Plot summary: 1972. Meena is a British Indian girl who lives with her family in the sleepy White, working-class mining village of Tollington in the Black Country. Meena meets Anita, a White fourteen-year-old whom she comes to idolise. However, a rift arises between the two girls due to Anita’s acceptance of her boyfriend’s racism toward Indians.
Trigger/content warning: This blog entry contains discussions of racist violence, racist slurs, statutory rape, internalised homophobia and fat-shaming.
Anita and Me was released within a small vogue for films about British Indians, characterised by East is East and especially Bend It Like Beckham. It was often compared unfavourably to Bend It Like Beckham, which I find unfair, considering that they’re both valuable stories, but quite different ones. (The content under the cut contains spoilers.)
At the outset of the film, Meena Kumar (Chandeep Uppal) lives with her parents Daljit (Ayesha Dharker) and Shyam (Sanjeev Bhaskar), whom she refers to as the Princess and the Film Star. “Naturally,” she says in voice-over, “they spend a lot of time being very disappointed in me.” Meena dreams of being a writer, of “discoing in America with David Cassidy, or sunbathing in Spain with T-Rex.” However, her teacher refuses to praise her for her essays, and her parents think her time would be better spent studying for her secondary school entrance exam, which is “only eleven months away!” The Kumars are the only people of colour in Tollington and so are treated as curiosities by their neighbours. Meena feels trapped her difference from the people around her, and wishes she were a blonde White girl, preferably named Sharon.
When she meets fourteen-year-old Anita Rutter (Anna Brewster), Meena is smitten. Anita is beautiful, worldly, tough and independent, has no academic expectations placed on her and eats fish fingers and chips every night for dinner. Meena and Anita slowly become the best of friends, but Anita’s casual racist views drive a wedge between them.
Anita and Me was adapted from a book by Meera Syal, based on her own childhood growing up in the mining village of Essington. I didn’t get to read the book until I was nearly seventeen, but would recommend it to anyone. Here’s one of my favourite passages:
So far, I had resisted my mother’s attempts to teach me the rudiments of Indian cuisine; she’d often pull me in from the yard and ask me to stand with her while she prepared a simple sabzi or rolled out a chapatti before making it dance and blow out over a naked gas flame. ‘Just watch, it is so easy, beti,’ she’d say encouragingly.
I did not see what was easy about peeling, grinding, kneading and burning your fingers in this culinary Turkish bath, only to present your masterpiece and have my father wolf it down in ten minutes flat in front of the nine o’clock news whilst sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by spread sheets from yesterday’s Daily Telegraph.
Once, she made the fatal mistake of saying, ‘You are going to have to learn to cook if you want to get married, aren’t you?’
I reeled back, horrified, and vowed if I ended up with someone who made me go through all that, I would poison the bastard immediately. My mother must have cottoned on, she would not mention marriage again for another fifteen years.
When I first saw Anita and Me advertised in either Dolly or Girlfriend magazine in 2002, I was immediately intrigued, since I, like everyone else on the planet, had loved Bend It Like Beckham. However, I didn’t get to see Anita and Me until it came to rental at Blockbuster, about six months later, in early 2003.
Bringing home the rented VHS tape, I asked my older sister to watch it with me, which she promised to do as soon as her boyfriend went home. He stayed for hours, while I got increasingly antsy. Finally, at a colossally, inconsiderately late hour (which was probably about nine or ten), he left and my sister got in the shower. A scream of outrage from the bathroom announced that there was no hot water.
“EMILY!” bellowed my sister, storming out of the bathroom looking equal amounts vengeful and freezing. “YOU LITTLE COW, YOU USED IT ALL UP!”
“Don’t yell at Em,” Mum reproached her. “She’s only had the one shower today.”
I decided not to mention that I, due to being fourteen and perpetually greasy, had actually had two showers, and was therefore entirely responsible for using up all the hot water.
