Immigration and the Democratic Deficit


During its holy festivities, this Christian country remembers its Saviour and his holy lessons. Mary and Joseph sought asylum, needed the kindness of strangers. Ever year, I hope that Britons will learn from that story to embrace the needy wanderers of our times.  It is a forlorn hope. For every year Britain becomes more virulently hostile towards most incomers and the same big lie is repeated- that this tolerant nation has always welcomed people until now, when there are simply too many coming in and sinking the island nation. They said that when Huguenots in the 17th century and later Jews needed a sanctuary, when Caribbeans took up essential public service jobs, when factories invited Pakistani and Indian workers, when we East African Asians were forced out of our homelands and again when Vietnamese boat people came to stay.  The singers pass on but the song never changes.

Through those centuries there were always public figures who bravely stood up for immigrants for moral and economic reasons. Some were even Tories. During the debate on the Nationality Act of 1948, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, Conservative spokesman on home affairs said: ‘We are proud we impose no colour bar restrictions…we must maintain our great metropolitan tradition to everyone from every part of the Empire’. Ted Heath took on Enoch Powell and allowed British Ugandan Asians to settle in the UK and though a little Englander, Margaret Thatcher welcomed in the Vietnamese. Labour MPs championed immigrants, and won their trust but in government the party was often cowardly and surrendered to base instincts. Its 1968 Immigration Act which discriminated against non-white Commonwealth British citizens was described by Auberon Waugh in the Spectator as ‘ the most immoral legislation’ ever to emerge from any British parliament. Almost as an apology, the party pushed through race relations laws for which we are grateful. The LibDems always spoke up for immigrants and internationalism. They even elected as their President, Lord Dholakia, an Asian from East Africa.

Today’s leaders are, in contrast, spineless, contradictory, deceitful, and outdoing each other on ferocious anti-immigration rhetoric and policies, mainly because they are spooked by that grinning maverick Nigel Farageof UKIP. Clegg, whose principles are as dispensable as chewing gum, now spits out the policy of amnesty for undocumented, low paid migrants. He once mustered the passion of Mark Anthony to argue for their rights. Furthermore he wants a £1,000 bond on visitors from non-white nations. Not Australians and New Zealanders and all those kith and kin who stay forever. By the way, did you know there are more Americans living in the UK than Jamaicans and Somalis put together? Meanwhile Ed Milliband is busy saying sorry for Labour’s immigration policies, instead of reminding Britons about the high living standards they enjoyed between 1992 and 2007, partly because of the high productivity of EU migrants. Cameron is trying to face both ways on immigration- his neck must hurt. In India he magnanimously invites them over to study and work while back home he makes speeches that make Norman Tebbit look like a cuddly toy.

The Tory threats to restrict medical services, housing and education to new migrants ( even if they are working) have been lauded by the French National Front. These politicians are influenced by public intellectuals like David Goodhart who burble on about national solidarity being weakened by migrants. Yes, sure. What deep common bonds there are between Ian Duncan Smith and the poor he is systematically destroying.

David Walker, Bishop of Dudley has attacked the way all our political leaders are encouraging popular fury against migrants and refugees, exaggerating the ‘problems’ which often have ‘little relationship to the actual reality’.  The Council of Europe is alarmed by the extremely hostile public debate on Romanian and Bulgarian would-be migrants to Britain. The European Commission has attacked the ‘knee jerk xenophobia’ in the UK led by those entrusted with responsible leadership.

The consequences of the latest anti-immigration mood are barely considered. There has been an 11% fall in Indian investments between 2011 and 2012, according to the new, much needed Migration Matters Trust, set up by the Tory Gavin Barwell and Ex-Labour minister Barbara Roche. And then there are the ‘ethnic minority’ constituents. Some oppose immigration but most don’t. They have traditionally voted for Labour. LibDems, still disgracefully white, needs their support to survive. Lord Ashcroft and other Tory grandees know the ethnic vote will determine results in key constituencies. In the next election these voters and white Britons who support immigration will have no democratic choice because all the parties are lining with UKIP now.

On Easter Friday, we went to the V&A, and nearly every member of staff there was from somewhere else, working hard and with a smile. I go to radio and TV stations early in the mornings and late at night- the cleaners are ghosts, doing a job, unseen by the journos around them. Delivering a speech at a City bank, again the service staff were almost all black or Arab. The street cleaners in my borough are ‘outsiders’. They, we, still have to endure ceaseless attacks on us, day after day. And those elected to hold the country together and protect the vulnerable now use persecution as a political weapon. So, tell me, Cameron, Clegg and Milliband, why should we who don’t fear and loathe migrants and refugees, vote for you?

