MEDIAPOLIS LIVE: London

Photo credit: "Southall, Evening, Artwork by Andrew Reid Wildman" by Spicygreenginger (CC BY-NC 2.0)
[Ed. note: Mediapolis Live is an audio series of interviews, live events, and other discussions of cities and culture. This installment features a discussion held at the July 2019 London: Gateway to Cinema and Media Studies symposium. The episode is hosted by Pamela Wojcik, and features panelists Kulraj Phullar, Malini Guha, and Charlotte Brunsdon. It was produced by Brendan Kredell. An edited and condensed transcript follows.]

Pamela Wojcik: We’re here at the SCMS/Notre Dame/King’s College partnership – London: Gateway to Cinema and Media Studies. And this morning, Kulraj, I really liked what you said about the idea of London as a gateway. You know, the idea of the gate as both a point of entry and a point of exclusion, and thinking about your paper on Southall as an urban space that’s both global and local, and both inside and outside London, I wonder if we could start by thinking about critical gateways, and ways that work on London in the city or city in cinema itself produces these kinds of exclusions — and also points of entry — and thinking about it, maybe particularly through sort of South Asian populations and South Asian cinema. So, sort of thinking about Charlotte’s work in relation to your work, but also other conversations, but also divisions between conversations that occur. 

Kulraj Phullar: Thank you. I think it might be easier for me to say, I guess, where the motivation for the paper came from, because I think that probably touches on quite a big chunk of your question. I’ve been interested in South Asian diaspora cinema in the British context for quite a long time. I am British Asian myself, and I’ve been particularly interested in these London-set films and especially the use of Southall in them. Southall that has this almost mythical kind of like status and importance, not only for British South Asians, but also in the bigger context of a multicultural post-war yet post-colonial Britain. And I wanted to bring Charlotte’s work, Malini’s work, into kind-of like a dialogue, both with my own focus on British Asian cinema, but also in conversation with Indian cinema as well. You know, sort of see what happens if we kind-of bring all of these things together. One, because I think the South Asian cinema — sorry, the British South Asian cinema tends to get neglected, particularly in the scholarship on London and cinema, so there is some excellent work on, for example, Horace Ové’s films by Malini and Charlotte, but I think that — I think the British South Asian films work in a different way, and Southall in particular has a very different, I guess very different sort of status. So in Malini’s work she talks about this idea of like Center and Margin, in the context of, say, Parisian cinema, but in the context of London the shape of the city means that places like Brixton, Brick Lane, Notting Hill are still fairly central — except for Southall, which is way out in the Greater London space on the west side. And it’s also a suburban space as well. So again, there’s that tendency to not think of diasporic communities being in suburban settings. We’re always in these kind of grotty inner city ghettos. So I think Southall — both in terms of it’s kind of like its history as a South Asian space — but I think also from, I guess from a methodological point of view, I think it raises a lot of interesting questions that are very different from, say, the kind of like the Notting Hill, Brixton of Horace Ové, of Menelik Shabazz, etc.. 

PW: Right. Charlotte? 

Charlotte Brunsdon: Well I thought what was so interesting about your paper, and the way you presented it, was the way in which you try to make — try to switch how we thought about the local. You talked about how films set in Southall used a recognisable grammar that showed us ‘this is Southall’ and that this was often about local life, but this was also about a global local life. So it was about a settled London life that was also a diasporic and global life. And I thought that was very rich, and I thought it gave us some interesting ways to begin thinking about what settled multicultures and living together might mean in practice — the sorts of shops it might mean you went to, and how important actually the showing of those lives on film, on television, in a taken-for-granted way might be particularly in I think quite difficult times. 

PW: Malini? 

Malini Guha: What I find particularly exciting about Kulraj’s work is the scope for a kind of comparative analysis. So Charlotte mentioned this during Kulraj’s talk, that in the way that you were showing us examples of ‘this is Southall’ in terms of a kind of iconicity of the local. Something similar does happen with Brixton, which I do talk about in my work, right, where you have recurring kinds of images, narrative events — and so on — that create a kind of sense of cinematic place. So I think it’d be very interesting to do comparative work along these lines actually, to think about how the local and the Diasporic is represented across different kinds of pockets of the city, and in terms of different forms of representation. 

