Growing up in Birmingham, did you face any hardships being British Pakistani and growing up in a mixed culture?
When I was born in the 70s - I don’t remember much but my parents tell me - where we lived was a very white, English area and that was a deliberate choice by my parents. My mother is from Kenya and her father was from Lahore (when Lahore was still part of India), my father is from Jhelum in Pakistan – they were introduced and met here. My parents chose to live in a white area at my mother’s suggestion. We are quite a big family, so we were able to learn about Asian culture from our family and English culture from our neighbourhood. It was tricky initially as we had bricks thrown through the window, our garden gates would go missing, we would get abused – but we stuck with it.
We did experience issues - though by the end we became friends with the neighbours. It was a great learning curve for me, that often people have their differences but its only that. It doesn’t always come from a place of prejudice but from fear and you can overcome that fear by being friends by the end of it.
Did this upbringing make you learn to be more empathetic towards people? Was it useful later on as an actor/writer?
I think as a writer you try to find some empathy in all characters, even those that are perhaps not very likeable. We can be quick to label people as racist or extremists so perhaps my upbringing did help.
I remember when we were in one house in Birmingham and our next door neighbours came and knocked on our door, they said to my father if we could we move the extractor fan from the kitchen because the smell of curry was going over to their back garden – my father walked him out into the back garden and said ‘Well we could do that but see your extractor fan is coming over into our back garden and we’re getting the smell of bacon and sausages’ and they both laughed! I just thought it was a brilliant way for my father to deal with it rather than being angry or just closing the door on him – iron fist in a velvet glove!
I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture with the world we’re living in today - with what’s happening with Trump and Brexit – it really has unearthed some prejudices amongst people who have been hard right extremists. Actually, what we find is that we can’t say that they’re all racists, many of them are just people with fears just worrying about their own lives and livelihoods. Those on the left need to look hard at themselves and ask are they liberal really?
Growing up we had comedy programmes such as Goodness Gracious Me, Meet the Kumar’s - seeing the immense success of Citizen Khan, why do you think British television doesn’t have more of these shows anymore?
There probably is more but I think it’s more saturated. You will find some elements on different channels e.g. comedians online making a million plus hits on Youtube. In a way, what we have to remember is that the media landscape has changed a lot – back in the day we would look to BBC 1, ITV and Channel 4 for everything. Young people now aren’t watching the main channels – young people are watching Youtube and if you go on there – there are Asian comedians and there are people around the world making a name for themselves. Could there be more? – possible yes there could be but it’s a very difficult thing to do comedy – it’s not easy to put together a sitcom or a sketch show and to find the right team. I work with a couple of writers who also worked on Goodness Gracious Me and I don’t think that’s a complete coincidence. I think it’s because there are literally a handful of people that can understand how you can transform Asian culture to mainstream and have experience working in mainstream television and comedy.
There are questions to be answered within the industry to have them open doors more. It seems to be starting to happen slowly and the BBC is aware that they have to be more diverse, let’s hope that they are. The only thing I would say is that as a Pakistani Muslim community – if we are going to ask and demand more stories – we’ve got to be ready for those. What that means is we will get more stories but they may not be things that we will like – they may be things that we will be offended by but that’s okay! I think - yes let’s have more stories, more drama, but be prepared for those stories; they might not relate to us just because we’re Pakistani or they might be stories that are really challenging our visions on faith or culture and I think that’s okay. Yes – have more stories but let’s be prepared to be more challenged by them.
Leading on from that, there is a general perception that Asians find it hard to take a joke on their own culture…
There is an element of that – certainly with Citizen Khan in the early days we would (even now and again) hear people say I don’t like it because it’s mocking Pakistanis or its mocking the faith. When I ask them which comedies do they watch, they love Will Smith (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air or Desmond’s or Eddie Murphy.. for example) – why is it okay for us to sit and laugh at an African American family laughing at themselves and at stereotypical African American accents but it’s not okay for us to laugh at ourselves? Partly, I feel, there hasn’t been much of Muslim based comedy so people are quite averse to it. They need to watch more comedy generally – it makes you realise that the intention 9/10 times is to just make you laugh.