The Independent 1st April 2013

The Politically Correct Rabid Right

The Politically Correct Rabid Right

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

On the 30th of January 1978, the day my son was born, Margaret Thatcher charmingly told white TV viewers that their country was in danger of being ‘swamped’ by other cultures. Enoch Powell’s gory warnings about black and Asian immigration  were rebranded and detoxified by the wily, well groomed, Lady Toryand embedded in the nation’s psyche. Her words were calculated and won her populist support and admirers within her party. Sixteen months later she became PM.

In all the miles of newsprint and ceaseless cacophony following her death, no attention has been paid to her supremacist views of Empire ( Bruge Speech, 1992) or the race riots, or the many deaths in custody of black men, or government sanctioned unfair policing, or  her deep hostility to immigrants of colour or concomitant warmth towards white Zimbabweans and South Africans. As blogger Jacqueline Scott, writes: ‘Racism fattened under Margaret Thatcher’, but hush, don’t mention that.  Forgotten too is Thatcher’s vendetta against the GLC and ILEA, institutions which did not fall in line with her little Englandism. The politically correct, radical right has silenced all such talk and much more besides.

Make no mistake, the most intolerant, Stalinist and insistently PC forces today are on the right, not on the so called ‘loony left’. Last week this wing hysterically attacked the Diana Fund for supporting a campaigning pro-immigration organisation. Diana was a friend to the outsider and the despised and yet those she was close to are kicking up about this funding. The same reactionary battalions stopped the BBC from playing a song that legitimately got into the top of the charts, because it ‘insults’ the hallowed Tory matriarch. Most of our newspapers are on the right and they push, sometimes bully broadcasters into that same ideological space. Fearful of bad headlines, the BBC meekly accommodates their propaganda and so the right gets bolder and more demanding.

I was on Channel 5’s Wright Stuff as a panellist all week and expressed unfashionably critical assessments of the Thatcher era, well, because, I am told, we live in a free society. Some of the reactions I subsequently received made me wonder if I should better conceal or disguise my deeply held socialist, anti-racist  views. Walking through Whiteleys, where the programmes are recorded, a group crowded and abused me. Some of their comments were racist, others insulting or filthy. It was horrible. Back home, onto my screen came more from the rabid right PC brigade. They are offended by anything or anyone who disagrees with their views. Dissent, to them, is treason, and an embodiment of the enemy within (Thatcher’s term used for striking miners).

Every day we, the people, are instructed on what we should say, think and feel. To belong, we must not only praise Thatcher for her greatness and femaleness, but also be foolish, doting Royalists, hate the poor, approve of welfare cuts, hate the unions, reject the principle of equality and proclaim immigration as a deadly threat. Thatcher, the Boudicca of the fanatical right reclaimed the kingdom and they remain powerful, unbeatable and unbearable.

The Independent, 14th April 2013

Saint Margaret

The woman who destroyed society and communities, ripped the fragile tapestry that is our nation, has been cannonised by right wing politically correct warriors and ordinary folk who have bought into the myth of her greatness by the media. See my column in the Independent this week for some reminders of her real wrethced legacy. We have a technological revolution, oceans of information passing between continents, and increasingly sceptical world population and yet see how easy it is to dupe millions and get them behind one of the most repugnant political manipulations of all time. In North Korea they force people to mourn a dead leader, here they compel them through propaganda and a frightful censorship of dissent. There is a difference of course in method, but the result is the same.

14th April 2013

When Did Racism and Fascism Become Acceptable ideological ‘Choices’?

Sunderland has appointed Di Canio as manager, knowing full well his previous sympathies for Fascism. What does it matter if he is good at football? That’s what his groupies say. Some even add that his political ‘choices’ should not stop him getting a leadership role. Morality, then, is relative, depends whether it interferes with profits and ambitions. If it does, why, obviously, it must be binned and forgotten. There was a time when sports and sports men and women understood that the political context mattered even more then their cups and dosh. Well, some did, like those who boycotted South Africa under Apartheid. This wave of global capitalism has not only created great inequalities, it is spreading the idea that the only good in the world is money and nothing, nothing else matters. Di Canio is a perfect symbol of this ammorality. He doesn’t understand what he did wrong. Nor do his many supporters. Somehow, over the years, they forgot the lessons of the last world war. That is scarier than Fascism itself.

