More treasure from the supermarket bargain bin… Anita & Me, an Anglo-Asian dramedy from 2002, adapted by Meera Syal from her semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. To quote from the back of the box: “It’s 1972 and 12 year-old Meena is poised to the brink of her teenage years. Torn between her familys culture and the escape offered by the rock and roll era, her daily life is turned upside down by the arrival of the blonde, beautiful and outrageous Anita Rutter.” The blurb also claims that this is “an hilarious British comedy in the tradition of East is East and Bend It Like Beckham”. Personally, I think that comparison is slightly misleading… true they do all deal with brown people living in a white country, but the styles and stories are quite different. It’s easy to see why this flick wasn’t quite the roaring international success that Beckham was… since it doesn’t have quite the same feel-good factor. While Beckham had its fair share of tears and tantrums, it has nothing on Anita, which at times feels almost like a thriller! Personally I can handle watching most movie monsters without breaking a sweat, but when there are skinheads swaggering around, pulling knives on kids… I start to clench up. It’s all far too tense and ugly for me.
Still with two of the stars/writers of Goodness Gracious Me in the cast, there are also plenty of laughs to be had. Sanjeev Bhaskar gives a nice subtle turn as Anita’s father, with Syal getting to have a little more fun as the poor girl’s bullying aunty. Meanwhile, the gorgeous Ayesha Dharker gives a great performance as the mother, even if some of her scenes seem a teeny bit stagey, script-wise. Chandeep Uppal is impressive as ‘Meena’, with a lot of very difficult scenes and tonal shifts to navigate… since then, she’s had starring roles in the children’s sitcom My Life as a Popat, and a double-headed meta-comedy called Echo Beach/Moving Wallpaper, which is rather too complicated to explain here. She’s still in her teens, but seems to have worked consistently since her big break, which is heartening. Overall the cast were very good, and really drew you in to the ups and downs of their characters… whether your nerves could handle it or not! For an adaptation it worked remarkably well, I thought… when a novel is condensed into screenplay format, it can often seem a little flimsy or rushed on-screen, but Syal managed to keep a good balance between the breadth of the story, and the depth of the characters.
I wasn’t surprised to discover that Syal’s novel is now a part of the school syllabus. The film has an educational vibe to it, in the best sense of that word… it doesn’t talk down to kids the way that Disney films tend to, pretending that were all shiny, happy people, who’ll all get to be rock stars someday. There’s an upbeat innocence to it, but it also peeks into some very dark and very real corners. I remember when I was at school, we studied Roots and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry… which I got a lot out of, even if we did have to suffer through the spectacle of our white, sixty year-old English teacher adopting a “black” “Southern” accent to read certain passages aloud. Oy! There are some people out there, and I know because I’ve had the great misfortune of conversing with them, who believe that it is a crime to take classic old-timey texts (written by those pesky “dead white men”) off the syllabus, in favour of more modern and “politically correct” texts, which may not have quite such lofty literary aspirations. We call these people “idiots”. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of Shakespeare and Wilde now and again… but the fact remains that they don’t really prepare a child for the world in which they actually have to survive and thrive. They don’t teach children very much about the dilemmas facing them on a daily basis. Even as a ten year old, I can remember thinking that it was wrong to bully other children simply because they were a different colour… but it was nice to have my hunch confirmed by what the teachers were feeding us. While I feel I benefited from learning about slavery, and African-American Civil Rights, it’s good to know that talented British writers of Syal’s standing are producing texts which hit a little closer to home.
In an interview about the film, Syal confessed: “It’s very sad but I wanted to be blonde and called Sharon… I just wanted to be like the other girls. I was from a culture that was different, there were no positive representations of who I was anywhere… Britain was not ready for a multi-cultural environment when I was growing up in the Seventies. It was a difficult time because Enoch Powell had made his famous speech and I remember my parents talking about it. They really did keep suitcases on top of the wardrobe because we might have to leave tomorrow. It was very insecure. It’s a different world for my little girl… Our house is like the United Nations. The other day she had two of her Jewish friends round and the East End working-class girl who lives next door, they were all there doing the dance routines from Bombay Dreams. I thought, God, this is brilliant… It makes me very hopeful for her generation. It’s how children should grow up.”