Initially people perhaps felt that Citizen Khan, or anything new that comes on, is part of some wider conspiracy to undermine Pakistanis and Muslims – it’s actually not! The point is if you like anything drama or comedy – quite often your main protagonist has to have negative sides to him – he absolutely has to! In a big sitcom like Citizen Khan, Mr. Khan has to be almost monstrous, he has to say the most ridiculous things. Similarly, if I have to do a drama tomorrow on a Pakistani family – there would be negative portrayals because there has to be, you have to have baddies in dramas. I think we just have to get used to that.
What makes me laugh is that my mum loves Pakistani dramas and they are shown having affairs etc. and somehow we accept that – that’s okay! The moment its put onto a Western screen, we suddenly feel that we don’t want everyone else knowing that about us. Pakistan is a young nation, a young community and we’re still rising - in this country there only being 1.5 million of us out of a population of 60 million. As a community we need to grow stronger, we can feel threatened when perhaps we shouldn’t and we should learn to overcome all of those things – I think that will happen over time, it’s part of the process. Being offended along the way is part of the process, people will be offended by Citizen Khan at the moment but in 5 years’ time something else will come on and they’ll go like Citizen Khan is okay! I am afraid you can’t be liberal and be offended at the same time. I believe the greatest compliment you can pay to any group is that they can enjoy a laugh..
We love that Mr. Khan is so relatable and he helps people from other backgrounds get over the fear factor…
I agree, we knew we had a successful show when we heard stories of white, English families watching the show and relating to it. When Mr. Khan does something miserly or says something to his wife or favours one daughter over another and suddenly – the wife watching it with her husband on the sofa will nudge him and say he’s just like you! We get that a lot – from Catholic, Irish, English families who just love it! Young kids can relate to Mr. Khan – that is quite big because for a young child, you put the TV on and you see a Pakistani guy with a beard and you think he’s either a terrorist or related to terrorism or someone speaking about terrorism. Now they put the TV on and they think it’s the funny guy on BBC 1, so that’s quite nice! I hear from English parents that their children went up to men with beards in Asda and shout ‘oh twaadi’ to them – so that’s brilliant!
Seeing your documentary “Exposed: Groomed for Sex” – Could you tell us how this issue came about you to turn into a documentary? Why do you feel British Pakistani men make a substantial number of offenders in this social issue?
This documentary is not about the sexual exploitation of all young children - which in this country is done overwhelmingly by white men – what this particular crime was looking at was something that the police had identified as ‘on street grooming’. This occurs when men find vulnerable girls on the street (who perhaps live in care homes or are from broken families, wandering the streets) and they would invite them in their car to supply them with drugs and alcohols - later taking them to rooms to abuse.
These men were building relationships with these girls over months, in some cases years, and the girls would think they were in relationships or friendships – they’re not, they are being abused. Now this is a very specific form of exploitation and in this form – yes – there was a predominately large number of Pakistani men involved. The stories started to come out in The Times newspaper towards the end of 2011. I was reading these stories and noticed that the far-right were jumping on it first - the BNP. Immediately, as a journalist and a documentary maker I thought we need to own this story – we can’t allow this abuse story to be abused by other journalists or by people from the far-right. We have to tell our own story.
When it comes to abuse, we should talk about it – that is really important. It is often the problem in all communities that it is not talked about. Wherever you have these close-knit communities where people feel perhaps that they can’t talk about it because its taboo or they’ll just be silenced, you’ll have that – it’s obviously happening within the Pakistani community, so I just felt that we needed to tell that story. It was a delicate process and we made sure we spoke to as many people as possible from a cross section. It gave a chance for people to talk and really open up that subject - a good start to what is an ongoing issue for the community.
We shouldn’t be ashamed about saying we have got problems in the Pakistani community – every single community has their issues, that does not mean we shouldn’t talk about it. If you talk about sexual abuse as a general issue across society, people in our Pakistani community just wouldn’t listen to that story - that this is not meant for us, they are talking about the wider community. Therefore, you have to focus on that community and speak to them and say we are talking about us, and your community too – there are issues amongst some Pakistani families. Let’s talk.