Saudi Arabia: An Evil Empire


OMG, what was she thinking? Camilla, wife of our future king, wore a flimsy, unsecured  headscarf on her trip to Saudi Arabia. It rebelliously slipped off and almost uncovered all her hair! According to the strict, conservative Saudi Wahabi practice of Islam, uncovered hidden female tresses, old and young, are as licentious as exposed pubic hair. I was told this in earnest by a Saudi trained British Imam. The Duchess’ moment of shamelessness must have prompted diplomatic jitters. Did the British Embassy press a panic button and send officials to apologise profusely and genuflect even more abjectly in front of the rulers? Probably. Described as an ‘ally’ and ‘friend’ by the UK, US and other western nations, Saudi Arabia is a dominatrix, lashing the whip, inflicting humiliation on grateful, international partners.

There has been some bother over this official visit by Charles and Camilla to a country which has just mass executed seven men. The protests are both obtuse, silly and a distraction. World royals network, have strong common interests, understand and prop up one another, exchange bling and niceties and sometimes interbreed. Charles is keen on Islamic thought and aesthetics and seriously so, but never dips his fingers into the messy business of Middle East politics. To expect the prince to stand up for human rights is about as hopeless as expecting him to be an equal rights champion of his nation. He was not raised to do either, poor chap, so why waste all that outrage on him?

The real iniquity is the way our state with others sucks up to Saudi Arabia, while knowing its tyrannical governance and malevolent global influence. The official abuse and repression of  its citizens is so embedded, most victims are inured to the violations, the ultimate debasement. Iran, led by the abhorrent Ahmadinejad, also executes and tortures its people, but its women can drive, work, go to university and initiate divorce and get custody of their children. Saudi women are denied all those choices and rights. Yet western observers incessantly slam Iran ( rightly) but say much less about Saudi Arabia. Yes, very slowly, some pitifully small rights are being handed to women. For the first time female politicians have been given an advisory role and smart young women are able to work under restrictive conditions, but at this pace, the world will end before Saudi women achieve full human status. Black cloaks render them invisible and happily for the men, hide all unseemly marks of domestic abuse. The judiciary system is unaccountable focussed on the cruellest of punishments. People are spied upon, foreign workers enslaved, non-Muslims and non-Sunni Muslims treated with contempt or worse. Islam’s holiest shrines are found in one of the unholiest of lands, where even these monuments are unsafe.

Recently, as my colleague Jerome Taylor reported, bulldozers have been pulling down the oldest, most invaluable and precious structures in Medina, some going back to the birth of the faith. The men in charge have already destroyed most other physical remnants of history, ignoring the pleas of archaeologists and Islamic scholars. If it were happening here Charles would raise royal hell; there he fawns to the Philistines. Science isn’t safe either. We are seeing the first cases of a deadly, unknown virus which has killed over a dozen people. A man died in Jeddah and another in the UK after a trip to Mecca. Professor Ali Mohamed Zaki, an Egyptian doctor working in Saudi Arabia was deported after he found this new strain and got it analyzed by Dutch virologists.

Then there is the hushed and hushed up spread of Wahabi Islam from north to south, east to west. Saudi funded Wahabis are here, there and everywhere, successfully eradicating all diversity and ease in Islam, aggressively exporting their own brand. I have seen the results of this  infiltration in Tanzania, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, Egypt and across western cities. The ideology leavens and raises intolerance, extremism and in some instigates violence. The 9/11 killers and original, prototype Al Qaeda ideologues were Saudi led. In 2002, the Washington Post leaked a report by a hawkish Neocon defence consultant to the US government which warned that the ‘Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners, to financiers, from cadre to foot soldiers, from ideologist to cheerleader.’ The report’s hawkish recommendations to take over oil-producing desert lands were abominable, but the analysis was spot on. The White House and Blair’s lot  took no notice and instead sold that regime arms.

The oil’s the thing and I do understand that. But in December 2012, according to the US Energy Information Administration, which provides independent statistical analysis, Venezuela was the second largest supplier of crude oil to the US. Saudi Arabia was the third biggest. So, why did the American and British spokespeople and commentators fearlessly slag off the late Hugo Chavez? Some of the criticisms were justified, others ideological and grossly unfair, but they didn’t hold their tongues as they do with Saudi Arabia, an evil empire  if ever there was one. By sending Royals to court them, our government endorses this evil and ensures none of us is safe. We should be mobilizing against this collusion but don’t. So it is our fault too.

