Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
On a bog-standard morning in South London, it’s pissing it down. But inside photographer Sunil Gupta’s flat-cum-studio in Camberwell, among the embroidered rugs, pillowy sofas and prints of queer Indian men mounted on the walls, the sweet sound of twinkly ’70s Bollywood blasting out of a speaker banishes the autumnal Monday gloom. This is a space of warming familiarity. It’s tinged with domestic nostalgia that has a brown British twentysomething like me recalling being young, overfed by aunties and feeling a little, well, different.
In the far corner of the studio, visual artist duo Athen Kardashian and Nina Mhach Durban – the latter, coincidentally, wrote her university dissertation on Gupta’s subversive ’70s/’80s work documenting sexuality, race and migration during the UK and US’s politically turbulent decades – are describing their practice to his partner and collaborator Charan Singh, also a photographer. “We use collage, found objects, Bollywood… lots of Bollywood!” says Durban, one half of a duo whose work layers those aesthetic influences with pop culture ephemera on cork boards and whiteboards, like an eclectic scrapbook exploring themes of youth, the home and teen bedrooms.
Over on the sofa, Sheena Patel, author of 2022’s incandescent anti-romance novel I’m a Fan, is flicking through Gupta’s most recent photobook, Come Out, 1985 – 1995, which covers a decade of London’s queer liberation protests.
On the other side of the room Rish Shah, whose breakout role was in Disney+ series Ms. Marvel, is scanning the crammed bookshelves before he moves on to looking at the trinkets Gupta, 70, has amassed over his years spent in India, New York and London. These fill most of the room. “I’m sure you know where everything is, though!” says the London-born actor, admiring the organised chaos.
Today, Gupta is shooting 13 of the finest emerging talents of British South Asian descent: across art, fashion, literature, theatre, football, film and music. As well as Kardashian and Mhach Durban, Patel and Shah, we’re joined by fashion designer Harri KS, who creates blown-up latex craftwork; artist Jake Grewal, who paints mythical nudes inspired by the ambiguity of his queer experiences; and musician, and London nightlife regular, Mya Mehmi.
There’s playwright Mohamed-Zain Dada, whose dreamlike debut Blue Mist, which premiered to acclaim at London’s Royal Court, examines masculinity through the perspective of young British Muslim men (brought to life by the stellar cast of Salman Akhtar, Omar Bynon and Arian Nik, also present). We have Hamza Choudhury, the tenacious defensive midfielder who recently signed a new deal at Leicester City.
And finally, there’s Namita Khade, a womenswear designer from Wigan whose knitted garments, mostly pieced together, are inspired as much by the smart clothing of her relatives in grainy photographs as they are by the thrill and freedom of being young and going out-out.
Of course, there have been peaks of brown-and-British representation in the UK before, most notably during the UK’s embrace of multiculturalism in the late-1990s and early-’00s. Meera Syal’s 1996 book Anita and Me depicted the challenges of being a confused young brown girl in ’70s Staffordshire, while Sheffield boxer Prince Naseem Hamed was a prominent figure beyond sport throughout the ’90s, beloved for his eccentric entrances and cocky persona as much as he was his fists of fury.
On screen, between 1998 and 2001, Syal starred in BBC comedy Goodness Gracious Me, which parodied stereotypes to side-splitting effect, poking fun at the collision of Indian and British culture. East is East, originally a 1996 play by Ayub Khan-Din at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, was a box-office hit when, in 1999, FilmFour turned it into an accurate portrayal of a British-Pakistani mixed-ethnicity household in ’70s Salford (Chris Bisson, who played Saleem Khan in the film, would join Coronation Street as part of its first Asian family that year).
In 2001 – the year chicken tikka masala was heralded as a “true British national dish” by Labour’s foreign secretary Robin Cook – we saw another hugely successful BBC comedy, The Kumars at No.42, featuring a cast of British-Indian actors (including Meera Syal and husband Sanjeev Bhaskar) as the titular family. The following year, director Gurinder Chadha struck big-screen gold with Bend It Like Beckham, examining themes of changing social values, sexuality, cultural norms and everyday discrimination. And six months after that, as the BBC Asian Network went nationwide on DAB, Panjabi MC’s infectious track Mundian To Bach Ke made it to number five in the UK charts. All that, and we haven’t even mentioned Cornershop’s 1997 chart-topper Brimful of Asha.
But a little more than 20 years on, our presence doesn’t feel like a trend. Finally, we’re everywhere.