I have a feeling that my sister noticed how guilty I looked, because we were immediately drawn into a screeching argument of the kind we had several times a day in 2003. This culminated with me bursting into tears and howling the most cutting thing I could think of: “I NEVER EVEN WANTED TO WATCH THE STUPID MOVIE WITH YOU ANYWAY.” I then made a super cool exit by running into my room and flinging myself onto my bed to weep.
My sister, who had completely forgotten about any promise to watch a movie with me, pushed an apology note under my door. Sniffling tragically, I followed her to the couch and we settled in for Anita and Me. Our fight was forgotten as we became absorbed in the story, and ten minutes in we were laughing together, which didn’t happen very often back then. God, we love this movie – we still call each other “Meena-wench” and “Nita-wench” to this day.
- Anita’s gang are walking by the Big House, a spooky mansion with an overgrown garden which is home to the Yeti, Tollington’s “local monster.” Their hangers-on include Meena and Anita’s little sister Tracey (Georgia Patrick). Anita impulsively squeezes through a gap in the railings to explore the garden. Meena follows, hysterically imagining how the Yeti might rend Anita limb from limb. She skids to a stop at the edge of a pond, where Anita is sitting. “Don’t fall in, wench, or you’ll never come up,” says Anita. “I nearly fell in then. Would you have saved me?” Meena asks. Anita scoffs, “I can’t swim! No point in both of us dying, is there? I wanna die somewhere else. Somewhere better. I ain’t meant to be here.” “I think that all the time!” grins Meena. Anita is still solemn: “I’d try to save ya. But I’d save myself first.” There is a pause as the girls survey their surroundings. “Good place for our den, arr, wench?” asks Anita. “Our den?” Meena repeats, delighted. “Yeah, bosting!”
- Meena and Anita turn a gazebo in the Yeti’s garden into a private den, just for the two of them. “We’re perfectly matched, ‘cause Anita’s glamorous and sophisticated, and I’m good at tidying up. She loves my stories, and as long as I keep her laughing, she doesn’t punch me.” The girls sit on a rock overlooking the pond and paint their toenails the same shade of red. In voice-over, Meena tells us that they plan to get a flat in London together, where they will “wear high heels, have loads of boyfriends, and a pony. We’re gunna zoom off on a motorbike and never come back. It’s all planned, it’s all ours, and it’s all perfect.”
- Meena’s brother Sunil is born, and she feels like she is being ignored in favour of the long-awaited son. She confides in her diary: “Mama and Papa only talk to me to check I’ve done my homework … I’m getting hair in strange places. What if it just carries on growing, and I end up looking like a werewolf? Not that anyone would notice. Everything’s changing. The only thing that hasn’t changed is Anita. Anita and I spent the whole summer together. We are the official hard wenches of the yard. We’re a gang of two. No room for boys, ever.” However, it is evident that Anita has become interested in Sam Lowbridge (Alex Freeborn), an older neighbour of theirs, who has gotten a skinhead haircut and a motorcycle.
- The Kumars find out that their new friend Mr Bhatra (Ajay Chabra), an Indian bank manager who ate dinner with them and Anita, was viciously beaten in a racially motivated attack, not long after he left their house. Daljit experiences a nervous breakdown, so the Kumars fly her mother – Meena’s nanima – out for an extended visit.
- Meena immediately likes Nanima (Zohra Segal), a woman of warmth and determination, with a sense of humour very like Meena’s. They bond, despite the fact that Nanima does not speak English and Meena speaks no Punjabi. Nanima takes no shit from either Sam (when he pulls a knife on her in the street, she laughs in his face and pulls a kirpan out of the folds of her salwar kameez, frightening the bejesus out of Sam’s gang) or the village shopkeeper Mrs Ormerod (Lynn Redgrave) (referring to her as a “silly bitch” in Punjabi for patronising her).