The Independent 17th March 2013

A Hundred Years of Indian Cinema


The Indian film industry is the biggest and loudest on the planet. Eight hundred films are produced every year for domestic audiences of a billion plus and a burgeoning overseas market. Though regional and independent films have always done their own thing and brilliantly,  the most prodigious sector is ‘Bollywood’, the ultimate dream factory in Mumbai. Burhan Wazir, director of the Doha Film Institute finds the films formulaic, featuring ‘gym fit actors, exotic locations, rampantly consumerist lifestyles.’ True, but it is such a winning formula that glitzy Bollywood is now outshining Hollywood- no mean feat, when one considers how American cultural hegemony has dominated and disabled the European film industries.

Beautiful megastars Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai appear on the covers of Forbes and Time magazine and are considered more famous than Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts. Michael Ellis of the Motion Pictures Association admits that US studios have not penetrated the Indian market. Until 2008, American cinemas did not screen Hindi movies. Now they do, big time. In LA, dance studios teach Bollywood dancing to wannabe starlets while Columbia, Disney, Fox et al seek out co-production deals with Bollywood. Hitherto narcissistic Hollywood was oblivious to its eastern counterpart. Now it is sprinting to catch up with the rest of the world. Bollywood patriarch and superstar Amitabh Bachchan is jubilant that they who ignored or ridiculed his industry are eating humble ( American) pie: ‘We always knew and believed in our films. The uniqueness of Hindi cinema has been its content…It has survived almost a hundred years and is still growing [so] it must be doing something right’.

So what is the secret of this success? According to buoyant director, Karan Johar, it is: ‘ a mixture of music, love, family values, comedy, fantasy…adventurous choice of film location.’ Discerning audiences know that films are not real life, but allegories which give hope because  good triumphs over evil, poetic justice prevails.  Expert Nasreen Munni Kabir, curator of Channel4’s annual season of Hindi movies, writes: ‘…they are unquestionably the most-seen movies in the world… [watched] well beyond Indian continent and the Diaspora, in such unlikely places as Russia, China, the Middle East, the Far East, Turkey and Africa. People from very different cultural and social worlds have a great love for Indian popular cinema, and many have been Hindi film fans for over fifty years’. Mao Tse Tung was a fan as were millions of others in communist countries. Bollywood was a globalized phenomenon long before our age of globalisation.

It all started exactly a hundred years ago when D. J. Phalke, a nerdy-looking, bespectacled Indian Brahmin made the first ever Indian feature film, Raja Harish Chandra, about a noble king guided by Hindu Gods, some frolicsome, some deadly and full of wrath. In 1895, the French Lumiere brothers had created the first motion pictures and by 1911, moving images had been shown in Mumbai venues, created a buzz and palpable anticipation.  A vast audience was prepped for this new medium, its possibilities and magic, and Phalke’s first big filmic adventure.

He became king of the silent era, producing dozens of mythological films with actors gesticulating wildly, backed by some live music and crude sound effects. The filmmaker was populist and subversive, a storyteller with messianic resolve.

Let us go back to India in 1912. The British Raj was full of pomp and hubris and natives were getting restive. Two years later Gandhi would launch his liberation movement. Phalke had studied art and architecture, tried printing, photography, archaeology and various other ventures. And then, in Mumbai, he watched a French Film, The Life of Christ and was gripped: ‘… by a strange spell. I bought another ticket and saw the film again. Could we, the sons of India, ever, able to see Indian images on the screen?’ He had found his calling. He would put those images on screen to awaken Indian nationalism. Ironically  Phalke knew he couldn’t fulfil his mission without western technology and British expertise. He travelled to Europe, met directors, bought a Williamson camera,  and in  London, was trained by the English director Cecil Hepworth in his Walton-on-Thames studios. Creative Indian and European filmmakers then were mutually respectful collaborators who circumvented political partition, defied colonial and societal strictures.

Phalke thrilled audiences and subliminally aroused his compatriots to resist unjust power and inequality. Other silent films chose their own targets. As early as 1921, England Returned, mocked pretentious, Anglicised Indians. (Goodness Gracious Me picked on similar characters in their hit BBC TV series in the 1990s.) Risqué and sexually daring films seemed to herald new personal freedoms. One of the boldest was Shiraz (1928), about ill fated, royal lovers, directed by  Frantz Osten, a German. The producer and leading actor was the Indian trailblazer, Himansu Rai. It was shown in Germany and England to great acclaim.

