There are certain connotations to being a Punjabi in Britain, not many of them particularly positive. There are the usual stereotypes associated with the general South Asian diaspora; we all smell of curry, we don’t wash, and we’re all barbarians/terrorists/villagers. The Punjabi extension of this is that we’re all Sikh by default, our parents are all backward traditionalists with weight problems and diabetes and the teenagers wear baggy trousers (boys) and crimp their hair (girls… Usually). We’re racist, we’re low on the “social scale”, and we’re uneducated, loud, and always looking for a fight… And it’s because of these myths that we are forced to choose – British, or Punjabi?
Desi Rascals, Sky Living’s new “scripted reality”, is meant to be an insight into Punjabi British culture. Based in South London and directed by the man who brought us Hollyoaks and The Only Way is Essex, Desi Rascals is an attempt to highlight how, for many, British and Punjabi culture is an example of perfect synergy; the two parent roots to what is now an incredibly unique identity.
Although a tall order, the likelihood of Desi Rascals’ success in portraying such a culture was almost undisputed. Produced by the mastermind behind films such as Bride & Prejudice and the cult classic Bend It Like Beckham, Gurinder Chadha’s reputation for diversity and honesty in her work has always preceded her. As a little girl, I remember watching Bend It Like Beckham with my big sister. I was fascinated. Not only was it the first time I’d ever seen British Asian representation in mainstream media (and trust me, at the time, Bend It Like Beckham was not very “mainstream”), but it was also the first time I’d been introduced to the concept that being Punjabi and being British did not have to be separate things.
The onset was promising… But the show itself was a disappointment.
The problem of diabetes in the British Asian population aside, Desi Rascals begins with the chronicling of a typical, traditional Punjabi wedding in London. The visuals themselves, although at the end of the first episode, were synonymous of many weddings I’ve been to; it felt familiar, it felt at home. It made me feel proud to see a culture I know to be so rich and steeped in history, to be displayed as that – rather than another news snippet portraying my entire subculture as a running joke to do with the North of England.
But Desi Rascals quickly proved itself to be just that – a pretty picture with no substance.
Although I applaud the way in which Chadha has begun to portray how the British Asian subculture is fluid and constantly evolving, the “rascals” themselves all fit a certain stereotype. Proud, loud and always up for a party – another stereotype in regards to Punjabis. More positive, yes, and often true, yes – but a stereotype, nonetheless. Desi Rascals does not celebrate Punjabi culture as much as the title sequence would have you believe. Fun fact: not all Punjabis celebrate Holi, also known as the bursts of coloured powder frequented all over the Desi Rascals ads.
I’m not saying Desi Rascals had to pay homage to the “motherland”, or that the cast was wrong to express their fluid views in regards to culture and identity, Of course not. Identity, particularly of someone who has more than one, is a complex thing to experience. But to claim Desi Rascals is a portrayal of mainstream Punjabi society is incorrect at best. Nor am I asking for traditions to be shown as completely imported from another continent. What of modern Punjabi culture? The culture that so many of us are a part of?
An example of this would be Punjabi music. One of the most celebrated parts of British Punjabi culture, Punjabi music is recognised as essential to your Desi wedding playlist (in the words of Taylor Swift, the Rascals could have been getting down to “this sick beat”), as well as one of the fundamental aspects of “Asian fusion” – a genre born from Western hip-hop and R&B and traditional Asian music. Although I may be biased, the facts also speak for themselves; before becoming known for his hit song Down, featuring Lil’ Wayne in 2009, Jay Sean’s original claim to fame was his Asian fusion track Dance With You. The song was performed on Top of the Pops and played at clubs nationwide.
And what about food? As a Punjabi myself – in case you hadn’t guessed – food is a big part of our culture. One flippant comment about food being the best part of a Desi wedding was not enough for a TV show claiming to diversely represent Punjabi culture. Lassi, a popular Punjabi drink made with yoghurt and the favourite flavour often being cited as mango, is sold by the bottle in Tesco. Granted, it’s not the same as having it made fresh, but it’s there. With different flavours, there for anyone and everyone to see. When Tesco’s is celebrating Punjabi culture more than a TV show supposedly dedicated to doing so, something is very wrong.
With that being said, there were good parts of Desi Rascals, too. The ease and natural way in which certain ideologies – such as a couple being the marriage of two families, rather than the couple themselves – were explained, the accurate and subtle portrayal of the importance of family ties… Prakash’s reception outfit being on point (no, but really). In regards to showing any representation of South Asian culture, Desi Rascals is certainly a giant step in the right direction. In regards to showing accurate representation of Punjabi culture… The truth is, being a Desi Rascal may not be the same as being Desi – and despite the show’s underlying themes saying otherwise, it shouldn’t have to be.