In 2016, an article on Indian cinema and curry appeared in the New Statesman. It claimed that owing to “harsher visa rules and Brexit”, the interest of the Indian community had waned in the foster-land of curry. Bollywood was indeed bored of London, it said.
I chanced upon the article while trying to find out a fictitious nocturnal route from High Holburn to the Langham hotel, which is in Marylebone. And I was struck by a fact, very simple, yet unexplained – which was how Hindi cinema had familiarized the street names of London for urban India, especially by the decade of the neoliberal 1990s.
The time was before Google Maps ruled over the Indian geographical imagination. Even then, films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) generated the centripetal force of a diasporic Indian centre in decentered pockets of London.
When Baldev Singh walked 20 kilometres every day
Recount the first scene from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, a film that later became the watershed of Bombay cinema as well as to a large extent, of upper-middle class Indian values. The place where Baldev Singh (Amrish Puri) feeds the pigeons of Trafalgar Square overlaps with the shot of salwar-kameez-clad women in mustard fields of Punjab.
When I saw the film for the first time 22 years ago, I had seen neither Punjab nor London. I suspect there were nearly 500 million Indians, at the time, who like me conjured had conjured a fictitious route from Trafalgar Square to Bhatinda, or at least had taken one to be the extension of another. It is also likely that many Indians who subsequently visited London must have hunted for Baldev Singh’s convenience store in Southall, like Americans seek out the Old Curiosity Shop (immortalised by Charles Dickens in his novel) on Portsmouth Street.
I did not know any of those streets then, but now I know that during the three-minute-duration of the song, Baldev Singh had walked a distance of nearly 20 kilometers, from Trafalgar Square to his shop, carrying his umbrella as a faithful subject of the Commonwealth –crossing the Big Ben, Waterloo Bridge, British Museum, the Serpentine, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, and finally, a drizzly St James’s Park, before entering Southall.
Unlike what Milkha Singh once allegedly did in Rome, Baldev Singh apparently never looked back upon his epic walk from Punjab to Paddington. What is more extraordinary, he confesses that he crosses through the same route each day, and each day the streets ask him his name. Gone are the days when London afforded such a vicarious velocity to anonymous Indians, in cinema and the South Asian imagination.
Even until 2007, as many as 40 Indian films were being shot in London. In 2005, India filmed 35 productions in Westminster alone. Since then however the number of Indian films using London spaces as their settings has noticeably declined. The last noteworthy film shot in London was the Kangana-Ranaut-starrer Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015). Just the previous year, Ranaut’s film Queen, set in Paris and Amsterdam, had paved the way for Indian films to be shot in non-British European locations. Subsequently, though Shah Rukh Khan’s Fan (2016) paid a brief visit to London’s Madame Tussauds, the setting shifted to Dubrovnik in Croatia.
The tipping point in the fortunes of the London-based Indian films seems to have come around 2010, when David Cameron became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Brexit proved to be the culmination of the slump in the soft-power industry. Perhaps Indian producers have well understood the fact that Britain may not cumulatively add up Indian consumers. With stricter regulations on immigration, recent South Asian immigrants to the UK is all set to bow out.
While releasing her party manifesto, Prime Minister Theresa May has recapped her party’s position on immigration. Visa requirements for non-European Union students will get tougher. Those who will be allowed entry into Britain will be expected to leave the country after their education, unless they fulfill the stricter qualifications needed for them to stay back and work.
For students especially, landing up in Britain has always been meant luck and hard work; for them to stay back there an almost forbidden indulgence that inspires envy from both quarters, Britons and Indians. The curry, on the other hand, inspires absolute adoration in both the nations. But it now finds itself in a political crisis.
Curry and worry
For businesses like that of Sanjay Shah, a London based curry-restaurateur, even going the Conservative way did not arouse the sympathies of the current government. Shah and several others of his kind – South Asian curryhouse owners of London – are softcore Thatcherites. They held on to their ideologies in the hope of receiving their due share of political credits after the Brexit vote. Many of these curryhouse owners voted “leave” last year.
Another London-based restaurateur, Cyrus Todiwala, wonders what he restriction on immigration would imply for small business, which will no longer be able to compete with larger restaurants due to lack of skilled immigrant labor. Inter alia, May’s manifesto promises Britain to increase the levy on each immigrant labourer, from £1,000 per laborer per year to £2,000 per labourer per year. The Vote-Leave-Brexit campaign had assured the curry-restaurateurs that they would be able to recruit more easily after the Brexit vote. But after the vote, they were betrayed, while over 1,000 curry restaurants shut shops, in Britain, last November.
Earlier, Indian restaurant owners had hoped for a more Australian form of immigration system that would have allowed them to hire more Indian and Bangladeshi nationals into the £4 billion-worth curry industry. Priti Patel, the International Development Secretary, and a Leave campaigner, had reassured the curryhouses that a Brexit verdict would enable the curryhouses to get the benefit of the non-EU immigration policy. However, one curryhouse owner went on to report, months after the vote, that it was “very disappointing that Brexit campaigners such as Priti Patel and Boris Johnson, who said the curry industry would be better off the EU, have not kept their promises”.
At a crossroads
I gave up my attempts at finding the fictional route in South London. Rather, I found myself fancifully at King’s Cross Station, a bystander to Indo-British diplomacy of the last 22 years since Dilwale Dilhania Le Jayenge. It was an indomitable ode to London, an Indian Notting Hill, strung on high ritualistic melody and extravaganza. Twenty-two years was also the time Baldev Singh had spent in London. King’s Cross Station was where Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) and Simran (Kajol) separated Dilwale Dilhania Le Jayenge. The impossibility of the union of the two lovers gnaws at both their hearts. It is left to Raj (the Empire?) to woo Simran back into his life, or else she would be wedded to another suitor. Will India find a better ally to send its winged citizens to?
“Livelihood,” says Baldev Singh, had become the shackles of his feet, in a city where no one except the pigeons knew him. Today such anonymity is not possible. An Indian or a South Asian will henceforth be even more visible – uprooted from his own nationality and unwelcome in the land of his erstwhile rulers. It is very likely that Indians will abjure London as their choice for a station of livelihood, education and the curry, in future. What good the hundreds of texts of postcolonial criticism, that are published each year, the thousands of Londoners who dance a jig at the innumerable flashmobs or Bollywood-styled weddings, and memories of the father of the curry, Sake Deen Mahomet, will have served then?
Back in the ’90s, the promise of neoliberal economics allowed our willing suspensions of disbelief. We had no qualms about welcoming a part of London into our own metropolitan centres. We willed London’s cosmopolitan ethic into a reality in cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, Calcutta and Delhi. But will our cinema continue to find a haven in London, or will the curry die a premature death? We could not have been more exuberant than when Shashi Tharoor called for reparations from Britain, and most rightly so. But is it too late for Britain to make any?
The wistful note of some lover’s mandolin rises and falls like the twilight sea at Mount Batten, 300 kilometres southwest of London. Is there some benevolent hand still outstretched towards us, from a passing compartment? Or have our curry and cinema simply missed the train?
Arup K Chatterjee is the founder chief-editor of Coldnoon, author of The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways, and Assistant Professor at OP Jindal Global University.