapadia’s young Brits. Following on from Wild West (1992) and Bhaji On The Beach (1993), representation of British South Asians in film was starting to show a third generation of immigrants. One that didn’t speak with an accent, dressed in the fashion of the day in the UK, and navigated the world whilst fully capable of coexisting with the duality of their cultural heritage and British identity. Even if their acceptance wasn’t always felt beyond the front door. Kapadia explained...

I grew up in Hackney, that film was shot in my parents’ house. It was made with my friends, made on our local high street. There’s a lot of it shot in Stoke Newington and in Tottenham and in those days, these were the places that we were going to, all of our friends were mixed, the crew were all mixed.

About the room, that was my bedroom actually. I had this idea of what does a real kind of modern Muslim London bedroom look like. I mean there was more girl stuff I think, put up by the art department, but essentially that’s my bedroom. Shot in my parents’ house. My parents were at Hajj, and while they were away at Hajj I shot that film. The crew bought all their equipment in, they [Kapadia’s parents] didn’t even know.

As with Shani Grewal’s Guru In Seven (1998), I wish this was a film I could have discovered in my teens rather than decades later, a film that spoke to my normality through a South Asian’s authorship.

What did leave me with questions is the interracial relationship depicted between the protagonist, Dhiri, and her Black boyfriend, Brown, whom she seeks to eventually harm. For a film made in the early 90s, when depictions of South Asian and British Black couples were already rare, I questioned if the short film fed into an existing anti-Black stigma the South Asian community is guilty of.

There is a tendency to classify all victims of racism under the label “people of colour” or “Black, Asian and minority ethnic” people (shortened to BAME). However, this generalist approach fails to account for the varied ways that racism affects different races. There is anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism (which affects east Asians and south Asians differently), anti-Arab racism, even sometimes anti-White racism. To be clear, all these strands of racism are significant, and we need to work to eradicate them all. Yet, historically, it’s Black people who have most often found themselves at the bottom of the pile.

Excerpt from The Guardian, Racism Harms Black People Most. It’s Time To Recognise ‘Anti-Blackness’, by Ahmed Olayinka Sule

To put the racism into context, historically the South Asian community has shown - to put it lightly - a hostility towards the Black community which remains today. One could point to generationalism, but I think this excuses a considerable amount of ongoing racism which remains. As to where this stems from, arguments range from roots in the caste system or outright racist attitudes towards darker skin toned people, to one minority group feeling superiority over another. The racism is ingrained and as such, when negative depictions of Black and South Asian relationships are portrayed by South Asian filmmakers, personally, they can feel more calculated. It is rare that interracial relationships can simply exist on screen without being a significant plot point or commented on in the narrative. So, as an audience we are more aware of acknowledging the couple’s portrayal in a film, be it positive or negative.

Only a year before Indian Tales, Bhaji On The Beach also depicted a Black and South Asian couple. Sarita Khajuria’s Hashida and Mo Sesay’s Oliver’s relationship is fought for, racist attitudes are called on and the taboos and stigmas held are exposed and challenged in the narrative of the film.

In Indian Tales the boyfriend (Brown) is seen to cheat on his girlfriend (Dhiri), being spotted with a young White woman. Whilst initially a loving relationship, shown through flashbacks, the boyfriend is colder and more domineering in later interactions. It could be argued that the circumstantial serendipity of the folklore playing out has simply dictated how an otherwise “normal” relationship could suddenly end or hit a bump as a result of “bad luck”. However, upon my initial viewing of the film, it is implied towards the end of the film that Dhiri is manipulating folklore to her advantage rather than it be circumstantial, calculating how it may impact someone in a world where the fantastic can become a reality. I put this observation to Kapadia.

She happens to have a boyfriend cheating on her so she’s going to get revenge using superstitions. Now, yeah, it’s not an accident that her boyfriend’s Black and the person he is messing around with is a White girl. So, you’ve got this triangle between White, Black and Asian and she [Dhiri] uses whatever tools she has against him, which in this case is a Filet-O-Fish and a milkshake.

The proverb stated when the food is on screen is, “Never eat fish and drink milk ... you will get a terrible skin disease.” Kapadia further reflected on the diversity of the cast by explaining.

Amita Dhiri is Parsi, her grandmother [in the film] was Hindu, you know, Ray [Emmett Brown] is an old mate who I did lots of stuff with and there’s another guy, Senie [Emmanuel], who’s in there, who’s in a few other films that I did. The whole thing is meant to be multicultural London.

At this point Kapadia commented on how I had watched the film, the lens through which I had reached out to discuss the film. On Twitter I posted “@AsifKapadia, [I’m] writing about Indian Tales and the depiction of interracial relationships. Given the themes of folklore and revenge, why did you choose to write the boyfriend as Black. Why did the outcome of the film result in specifically being inflicted on a Black character?” This kicked off our brief correspondence and led to our conversation.