I think one of the root causes in the community is the role of women. There seems to be a real inconsistency with our relationships with women. We treat our mothers with the greatest respect, in some cases we don’t look for our wives to be the ones we love and we refuse to have any contact with or interaction with many other women. I think that can lead to an unhealthy attitude towards women and a dangerous attitude toward more ‘westernised’ women.
Integration of course is another issue, where communities are living in pockets and ghettoes. Britain has many Pakistanis who arrived here in the 60s from a rural background and arguably are more traditional that Pakistanis living in towns and cities back ‘home’.
It is not the community itself entirely to blame, there is an argument to suggest multi-culturalism has not worked and this idea of saying ‘well we’re going to allow communities to come in here and create their own cultures’. In the end, if you turn around and say the Pakistanis can have that part of town and a Muslim school, the African community can have that part of town, East Europeans you can have that part of town – what actually happens is that those people start behaving exactly how you want them to behave. You turn around and say ‘well you’re the Pakistani guy’, they will probably become more Pakistani than they intended to.
We’re in this world of identity politics and I think that is why we see the rise of the hijab – we say fine, if you’re labelling us as Pakistanis then that is what we are going to be. Unfortunately, out of that the most conservative voices get heard the most. If there is a news story, the media outlets will go and find the Mr. Khan of that community to talk on behalf of all Pakistanis because he/she looks the most authentic - with a beard and from the Pakistani area. Just because you live in a certain area does not mean you haven’t got as much of a Pakistani voice as anyone else. I think that is a real issue for society. Our starting point despite what our faith, views or background are must be to find a point of commonality not difference.
Did you have any mentors/role models while growing up that inspired you to get into media in the first place?
I used to watch so much comedy - anything from Cheers to Fawlty Towers- and used to think to myself that I would love to do that! One of my greatest role models, generally, was Imran Khan and a lot of people say that but I’ll tell you why! I was living in Britain and there wasn’t much Pakistani representation on TV and we weren’t seen as necessarily being very cool, and suddenly this guy comes along, everyone loves him and he was from Pakistan! My dad would take me to watch cricket and I thought ‘wow, we have somebody as elegant as this guy leading his team and taking on the monster, that is England, at their own game!’ It gave us British Pakistanis a real sense of pride for being Pakistani – it was one of the first times where we were actually proud to be Pakistani and that gave me lots of encouragement – I thought that can be my thing, I can be British and be Pakistani, I can be both of those things! It was a big lesson.
Watching an England vs. Pakistan cricket match, are you confused on who to cheer for?
Yea! I do lean towards Pakistan more but now the England team has been changing over the years. When we were growing up it was very white - in terms of who played for the team, but also the culture around it. It was a very stuffy old boys network, now that has changed a lot. You have people like Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid playing for the team – I think it’s fantastic! I do support England most of the time but it does get hard when they’re playing Pakistan.
What are you planning to do next?
Well Citizen Khan is taking up so much of my time, hopefully we will get another series! We are looking at the possibility of a Citizen Khan film – which would be great! I would like to develop other comedy characters – nothing concrete at the moment though.
We see your book, The Citizen Khan Guide to Britain, is out now - we cannot wait to pick up a copy! In terms of more projects, can we look forward to any future documentaries?
The book is probably the most fun thing I have ever done. I chuckled my way through it. It’s a great go to guide for Pakistanis and Non-Pakistanis living in Britain. There’s a 2 page recipe on making the perfect Pakistani cup of tea!
I have meetings all the time with the BBC looking at issues on what we can do, I think there is very interesting times now with identity politics and the rise of the far-right and, it could be argued, the failure of liberalism – so I think there’s a real interesting documentary and story to be told.
However, I’m quite busy now with the book that’s just come out - The Citizen Khan Guide to Britain! Did I mention that?
How do you feel about receiving your latest award, an OBE? – being so young at that!
It was great, a fantastic honour and privilege to take my mother and father to Buckingham Palace! They had come over here in the 60s with the hopes of a roof over their head and a car to drive – little did they know that 40 years later they would be going to the palace. It really was dedicated to them.
This is hopefully a message to all immigrant families, British families, British immigrant families – whoever you are – that you can have a dream and you can achieve whatever you want. Good luck.