Fearing films could incite dissidence and high emotion, colonial administrators  imposed strict censorship. Any character wearing the loin cloth was deemed dangerous because it was Gandhi’s chosen attire, so too any expression of patriotism. To beat the bans anti-British messages were embedded in song lyrics. Post-imperial India kept the scissors and state censorship. The Brits cut seditious messages; Indian controllers expurgate  ‘licentiousness’- kisses and bedroom antics. So smart directors use dance and suggestive dialogue to make highly charged, erotic films. Just don’t tell the censors.

Gorgeous Devika Rani, an Indian actress trained at RADA, met Rai in London in 1928, married him and starred in his films. One of these, Karma (1929), was in English, shot in a London studio and premiered in Leicester Square. Rani received rave reviews, but the film bombed and the couple moved back home. Three years later the sound era arrived with Alam Ara, a historical musical made by Ardeshir Irani. Rai and Rani, the hot and ambitious  couple, set up Bombay Talkies. One of its early hits was Achchut Kanya, about untouchables, starring Rani and directed by Osten, who made 19 films in India. He then joined the Nazi party. Inexplicable.

Lalit Mohan Joshi founded the South Asian Cinema Foundation in London.  Born in India, he used to bunk off school and sneak into cinemas, like the boy in Cinema Paradiso. He tells me that in the thirties and forties, common themes were female rights, hypocritical social mores  and caste prejudice, always done beautifully through compelling stories and acting. Idealistic and artistic directors won prizes at Cannes and Venice. They used the popular art form to create unity in a multilingual, disparate, often conflicted nation. Muslims were key players and astonishingly, Jewish and Christian actresses- some European- were employed by the studios- usually to play led-lipped vamps. The influence of cinema in India, says Joshi, is  immeasurable: ‘It has more of an impact than books, art and even religion.’

Adulated stars join the limitless pantheon of Hindu deities. When Bachchan was seriously injured while filming in 1982, millions stopped work, fasted and prayed. PM Indira Gandhi cancelled a foreign trip to go to his bedside. Shahrukh, Aamir and Salman Khan  (unrelated)are today’s top male idols. All three are of Muslim heritage and immensely powerful. Aamir created and hosts a TV programme which confronts unjust and corrupt practices in public and domestic life. Six hundred million people watch the show which terrifies and chastens the powerful and rich. Several Bollywood luminaries have gone into politics. Only in India. Would Hugh Grant or Helen Mirren ever stand for election?

The golden age of Hindi cinema was, arguably, from the fifties to the mid sixties. And again, British technical expertise was enlisted by some celebrated Indian producers. Among the actors who emerged then were Prithviraj Kapoor and his sons Raj, Shami and Shashi, also Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar among others Raj Kapoor, also a director, replicated Chaplin’s hapless characters in memorable films. The Kapoor acting dynasty is still going strong in Bollywood. Wonderful actresses like Nargis, and Waheeda Rehman  (both Muslims),  Meena Kumari and Geeta Bali were not always good, obedient Asian women. They were rule breakers, some mistresses and hard drinkers in real life, all defiant and free on screen. Nargis wore revealing ballgowns and short tennis skirts and played feisty characters; In the remarkable film Guide (1965) Rehman, a dancer, was stuck with an archaeologist husband much like Casaubon in Middlemarch. A sexy tourist guide came along and the heroine went  off with him. That, though, didn’t end her deep unhappiness. In her most famous film Pakeezah, Meena Kumari played a dignified courtesan exposing society’s duplicities.

Moral concerns were depicted with such feeling that they stayed with you, within you. The Oscar shortlisted Mother India ( 1957) was about tough, maternal love and the unwinnable fight for peasant land rights. The usually glam Nargis played the heroine. That powerful drama  seeded my socialist principles. In 1960, another immortal masterpiece was released- Mughal-e-Azam, about a Mughal prince and a dancing girl, an epic tussle between love and duty. My English husband has watched it five times.

From the late sixties, Bollywood changed, perhaps forever. Flamboyant films arrived, with ridiculous storylines, foreign locations, lovers running around trees and gyrating women breaking into song and dance for no good reason. And bad jokes. Movies such as An Evening in Paris and Love in Tokyo were cringe-making but box office hits. Then in the seventies, came the Indian Rambo, ballsy Bachchan, playing volcanic young men and breaking all box office records. The actor seemed to channel the people’s anger under the authoritarian PM Indira Gandhi.