CB: But also if we go back to Pamela’s question about gateways, I think it shows us — I think there’s great advantage in shifting focus in how you think about what you’re looking at. So, if we have, as we’ve got here, a focus on London and thinking about London and media, it potentially forces people with different disciplinary interests and formations to come together with an object of study. So we’ve got scholars of early cinema, we’ve got scholars of games, we’ve got scholars of American cinemas, we’ve got scholars of British cinemas. And those are the dominant kinds of groupings. But actually what thinking, say, about Southall does is it also says, ‘well yeah, but also let’s think about that huge cinema, you know, that huge cinema which is Indian cinema.’ What happens when we put that in there as well? And I think I think it’s that benefit, of trying to put things together and say, ‘oh yes, we have to learn how this relates to that, and these contribute together.’ 

KP: Yes I mean, I think partly because those conversations are real — because if you think about it, Southall is a result of a dialogue between people arriving from India, and people born here in Britain as well. And I think that there’s a sense of using the idea of space as an opportunity to make those connections, bring in those kind-of like dialogues as well. I think Malini saying about Brixton as well, that this connection between London and other British multicultural centers — you know, we have this kind of context of political blackness in the UK, you know, which I guess would have been used, I guess, maybe the way that we now use the term people of color, and that sense of solidarity between Africaribbeans and South Asians that was so important politically and culturally — especially in the 60s, 70s, 80s. You start to kind of see it lose its currency in the early 90s after the Satanic Verses and those kinds of issues. But I think that kind of currency is, I think that that connection is important, not only in terms of analysis, but I think if we also want to think about doing film studies — doing a kind of film studies that’s not just about representations of politics, but also doing film studies politically. I think we also need to think about how our knowledge, our skills, can enable people to make these connections — actually set up spaces for these historical dialogues — and that I think that legacy of political blackness is something that’s, It’s about solidarity. It’s very problematic solidarity, but they all are and we’re at a time when actually solidarity is really important. So I think there’s a lot that we can learn from that history. And it’s there in the films. It’s there in the films in those spaces. 

PW: Can I ask thinking about political blackness, then, another way of sort of cutting through some of the ways that, you know, kind of London and the city an the cinema have been imagined, would also be Clive’s work, you know, where he was talking yesterday about black British urban cinema, right, which urban — you know — kind of that seems to me to connect globally in a different way. The kinds of tropes that he’s talking about seem to match up in interesting ways with African American urban cinema. So that you have sort of a different set of connections and I wonder about the conversation between and among that body of work, and the kinds of cinema you’re talking about, and the kinds of places, you know what I mean? So that, are there — are there also points of exclusion between those two conversations, or are there joinings? 

CB: Well I think one of the things — I don’t know because obviously Clive’s not here, so I don’t think we want to put words in his mouth, but I think one of the topics that has occupied Clive’s work has been the representation of council estates, social housing, in British cinema and particularly in London-set British cinema. And of course one of the ways in which those estates are interesting in the period of political blackness is in fact that they are mixed estates. They’re not — the point about them is that they are ethnically mixed. And so political blackness actually has some history there. 

KP: I was going to say also that talking about the connection with African Americans as well. I mean, I think one of the other ways of doing that connection — we know that in the race films have that — often feature those city settings. In Micheaux’s films in particular where you have that tension between more rural identities and the kind of the big bad city identities, and I think as the 30s progressed — the gangster film, and then as we reached the 40s with film noir — these are actually sites where there’s actually a lot of, there are a lot of people of color in those films as well. A film that Malini and Charlotte both talked about is “Pool of London,” the Basil Dearden film that kicks off the, I guess, the race focused social problem films. It’s also the film that launches the magical Earl Cameron as well. And I think it’s, I think we can definitely say, I would personally definitely see a film like “Pool of London” as being in some ways informed by the sort of set of very high profile Hollywood films from 1949. There are four really big social problem films about African-Americans that come out in 1949, and that’s like the watershed year I think for changing representation of African-Americans. Then you have “No Way Out” with Poitier in 1950. And I think that there’s a way of actually tracing, going from that to “Pool of London,” to “Sapphire” and then moving forward into — I wasn’t here for Clive’s talk, but I would be interested in how those I guess more contemporary black British urban films, whether we’re talking about the kind of “Kidulthood,” the “Bullet Boy,” etc. — how those also relate. I would want to put them into that history as well. 

MG: If I if I take a sort-of broader approach to this, one of the things that we don’t tend to see a lot in film in the city literature is exactly what we’re talking about. So we don’t tend to think about, you know, Western — so-called Western cities — in relationship to so-called non western cities. That kind of comparative work is not really happening in the field — or not extensively — and I feel like that is the potential here. Thinking about Southall, thinking about Clive’s work, and I think that would be really really — an incredible intervention in the field. 

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