By Deborah Sathe

28 October 2015 - 09:43

'We must acknowledge that really good, diverse, clever storytelling appeals to all, if you do it well.' Still from Three Brothers ©

Aleem Khan

Some UK cities have significant populations of Indian origin. So why is the UK film and TV industry not catering for them? We spoke to Film London's Deborah Sathe about the difficulties of shooting for British Indians and the new order of UK-India relations in film.

There's a lack of British Asian talent in the industry

It is widely agreed that the UK film and television industry hasn't historically developed British Asian talent for mainstream success, despite a hungry audience, and diversity targets in TV and film organisations across the board. I have worked in radio, theatre and television and have been involved in so many short-term schemes. Too often, a training ground is created, and then it is cut. Short-term fixes do not bring about the change that is needed. It is long-term commitment, starting at a school age, which will deliver the talent.

When I took over as Head of Talent Development at Film London, I felt I was in a position to make a lasting difference through our schemes. I am half Indian and was aware that there was an untapped market, particularly when it came to Asian stories and audiences. In the inaugural year of our short-film scheme specifically for BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) talent, three of our writers/directors - Aleem Khan, Sarmad Masud and Riz Ahmed - struggled to cast their films and had to resort to street-casting. Yet, all films went on to achieve considerable success, one securing a BAFTA nomination, one now being developed by Big Talk Productions as a television show, and the other having been selected to premier at Sundance and also being developed for terrestrial television by a major corporation. This proves there is a strong commercial opportunity in making high-quality films for a diverse audience and with a diverse cast. If you look at our successful Asian stars, they are quickly taken up by the USA, and the UK industry is left hunting for their replacements, so retention is another issue.

There's a mismatch between talent pool and a growing Asian audience

The UK audience is becoming more Asian. That is a fact, which needs to be understood by the entire UK film and TV industry to ensure that commissions reflect this. If you think about it commercially and you want this audience to also buy and watch your content, you really need to be pulling up diverse storytellers and stars now. Big flagships such as X Factor, EastEnders and Strictly Come Dancing attract big, diverse, young audiences, because their stars are the same.

One needs to remember that UK diversity is complicated, though, and the categories we divide everyone into aren't very helpful when we begin to drill into the specifics. Describing people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh etc. as Asian is only a UK thing. This term doesn't travel internationally. ‘Asian’ is a word that describes a whole bunch of people that wouldn't identify themselves as such. The diaspora is not one single community, and representing it as such in film will not translate into a gain in audiences. Whilst working on radio soap Silver Street (2004-2010), we pitted the various factions of the Asian community, Sikhs, Mirpuri Pakistanis, Gujaratis, against each other in order to make a compelling drama that exposed how Asians don’t sit happily under one umbrella.

Independent Indian cinema is growing, as is their cinema-going middle class

What is often not embraced by the UK industry is how rich India has become. India is predicted to be the fastest-growing economy in the world for the second consecutive year in 2016. The traditional Indian cinema audience is massive, and Indian work sells effectively across the globe. The boom in the Indian economy has affected the belief that the UK leads the way in delivering excellence and that Indians want a slice of it. When pitching a new project to Indian investors, I discovered that having a UK partnership for the project was an important element in my favour, but a clear commercial route was more decisive.

What's more, India suffers from its own prejudices, which limits who is able to triumph as an on-screen star, and what kind of story the audience is prepared to watch. For that reason, India’s independent cinema sector is more interesting for me than its mainstream. This independent industry very much wants to talk to Europe and to form relationships that enable its artistry to be recognised, and that specifically is where I'm investing my energy. Although its profitability might not be visible yet, the independent sector will yield dividends, financially and creatively, and those are the kinds of partnerships that I am encouraging now. Bollywood itself is not broken. There is no point trying to even have a finger in there. But if you think about the quickly expanding middle classes going to see independent cinema in India, this translates into a big commercial opportunity.

Stories need to be told by the people they're about

I am interested in how established British film-makers have often pulled up the image of an exotic, poor or broken India - TrishnaMarigold Hotel, even Slumdog Millionaire are all such examples. All these films are told by non-Indians, they sell to a massive international audience and omit other narratives about India that should be mainstream. Whilst I know the Indian industry is tired of listening to the story of The Lunchbox, a big-hearted and extraordinary film, it did open up a side of India and storytelling that the rest of the world needed reminding of. It is about the Indian middle class, and is a love story about a broken marriage and a woman’s quest to find happiness. The film did really well here in the UK. It took £495,000 from independent cinemas, which means it was primarily speaking to a white audience. India’s mainstream industry did not recognise it or its value, whilst it was being made, but once it had had its international success, it returned to Indian cinemas a hero.

There's a huge gap in the market, and no-one is filling it

It's worth asking why only Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle and these white male directors are going to India and taking its creativity and putting it onto the big screen. Why can I not see British Asian talent doing that and speaking to a bigger audience, and seeing it from their eyes? Surely, the next step is to make films that try to find out what, if anything, India means to a British Asian. There is a creativity gap, and I wanted - through this talent development initiative - to bring those voices together.

We must acknowledge that really good, diverse, clever storytelling appeals to all, if you do it well. We should not shy away from thinking that, just because something is Asian or Nigerian, it only speaks to Asians or Nigerians. Look at Orange Is the New Black: who would have thought that a bunch of really diverse lesbian prisoners would have such global success and enough so to redefine the Emmys? We need to start tackling our sense of who we are a little more from a humbler position, because India is a huge country, with a huge cinema-going population, so we need to find more creative and industrial ways of working with them in film and television.

Read the British Council report on India-UK relations, out on 27 October 2015.

If you are a female film writer, producer or director, apply for funding through the Shakespeare’s Sister initiative by 3 November 2015.

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