When London-based artist Rehana Zaman was walking down a road at Fort Kochi, a man approached her and said, “Are you from North India?”
“No,” she said. “I am Pakistani.” It took a moment before the man broke out into a smile. “Welcome to India,” he said. And the people smiled and some shook her hand.
A featured artist in the fourth edition of this year’s Biennale, Zaman, in collaboration with film collective Liverpool Black Women Filmmakers, is showing 25-minute short film How Does An Invisible Boy Disappear? It shows a young girl, Liyana, who goes in search of a missing African boy, Jamal Clarke.
“I wanted to show how black and brown women are portrayed negatively in the media,” says Zaman on the film. “The film has archival footage of disturbances between the police and the black and brown communities (in the UK), and the way the state has dealt with racial unrest. Your background, gender and ethnicity can affect the way you are treated,” she adds.
The filmmaker says the official approach to those of a coloured race is disappointing. “There is a disproportionately larger number of black and brown people in the (UK) prisons. I do feel like an outsider even though I am part of the system. I have this double consciousness,” explains the 36-year-old who teaches Fine Arts twice a week to undergraduate students at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK.
Zaman is aware that her name and Muslim background can have a negative impact on her life. “However, I pass muster because I speak English, and I am Westernised in my dressing. But my mother, relatives and their friends are not treated in the same manner,” she rues. She goes on to talk about an in-built system of racism. Back at the Goldsmiths, of a staff of 40, there are only two Asian women.
“They treat me well because it is a liberal arts institution. But when it comes to hiring practices or wages, it is not so good. The language used by the bureaucracy is welcoming, but structures can be hostile. If you look at the statistics, and the people who are at the top of all institutions, you can see the bias,” says the filmmaker.
Zaman also highlights that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who is also of Pakistani origin, often faces criticism and brickbats. “He has to be seen doing more against terrorism. So, he encourages a greater police presence on the streets, an increase of ‘stop and search’ of young Asian and black men, and asks Muslim community leaders to do more,” she says.
Zaman, who has relatives in North India, confesses that she enjoys a hot plate of biryani, dosas, appams and idiyappam. She also frequents South Indian restaurants in London. The professor-turned-filmmaker grew up 300 kms from London in Heckmondwike after her parents migrated in the 1960s in search of better livelihood.
In present-day Pakistan, Zaman believes, “the behaviour of the state can be authoritarian. If you have an encounter with the police, you can face a lot of difficulties.” She adds, “A lot of my Pakistani students express frustration about the lack of freedom they have. But that’s the case in many places in the world; freedom is being steadily taken away.”