We’re Mawaan Rizwan, the Pakistani comedy actor on Graham Norton’s Friday night sofa, or his actor brother Nabhaan, star of Naqqash Khalid’s hotly anticipated film In Camera. We’re Yung Singh, the Punjabi-Sikh DJ tearing up summertime festivals, serving electric sets that bounce between techno, trance, garage, hip-hop classics and old-school bhangra. We’re Nish Kumar, Shazia Mirza and Romesh Ranganathan banging jokes from the stage and the telly. We’re British-Indian womenswear designer Supriya Lele and Indian-Nigerian Londoner Priya Ahluwalia on London Fashion Week schedules. We’re 18-year-old Londoner Siyani Sheth, who put on her debut play about mental health struggles within the South Asian community (and is celebrated in this issue’s Introducing section). And, by way of Charithra Chandran and Simone Ashley, we’re Regency high society in Bridgerton.
These days, being brown on British screens, or finding your path as an artist, designer or musician, isn’t just about re-telling the stories of our ancestors, or even of our own experiences, if we don’t want to. The emerging talents we’re spotlighting over the following pages exist in their own right. They are fearless, brilliant and British South Asian.
Born in rural Kerala on the southeast tip of India, Harri KS wasn’t so keen on following the traditional career path his Indian parents set out for him: doctor, dentist, engineer. “I didn’t want to be in a mould made by my parents, or society,” says the 29-year-old. “I wanted to escape and do something that I wanted to do – to take control of my life.” Since graduating from the London College of Fashion with an MA in Menswear in 2020 and winning a NewGen recipient scholarship from the British Fashion Council two years later, Harri’s been steadily building his eponymous label, producing inflated latex garb, which Sam Smith wore earlier this year at the Brit Awards, becoming a viral meme after. Blowing up, then, in every way.
Nina Mhach Durban and Athen Kardashian
This artist duo, both 25, met on an art foundation course at Kingston University. Four years later, they’re sharing a studio in Brixton and making work that repurposes Bollywood screen goddesses, cutesy picture keyrings, kitsch stickers and embroidery collages. Harking back to the chaos of a teenage bedroom, Durban and Kardashian’s work is glamorous, foregrounding the matriarchs of Indian households (both of their mums are from Ludhiana, Punjab) and the domestic aesthetic of the flowery carpets, netted curtains and garish wallpapers of their older ancestors. “We think a lot about the role of women and mothers in the migrant story,” says Durban. And, equally, the beauty. “Our culture is highly aestheticised,” says Kardashian. “My nani would wear her make-up and her sari, and wake up at 5am every morning to do that. It’s about what you show to other people, and your pride.”
Rish Shah (above)
Actor Rish Shah has starred as a superhero in Ms. Marvel, a Gen Z heartthrob in Do Revenge, as Riz Ahmed’s younger brother in short film The Long Goodbye and, later this year, will appear alongside Jacob Elordi, Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O. Harris in The Sweet East. A humble man with a wide grin, Shah’s childhood influences were found closer to home: good ol’ mum and dad. “They worked really hard to get to where they got to,” says the 25-year-old. “It’s given me the motivation to be a self-made man in my own right.” Now, with his CV seemingly growing by the month, he’s looking to his left and right, at his co-stars and heroes. “I feel blessed that, [with] the British Asian idols I have, I’ve been able to meet or work with them,” he says, referring to Starstruck’s Nikesh Patel and Game of Thrones’s Indira Varmer. British Asian idols? Takes one to know one…
Last year’s I’m a Fan was undoubtedly the cult book of the summer. Terrifying and lightning-fast in its delivery, Sheena Patel’s urgent debut bolted through toxic relationships, crap jobs, race, class, social media obsession and power struggles, it’s a merciless commentary on our very-current obsession with status. Growing up in London with parents who worked for the NHS, the 35-year-old’s IRL delivery is just as punchy and brilliantly witty as her writing style – Patel is undoubtedly, fearlessly English. Not British, English. “I’m never more aware of how English I am than when I leave England. It’s such a weird interplay of those identities, of being English, being Indian, then being white, but being Welsh or Scottish or whatever. I find it fascinating,” says the Londoner. “But I am English. I am mouthy like an English person, I don’t listen to authority, I row, I like beige food. It’s not something I reject.”