Through the good and bad times, India’s independent sector has produced internationally lauded films with low budgets. Satyajit Ray, of course, and Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen ( an actress too, who starred in Ray’s films),  Mrinal Sen and others have made classics without Bollywood’s razzmatazz. Benegal’s Ankur starred the subtle and versatile actress, Shabana Azmi, who played an adulterous wife. It is among my top ten films. Modern director Onir, famous for his touching films on homosexuality and other taboo subjects has compared Bollywood to a shopping mall, mindless, lifestyle and regressive. He is part of a confident new wave which is making its mark at home and internationally. As are Diasporic Indian filmmakers like Mira Nair ( Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding and The Reluctant Fundamentalist ) and Deepa Mehta, director of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

For post-war Asian migrants to the UK, Hindi movies were cheap entertainment and gave them solace, an identity as they coped with racism and dreadful weather. Multitalented Meera Syal remembers going to Hindi films at Wolverhampton picturehouses with her family: ‘This was the only time and place we saw an art form that was ours. People dressed up and it was as exciting as it must have been for Elizabethan audiences going to the theatre. It was a window into a country I didn’t really know, a living link. And I felt proud. To see people who looked like us acting and dancing was amazing. Remember TV here then had no place for us. The films also had good messages- about families being sacred.’

Gurinder Chadha, renowned director of Bend it Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice, was brought up in Southall and went on Sundays with her family to the temple, then a Bollywood film followed by samosas and sweets at a local cafe: ‘the singing and dancing, big musical numbers, bright colours, big emotions!’ She too admires early Hindi films because they had social commentary and defiant messages, all dressed up with songs and music: ‘A lot of it was about installing pride and unity in this new, freshly independent nation. They were trying to define who they were.’ The kitsch came later and carries on, but every decade, she believes, has produced remarkable films reflecting political, economic and social shifts and moods.  Interestingly Chadha’s best work is influencing some Indians in the business.

So where are we now? In the words of novelist Hari Kunzru : ‘… Bollywood has taken a contemporary turn and production values often overshadow narrative. movies dissolved during the eighties into a torrid orgy of wet-sari clad violence and were overtaken by a new generation of super-glossy love stories with big budgets and international locations’ I tire of the bling and Lamborghinis, vast mansions, super-lavish weddings and in-house gods covered in real gold leaf. Joshi too finds these developments disheartening: ‘Most of today’s film are not deep. They are pseudo, plastic, have no originality or integrity. Whereas before, directors were progressive, today they are regressive’. He is right. Previously movie makers were unabashedly Indian, used their own idiom, with integrity and without trying too hard to impress or emulate America or Europe.

Modern global capitalism has changed all that. Indians in the US and UK  are upwardly mobile, uber-aspirational and getting wealthy. They disdain moralising stories about the dirt poor rural Indian villagers or oppressed women. In India itself too, the rapidly growing urban middle and upper class want movies which cast them as heroes of a brave new world, not tearful folk tales. In India this January, the shrill daughter of a wealthy financier gave me an earful: ‘I mean you arty types like all those sad films with the poor and weeping women and all that. Why? Is it that you can’t accept that India is now a superpower? That you want us to stay backward for your entertainment? Why do you hate and mock Indians who walk tall in Jimmy Choos?’ Maybe she has a point. Are those who fetishize old, socially concerned movies, refusing to acknowledge, new, shining India? Perhaps, but only because those old divides and injustices have got worse. And anyway, there is no turning back.

Bollywood in the 21st Century is a rising brand. Of twelve white students interviewed at Middlesex University for this article, most recognised the ‘product’ and big names and some had watched the movies. That never happened before. Of the Asian students also interviewed, trendy and irreversibly  British, almost all watched the films and felt affirmed by them, just as Syal did way, way back.

Though there is too much dross, Bollywood has, in this decade, been making movies of real substance displaying innovation, high production values, courage and artistry. Examples include Omkara, based on Othello, a multilayered film of the destructive love between a gullible outlaw and his lover from a respectable family and Barfi, a story of  a dumb and deaf charmer, the highest grossing movie in India in 2012. The most highly paid stars are now choosing to act in non glam films with meaning.

So the future looks bright. My American friend, married to an Indian, is unsettled by that: ‘These movies are great, but they tell me power is moving away from the US, going east. And you know that’s hard for us Americans.’ Her husband cut in, ‘It’s time things were hard for you all. Hollywood will be humbled by Bollywood. Watch the space.’ Someone should make a movie about the clash of these two Titans.

Independent on Sunday 17th March 2013