This month Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand features a provocative movie that should sear a place in your memory:: British filmmaker Kenny Glenaan’s “Yasmin,” starring “The Good Wife’s” Archie Punjabi and written by Academy award-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”). Set in London, the film centers on Yasmin (Punjabi), a Pakistani British woman, who lives in two worlds: during the day she works in a social service organization and wears jeans, and in the evening, she puts on Muslim dress and returns home, which she shares with her devout father, a younger brother who runs drugs, and her husband, with whom she shares a loveless arranged marriage. The events of 9/11 soon change everything, and she is faced to confront a new world which looks at her with suspicion, threatens to lure her brother into militancy, and forever change the world she lives in.
Made with a level of cultural specificity and authenticity of lived experience that realistically captures the struggles and contradictions facing many British Muslims, the film features a powerful, acclaimed performance from Punjabi, and has won awards world-wide.
Seven years after you made Yasmin, and ten years after 9/11, Europe has become the center of a very difficult discussion around “multi-culturalism” and the position that Muslim communities have in society. Can you reflect on the conversation and dialogue which you aimed to open up with Yasmin, and the relevance of the film today?
KG: Unfortunately, Yasmin feels more relevant today than it did in 2004. We have had the 7/11 attacks in London and the incident at Glasgow airport, both home grown terrorist attacks, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and recently the atrocity in Norway. Extremism in any shape or form is dangerous. Yasmin posed the question: What happens when events in the world literally come crashing through the front door of an ordinary working class family, who happen to be Muslim, and brown skinned. Our research provided us with a rich complexity of the situation in the north of England. We found 1st generation stoical parents who had given everything of themselves, becoming the stepping stones for their children to a better life in the UK; we found disenfranchised young Muslims who sat between two cultures, that of Britain and that of their parents. One young fella described his experience as being ‘allowed in the club, but not really members’. Like in my own Catholic upbringing, we found a community where religious guilt was in some cases, used as a form of control. We heard about the increased National Front activity and the English Defense League, whom the Norwegian, Anders Breivik, is linked with. We heard about training camps in the hills outside Leeds recruiting young men for Osama Bin Laden.
None of this is new in the United Kingdom, look at Northern Ireland. What matters is can we learn from our experience and move forward inclusively. The recurring trouble in Belfast and the war in Afghanistan seems to suggest not.
In “Yasmin” we find ordinary people struggling to make ends meet, heroic in their stoicism and gracious in the face of contempt. Amongst all this, the film quietly attempts to give people a bit of dignity.
Many viewers in the US know Archie Punjabi best from her work on the television show “The Good Wife.” “Yasmin” is really carried by her incredible, conflicted performance; can you talk a bit about what she brought to the production?
KG: Well, Archie, is a very talented actor. (And is very good at comedy, which a lot of people do not know!) The part called for someone who could be a daughter, sister, wife and mother all rolled into one and it was important that the audience empathized with the character. Archie has a lovely quality, strong willed and vulnerable at the same time. Her Yasmin was not going to be someone who sat back and accepted things, yet felt very keenly the world around her.
One character in particular stands out, if you could elaborate on him – Yasmin’s teenage brother Nasir. We see his process of politicization and religious radicalization and are offered a quite nuanced portrait of his transformation. You, however, do not allow him to be one-dimensional or fall into conventional understandings of how the media has represented young British Muslim men. Can you talk about how you wrote his character?
KG: One comment stuck with me when researching the part of Naz: a young fella said he felt like his brown skin was like his star of David that Jewish people had to display in the concentration camps. He said he wished he was gay, because then at least he could hide it. I thought this was terrible coming from someone so young and talented (he could play several musical instruments) with his whole world in front of him. It was as if he had started to censor himself to survive. Naz exists in this complex emotional hinterland where things which other people take for granted like personal freedom, identity and purpose, is conditional. You either cling to conformity, or like Naz (or indeed like Anders Beivik), go towards extremism.
Can you tell us what to look forward from you next?
KG: I am working on a film called Dirt Road to Lafayette, which is about a father and son from Scotland who go on holiday to America after a family bereavement. The boy is an accordion player and has not played since his mother died. In America he finds a family through music and freedom through art. It is written by the Scottish author, James Kelman.