- Sam turns up to the village fete with his gang and starts shouting racist abuse. Sally and Sherrie swoon over how “hard” Sam is. Anita tells them that they began courting “that night we went Paki-bashing.” Meena listens in growing horror as Anita describes how she stood by and held Sam’s chips while he beat Mr Bhatra, who “didn’t do anything back.” As far as Anita is concerned, the most important detail of that particular story is that she and Sam “kissed with tongues and everything!”
- The night before Meena’s big exam, Tracey comes begging for Meena’s help: Anita is in the Big House garden with Sam, and he’s killing her! Against all her better judgement, Meena goes to Anita’s rescue. She and Tracey find Sam having sex with Anita on a rock beside the pond. Tracey kicks Sam in the shin, and he chases her away. Anita says, “This ain’t your patch any more. Piss off! And Sam’s mine. We’re engaged, look!” She holds out her hand to show Meena. “That’s the ring off a Coke can,” Meena points out. “Yeah, but he’s saving up, isn’t he? ‘Cause Sam’s gonna live with me in the flat in London.” Meena is not having any of it: “There ain’t no flat in London, you pathetic cow.” Shaken, Anita sits down and says quietly, “You’re gonna leave me, just like everybody else. I hate you.” “Anita, I’m gonna write about us. We’ll be famous one day,” Meena comforts her. Interestingly, Meena does not refute Anita’s accusation. Both girls are aware that their friendship is nearly at an end. There is a pause. “That Paki we duffed up, he wasn’t anybody. You’re not like the others,” Anita tells her, clearly thinking this is a compliment. Meena glares at her and dives forward, pulling Anita’s hair and shouting, “I am the others!”
There is quite a bit in Anita and Me that spoke to me as a gay tween/teenager, simply because representations of tween girls who are besotted with other girls are fairly thin on the ground. Media representations of queer children are very scarce, and don’t usually feature little girls. We see queer tween boys in The Beautiful People, School of Rock, The Fosters and Ugly Betty, but a girl below the age of sixteen or so who might be queer may as well not exist. I think this is because queerness is understood as incompatible with childhood. There’s no possibility of a queer child just wanting to hold their crush’s hand or doodle the initials of their favourite pop star all over their Science homework. If a child is queer, this means they must be actively seeking to have “deviant” forms of sex.
This refusal to honour the innocence of queer children, to paint them as sexual deviants simply by virtue of having feelings for others of the same gender, can be very damaging. At age sixteen, when I realized that my feelings about other girls were not going to go away, I was aware that if people found out, I would not be free to ask other girls for a hug, a phone number, a trip to the movies, a sleepover. If I was gay, then in other people’s eyes, my primary motivation in life must be to obtain sex by any means necessary. Once it got out that I was gay, nothing I said or did would be taken at face value again. I would not be allowed to be a teenage girl any more, I would instead be positioned as a sexual predator.
This was the reason that the scene where Meena first sees Anita was so incredibly important to me. In this scene, Meena lingers in the yard outside her house, reluctant to go inside for family lunch with her overbearing Aunty Shaila (Meera Syal), oversensitive Uncle Amman (Omid Djalili) and their three wimpy kids, Kaka (Iqbal Ahmed), Pinky (Alina Iqbal) and Baby (Rajinder Kaur). “There’s no place like home. There’s no space in my home,” laments Meena in voice-over. “I wished for a tornado to whisk me away … and she came.”
As the David Cassidy soundtrack asks, “How can I be sure / In a world that’s constantly changing / Where I stand with you?”, Anita comes sauntering into the yard (and Meena’s life) through a haze of fog and beams of sunlight. The lighting shows us her blonde hair before her face comes into view. She seems almost otherworldly, as she is not looking at Meena, nor at anything we can see. Meena’s mouth drops open in sheer awe. Pinky and Baby promptly spoil the moment by plaintively asking Meena to play Fairies with them. “Bug off, Pinky and Baby!” she says savagely, before turning back to ask, “What’s your … name?” Anita has disappeared.