Growing up in a Punjabi household in a working-class area of Leicester, Mya Mehmi – musician, DJ, member of queer nightlife collective Pxssy Palace – has all the wit, charm and naughty humour of someone who’s been rebelling from an early age. At 17, she moved to London to pursue music, performing at pubs and open mic nights before finding her footing in East London’s underground queer clubbing scene, around which time she began her transition, defying cultural expectations. In the early-’00s, hip hop-sampling Middle Eastern and Bollywood sounds, notably Truth Hurts ft. Rakim’s stellar 2002 track Addictive, finally made Mehmi feel “truly seen”. “When I started to see hip hop and R&B embrace the South Asian sound, that made me feel represented in a way that I had never felt before.” When, earlier this year, she released her first track, the soulful Parivaar (Interlude), Mehmi became the first trans artist to feature on the BBC Asian Network playlist. “For a long time, my music was so rooted in survival,” Mehmi says. “Now it’s about expression. I just want to run with that!”
Hamza Choudhury, a 26-year-old footballer of Bangladeshi and Grenadian descent who patrols Leicester City’s midfield, grew up in a competitive Bengali Muslim house in Loughborough, Leicestershire. You know, the usual kids’ stuff: brothers and cousins battling to outdo each other while kicking a ball about in the garden. “We’d play football in the park, on the streets, in the house, breaking stuff all the time,” he says. “We used to make socks into footballs, stuff like that. A lot of fun, laughter and a lot of love.” As one of the few Bengali Muslim players in football, Choudhury’s the representation the English game needs: he’s made nearly 100 appearances for Leicester, the club he joined as a boy in 2005, was part of the team who won the FA Cup in 2021 and represented England at under-21 level in 2018. As for the future? “I want to play for Leicester in the Premier League. I love playing for my city – the city I grew up in.”
Mohamed-Zain Dada, Salman Akhtar, Omar Bynon and Arian Nik
Let’s be real: British theatre hasn’t historically been the most inclusive place to work. But this autumn, at the Royal Court, 30-year-old playwright Mohamed-Zain Dada’s debut Blue Mist – directed by Milli Bhatia – brought the contemporary stories of young British Muslim men to the stage. It’s a fast-paced story of masculinity, media manipulation and, importantly, the shisha lounge; a space of family, friendship and good times across towns and cities in the UK. “There was a level of encouraging authenticity [within the show], which I think has meant it’s met an audience who responds and feels that,” says this dramatist with an MA in Creative Writing and Education from Goldsmiths, University of London. “Speak to your most true self, as someone who happens to be South Asian and Muslim, and see what the result is.” The result for Dada? A packed crowd of howling aunties, clapping uncles and young brown people feeling seen.
There’s a haunting quality to Jake Grewal’s work; it’s all darkness, shadows and what-lies-beneath. Born and raised in London, the artist completed a BA in Fine Art at the University of Brighton before taking things up a notch at The Royal Drawing School. Since then, he’s made use of traditional drawing mediums, making dark landscapes with ambiguous nude male figures that bring a touch of romance, love and tenderness, influenced by the artist’s personal queer experiences. In some paintings, the boys don’t appear as boys at all, but rather mysterious, anthropomorphic figures that look as divine as they do dangerous. “I saw a lot of work that was hyper-sexualised, or some kind of fetishisation of the male body,” says the 29-year-old. “I didn’t see myself in that work – I wanted to create something that I could resonate with. And that happened to be something more ambiguous, more emotive and a bit more abstract and emotional.”
“Jake Grewal: Some days I feel more alive” is currently showing at Pallant House Gallery until 21st April 2024
Growing up in Greater Manchester, knitwear designer Namita Khade, 26, felt limited when it came to connecting to her Indian heritage. “Access to my culture came directly from my parents,” she says, specifically a box of old photographs of her dad from the ’70s, when he first moved to the UK. “I became sort of obsessed with that one moment of him coming over, and then the transition of fitting into a northern society and finding his roots.” That process of assimilation weaves itself into Khade’s designs, which use patchwork fabrics to create full dresses, skirts and strapless tops, taking tropes of freedom and experimentation in youth – a balancing act. “When you’re raised in England and you’re going out and partying, there are a lot of things that you don’t really talk to your parents about,” she says. “[My designs are about] creating my own identity and my own version of that, and what I see as freedom.”
Stylist’s assistant Ellie Marles Hair and make-up by Stefan Jemeel at Stella Creative Artists using Sachajuan and Dr. Barbara Sturm Hair and make-up assistant Karishma Zaharia