Review of 'Anita and Me', director Metin Hüseyin
'Anita and Me' is funny, clever, and very moving. It is a brilliant observation of life in the early 1970s, set in a working class ex mining village, viewed through the eyes of 12 year old Meena Kumar.
Meena is the daughter of the only non-white family in Tollington--a fictional village near Wolverhampton. Life is not easy for her, as she is often both embarrassed and amused by her quirky family, and wants to be a gorgeous, blonde writer called Sharon de Beauvoir when she grows up. All of this is rather unlikely, as she has black hair and her parents are more concerned about stopping her fibbing, thieving, and generally wayward behaviour than listening to her unconventional plans for the future. To her parents' horror, Meena falls in with an older, local (blonde) rebel, Anita Rutter, who has a dog called 'nigger', and seems to find in Meena a fellow outsider who isn't scared of an adventure. Together they terrorise the town, read 'Jackie' magazine, and dream of buying a flat together in London.
However, Meena's life turns horribly sour. Racism sweeps the village in the form of 'Paki-bashing'. As friends become enemies, Meena is left alone to reflect on her old, desperate aspirations to 'fit in', and finds a guide in the form of her visiting grandmother from India. Nanima, as she calls her, is imaginative and strong like Meena, and becomes a positive role model. She also speaks four languages fluently, and carries a huge sword around with her, hidden under her sari!
The film has the same powerful sensitivity to issues of class, race and gender that comes across in the original novel, probably because Meera Syal, the author, also wrote the screenplay. Anita and her neo-Nazi boyfriend, Sam Lowbridge, are portrayed as terribly bitter youths who are hardened by the conditions of their lives. Syal observes how this generation of working class, rural youth have been abandoned to face a bleak future without jobs or educational opportunities.
Although Anita feels she belongs in her new world, really her life is still miserable. She seems to unconsciously decide that the only power she can have in society is as a racist and as the object for Sam's sexual desires. She admires Sam, but he only really sees Anita as a young woman he can use. Meena is devastated by Anita's betrayal of their friendship. The Kumar family is fraught with a terrible fear for their lives. Racism is shown to affect people of all social classes.
Most of the local village residents are portrayed very warmly. Many of them have contradictory views on race, but are still always pleased to see their 'Meena chick'--even if she is a heathen! The film is a snapshot of a community, flawed and small-minded though it might be, on the brink of massive social change. The local mine has recently been turned into a very big pub. Jobs were lost, and a new motorway threatens to open up (and pollute) the close-knit community. Meena's parents' traditional Punjabi culture is also under threat by a second generation in Britain, and making their own cultures. One of the most moving parts of the film is where Meena (still aspiring to be exactly like Anita) complains to her father that he didn't fight any 'Jerries' like Anita's dad, and get lots of medals. Her father quietly says, 'We didn't fight any Jerries. We fought the British. No one gave us any medals.'
Meena's story is a journey towards discovering her own strength, and her growing identification with the struggles of her parents, and her brave grandmother, is part of this process. Her ability to feel such compassion and solidarity with the others in her community leaves her feeling so betrayed as racist tensions rise. That compassion and her fighting spirit also make her a likeable, admirable character.
Meera Syal has said that the film is a homage to the first generation of Indians born in Britain, and is autobiographical in many ways. At some points, the film powerfully reminded me of when I was growing up in the only non-white household on my road, just streets away from where Stephen Lawrence was murdered. It reminded me of why racism has to be fought, of the horrible emotional effects as well as the material effects that it can have on a community. The figure of Meena is also inspiring, as unlike her parents she understands that education alone can't be her 'passport' in life. Meena's willingness to question authority, to fight to defend herself, and imagine more beautiful worlds through her stories, is also her strategy for survival.