In the next scene, Meena appears on an overgrown heath beside a small playground, running through the knee-high grass. Since she and Anita are both wearing the same outfits and it is still daytime, we assume that this takes place shortly after the falling-in-love moment – that Meena has absconded from the family lunch to hunt down Anita. “What was a groovy chick like her doing in Tollington?” Meena wonders. “Maybe she was lost, like me. Here by mistake. Waiting for something to happen. I knew two things. One, Mama and Papa wouldn’t like her. And two, I already did.” Watching Anita play on the swings as her two teenage friends, Sally and Sherrie, fawn over her, Meena chants softly, “What’s your name, be my mate, what’s your name, be my mate, what’s your name…?”
At the time I saw the film, I referred to this scene as the “falling-in-love moment.” My love of the scene wasn’t due to a crush on either of the young actresses, but simply seeing a girl character of roughly my age fall head-over-heels into a crush on another girl, without it being remotely seedy or sexual. Now, I don’t wish to imply that queer people (and queer kids) shouldn’t feel, express or act on sexual urges toward others, but at the same time … if a twelve-year-old girl swoons over a fourteen-year-old boy in a film, the assumption is that she is feeling adoration and attraction, not that she immediately wants to jump into bed and have all kinds of kinky sex with him. I wish that queer kids were given the same space to just have crushes, you know? Thus, scenes like the falling-in-love moment, Meena’s attempts to win Anita over, their bonding and Meena’s heartbreak following the reveal of Anita’s racism were very important to me, at fourteen, even if I didn’t quite realise why.
The cultural assumption that emotional energy is only expended on romantic interests essentially creates subtext, which requires addressing by filmmakers. Shortly before the betrayal signalling the end of their friendship, Meena tells Anita that she loves her. Anita snaps, “Are you a lezzie or something?”, echoing a similar scene in the novel the film is based on. Interestingly, in the novel, ten-year-old Meena asks, “What’s a lezzie?” in bemusement, whereas in the film, twelve-year-old Meena shrugs awkwardly (Syal, 1996, 248). While this communicates that Anita has used yet another term that sheltered Meena is unfamiliar with, it could be interpreted as Meena being uncertain of her feelings – another detail which could be comforting to young queer audiences.
Where does the perceived lesbian subtext in female coming of age films originate from? Straayer explains: “If women are situated only in relationship to men or in antagonistic relationship to one another, the … [possibility] of lesbianism is precluded. This partially explains the appreciation lesbian audiences have for films with female bonding” (1996, 17). There exists a cultural expectation that people will expend more emotional energy on love interest than they would on a platonic friend. Hence, when fictional characters are emotionally invested in another character, audiences are positioned to assume that their relationship is non-platonic.
Anita’s girl posse, the Wenches, is made up of Meena, Sally (Jo Taylor) and Sherrie (Lyndsey Haluszczak). Sherrie does not have much in the way of characterisation, but Sally and Meena snipe constantly at each other. The withering relationship between Meena and Sally is particularly interesting in terms of the relation of Meena’s Indian-ness to Sally’s fatness. In the book, Meena is described as a “fat brown girl,” but in the film is played by a slender child actor. Chandeep Uppal was cast not for any particular resemblance to a young Meera Syal, but for her acting talent and her authentic Brummie accent.
In one scene of the film, Meena goes to watch the fairground being put up with Anita, Sherrie and Sally. Since it is Diwali, Daljit has insisted that Meena wear Indian clothes out of the house, which make her painfully conspicuous beside the Wenches in their Western clothes. Attempting to put Diwali into terms her White friends can understand, Meena tells them, “It’s our Christmas today.” Taking in Meena’s Indian clothing, Sally sneers, “Oh, we can see that. Did Santa bring you those pyjamas?” Meena shoots back, “They’re not pyjamas, lard-arse!”