You look at the film in a way what I would say, the context of the film, but also in hindsight, and go well it’s the Asian people having a problem with Black people, but, she’s not having a problem because of her parents. She’s not having a problem because of, you know, her brother’s forcing her to marry a Muslim bloke, or something. Like, you know, they’re not. It’s literally her saying I’m pissed off and I’m going to get you for what you’ve done to me. So, I would say that is the difference with maybe some of what you’ve written. The idea that it’s a cultural issue with Asian people and Black people. I never really thought about it. It’s many years later, where talking about 27 years later.

When I made that film, most films that had Asian people still had kids and girls being forced into marriage, or being beaten up by their parents ... the Dad and the Mum were all bloody taxi drivers. When that was made [Indian Tales] it’s about a young girl just going out, having a boyfriend, with no deal at all. That scenario was still not normal to see on screen.

As reflected upon when I wrote about Guru In Seven, I think I am guilty of optimistically expecting a pre-2022 South Asian writer and director to have anticipated and assumed a level of wokeness in a vastly different environment than today. In 1994 portraying a Black and South Asian romantic couple is progressive but undermining the relationship removes the positive impact that such representation could have had. I wonder how this level of investigating and questioning a student short film, made decades ago, feels today. If there is more to explore in the expectations which are placed upon non-White creatives and their historical bodies of work?

The duty, or burden, or desire to represent. I would love the freedom to just follow my curiosity without having to analyze what I choose to give a platform to. At the same time, it’s such a gift to be animated by a sense of mission beyond your own creative interests. How do you navigate that? Do you ever find yourself going, “I should do this job, but I don’t want to,” or, “I want to do this, but I shouldn’t”?

Excerpt from Interview, Riz Ahmed And Octavia Spencer On The Burden Of Representation, by Octavia Spencer

My suggestion would be ... watch the three films because they’re kind of all part of my journey from university to postgraduate to making feature films. Because I think then you might have a better context. In a way, your essay is trying to have an “opinion” [addressing themes of anti-Blackness] so it’ll be interesting. You might say The Waiting Room justifies it even more but then that, that’s the thing, the interesting thing for me was, as an Asian guy from London, just making films about an Asian girl or an Asian boy who happened to be Asian.

Kapadia mentioned The Waiting Room specifically because the film features a more direct altercation between a South Asian protagonist, Mickey played by Gary Pillai, and an unnamed Black male character played by Anthony Williams. From the BFI Player website, Mickey enters a large institutional waiting room and dutifully collects his ticket. When numbers are called, the relevant ticket holder exits the room, never to return. As Mickey notices that his ticket is a different colour to everybody else, he is forced to decide whether to keep or swap it.

Feeling akin to some sort of Terry Gilliam, Brazil (1985), horror infused bureaucratic nightmare. Because of the fictitious nature of it all - the horror and surrealist setup - I felt there was no anti-Black tone within this short. No continuation or consistency of malice.

I went on a journey whilst investigating Indian Tales and that is of having an immediate negative response to a particular part of the film through to appreciating, unsurprisingly, that we impart ourselves onto films as we would with any piece of art. The incident which took place in my previous role involved a senior member of staff demonstrating anti-Blackness, my role encompassed monitoring the public backlash of what they had done, online. I watched Indian Tales, for this blog, in a post George Floyd world, in a time when Black Lives Matter marches were taking place worldwide and I explained this Kapadia. That I fully appreciated the current climate was also informing my observations. However, I first came across Indian Tales in 2018 and my initial observations of the film started at this point, though I was not attributing the title of anti-Blackness to my wording back then, I was asking why he had written the short the way he had done so. I think it rare that a writer and director affords people the time to allow them to unpack such comments, Kapadia could have easily ignored my questioning because he frankly has nothing to lose by one solitary voice asking a question that he doesn’t wish to engage with, but it says something that he did. That he welcomed the conversation regardless of the subject, “I'm happy that you've seen them [the short films] ... I think, I think it's good to have these conversations and discussions.” I’m not going to dictate what you should feel about how the plot unfolds, I just know I have a better understanding of how the film came about back then.

Fundamentally, without Indian Tales we wouldn’t have got to see the amazing films Kapadia went on and continues to make.

That film, Indian Tales, is in a way a step to get a job in TV directing. It got me a chance to go to my postgraduate at the Royal College of Art, where I made The Sheep Thief, which got me an agent, which won awards at Cannes and got me my chance to make my first feature. So, it was an important step, that short film.

Indian Tales was released in the same year as Stephen Sommers’s The Jungle Book (1994). I think I’m confident in my choice of celebrating South Asian representation via the '94 film I have been returning to and recommending since first discovering it.