Panel Statement Presented at the GNEL/ASNEL Conference, May 2002 in Erfurt (Germany)
Vera Alexander (Cologne)
In this paper I examine two humorous depictions of the situation of Asian immigrants in Britain in the popular media: the first is the award-winning BBC series Goodness Gracious Me which was first broadcast in 1998, and the other is the Anglo-Pakistani Ayub Khan-Din's play East is East (1996) which was made into a film, directed by Damien O'Donnell in 1999.
Goodness Gracious Me consists of a series of sketches and songs which inverse stereotypes about immigrants of South Asian origin in Britain and their encounters with white Britons, fellow immigrants and non-diasporic Indians.
East is East describes the struggles of a large Anglo-Pakistani family in 1970s Salford. Ruled by a strict Pakistani father who tries to redeem himself in the eyes of his community by proving that his mixed-race children conform to Pakistani culture, the various members of the family rebel against patriarchal rule, and try to balance the incongruities which their lives are made up of.
Humour fulfils an important ice breaking function in presenting new ideas, even, as is the case with immigrant problems, potentially unpleasant ones in a palatable way: laughter is a good start. While it seems hard to get away from Horace's formula that the poet, or in our case, the comedian or playwright aims to "delight and instruct", this double function becomes hard to uphold as soon as the topic of humour is transferred into academic discourse. If comedy can both delight and instruct, then doesn't it threaten a discourse which has a tendency to downplay the delightful bit? Humour challenges scholarship because many of its elements elude analysis: to explain a joke is tantamount to killing it off.
Humorous devices employed in both productions comprise exaggeration, stereotyping, defamiliarisation and parody. They expose hypocrisy and xenophobia as the key sources of cross-cultural misunderstandings, and by poking fun at Asian immigrants and white British natives in equal measure, they give a comfortable notion that tolerant intercultural interaction could be a very simple affair if only members of all groups did not practise their ridiculous strategies of othering, exclusion and self-deception and were willing to try and adopt a changed perspective.
In order to establish a grounds for comparison between these two productions, I would like to focus on the way in which they deal with the topic of arranged marriage. Goodness Gracious Me contains a song-sketch in which two women sing about an Indian man. One of these women is his innocent Indian bride to be, and the other is his frustrated secret English lover. Their duet starts out as a duel, in which the comedy evolves through the juxtaposition of radically different perspectives on the topic of arranged marriage. Eventually, the singers realise that they are both in a no-win situation and the original rivalry dissolves in a gesture towards female bonding – the absent male is declared a lost cause.
This fairly harmonious solution only works in a short episode. In East is East, the topic of arranged marriage marks a cataclysmic moment as the tension of the bride-viewing, a play within the play set in shrill surreal colours, brings to the boil all suppressed conflicts and reveals the artificiality of the act of Pakistaniness put on for the sake of maintaining peace.
Both scenes in different ways defamiliarise the topic of arranged marriage by means of comic exposure which criticises a specifically Asian cultural institution.
Reviewers have expressed surprise at the success of both productions, and an unnamed reviewer of Goodness Gracious Me phrases the puzzle as follows: "Is the show's success a sign that our society has changed? Or is it just that it is very funny?" To my mind, the hen-and-egg situation implied by these questions – does laughter depend on a certain degree of knowledge or competence? – can be resolved in favour of the fun-side.
The two productions are evidence that postcolonial humour in the popular media is not an issue which only concerns a handful of scholars who regularly deal with cross-cultural encounters and postcolonial discourse. Humour is the main ingredient which has obviously made the subject of immigrants appealing to audiences who may not have had a previous interest in the topic.
Postcolonial discourse works on many different levels and addresses complex problems of race, gender, transculturality etc., all of which elude closure. So does humour. It seems to me that postcolonial discourse is the right field at which to redefine the contradictory notion of "taking humour seriously" as it combines many disciplines and has already helped to break down conceptal boundaries. As the two productions discussed above indicate, humour often operates experimentally, by doing the unexpected and achieving results before they can be explained.