Later in the scene by the fairground, some older boys come over to the wall and beckon the girls to join them. Anita, with her glossy confidence, approaches the handsomest one. Sherrie, a slender White girl, is chosen second. There is one boy left, a redhead with a face full of acne, which positions him as the one who is lowest in status among the boys. Nonetheless, Sally and Meena each sit up straight and tall as he appraises them, trying to show themselves off to their best advantage. Sally does this with more enthusiasm and skill than Meena, who is not yet interested in boys who aren’t David Cassidy or Donny Osmond. Being twelve, Indian and dressed in traditional clothing is too many strikes against Meena, and so fourteen-year-old, White, blonde, fat Sally is chosen. Grasping the boy’s arm, Sally gloats to Meena, “No chance, chick. They don’t do charity work. See ya!” Meena is left sitting by herself on the wall.
For Meena especially, this moment is not really about the boy. It could be any boy at all. As in the film Puberty Blues, “For these girls, identity is intricately linked with boys. Girls are acknowledged as inferior and can only validate their existence in relation to boys” (Schofield, 2004, 35). As a girl of colour and a fat girl respectively, Meena and Sally are each acutely aware of the ways in which they fail to measure up in a culture which deems only skinny White people worthy of inclusion. Both girls fear being in the lowest position in the gang, so each attempts to raise their standing by pointing out the vital ways in which the other is “lacking.”
A noteworthy aspect of the film is that it shows a girl friendship as temporary, but no less meaningful for having an expiration date. Often, media for/about girls gives the impression that girls’ friendships are only valuable if they endure into adulthood (such as in Now and Then and Beaches). Girl power media typically portrays girls’ bonds as “uncomplicated and lasting forever,” ignoring the changing dynamics and circumstances that occur within friendships (Kon-yu 2013). Portraying girls’ friendships as susceptible to conflict or ongoing tension would undermine the girl power discourse’s central tenet of strength through perfect female friendship. In short, you’re either a Nice Girl whose friends will stick by her forever and ever, or you’re a bitching, backstabbing Mean Girl. As Barnard observes, girls and women are made to “feel … that we have to stay best friends for ever, or it makes us look bad. If we squabble, it means our judgment was suspect when we chose each other in the first place” (2011, 78). This conception of friendship within the girl power discourse recalls the cultural obsession with true and abiding romantic heterosexual love. Girls are encouraged to define themselves by the presence of two different soul mates: “one Boyfriend and one Best Friend” (Sweeney 2008, 118). If you can make someone stay with you forever, it means that you’re worthy.
But Meena is worthy, despite the fact that she and Anita are not meant to be forever. Meena goes from wanting to be blonde and be named Sharon to embracing her status as one of “the others.” The highs and lows of the friendship help Meena to become a better writer, going from writing clichéd stories about romance (“Chantal was a looker, with long, shapely legs and dreamy eyes. When she saw Brett Clifton, she knew she fancied him like mad…”) to a story based on her experience of loss of innocence. Although she will always remember her friendship with Anita fondly, Meena has too much self-respect to be embarrassed by her own heritage or put up with prejudice. Significantly, as they part, Anita is the first person in the film to tell Meena that she is a good writer.
- How Meera learnt to adapt by David Britten (The Telegraph)
- Exclusive Interview with Meena from Meera Syal’s Anita and Me by Amrit Matharu (Punjab2000.com)
- Meera’s Image by Gareth Rubin (The Independent)
- Barnard, Josie. 2011. The Book of Friendship. London, Virago.
- Kon-yu, Natalie. 2013. The Myth of the BFF and the End of Female Friendships. The Guardian. London, Guardian News and Media. http://www.theguardian.com/books/australia-culture-blog/2013/may/29/bff-female-friendships-end
- Schofield, Nell. 2004. Puberty Blues. Edited by Jane Mills, Australian Screen Classics. Sydney: Currency Press
- Straayer, Chris. 1996. “The Hypothetical Lesbian Heroine in Narrative Feature Film.” In Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientations in Film and Video, 9-22. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Sweeney, Kathleen. 2008. Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age. New York, Peter Lang.
- Syal, Meera. 1996. Anita and Me. London, Flamingo.