Preview: ‘The Boy with the Topknot’ – exploring British Asian identity & mental health

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There are moments in the British Asian cultural timeline that become iconic. ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ was probably one of the first of such moments when it hit the television screens and brought British Asians into the spotlight. Followed by a British Asian family featuring in BBC soap ‘Eastenders’ and then ‘The Kumars at No.42’, television played an important role in shining the light on second generation British Asian issues, whether in a comedic or serious manner.

One such moment that will be added to that timeline will be the upcoming adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s book The Boy with the Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton on BBC Two. The memoir of Sanghera’s experiences, published in 2009, received critical acclaim for its openness and sensitivity in dealing with mental health.

BizAsiaLive.com attended a preview screening of the film earlier this week with the author, the stars and makers of the film.

The story is set in the UK between the author’s home town of Wolverhampton and London where he now works and resides. Touching upon his separate lifestyles between his Sikh Punjabi family at home and his relationship with his English girlfriend, the story explores how Sanghera (played by Sacha Dhawan) feels restricted by his family’s expectations versus his own wants as a second generation member of the British cultural tapestry. As he struggles to combine the two, the film shifts to the author’s own mental struggle with not knowing his family, resulting in him diving into their stories. The emotional story then explores new territory as it touches upon his father’s and sister’s struggle with mental health.

The film, and the book, is the first time that such issues have been explored and showcased in such a high profile manner. The television adaptation brings together well established actors to portray Sanghera’s emotional book in a touching and warm manner. Stalwarts such as Anupam Kher and Deepti Naval lead the cast including Dhawan who provides a stellar performance as the protagonist. The plot is littered with poignant moments that make the audience choke back tears and equally laugh out loud as we’re able to connect the nuances and dialogues to our own lives. That is the one of the film’s greatest success – the ability for the viewer to connect to the characters, the story and the issues raised. What is equally brilliant is the multicultural cast (and crew) which make this story not just relevant for British Asians but for all races that can identify with both the personal family story but relate it to the current UK political environment which highlights the struggles that immigrants and British born residents face.

The production of the film itself is ground-breaking in many ways. From the juxtaposition of the young (played incredibly by first time child actor Himmut Singh Datt) and older Sanghera as he tries to connect his youth experiences to his current-day situation to address his struggles with his family’s stories to the flashbacks of his parents’ wedding day, the movie uses innovative frames, textures and shots to tell the story. It is also a defining success for the production companies Kudos and Parti Productions, who diligently brought the story to the small screen nine years after the book was published.

It is without doubt that the majority of British Asian families suffer from one or many of the issues raised – from struggling with identity, fitting into a culture, to experiencing or knowing someone with mental health issues. Whilst the book explores these in a lot more detail, the film will be critical to bring to the fore these issues and should be seen as a great leverage for having those open and honest conversations.

The film will be shown on BBC Two in November.

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