“Rewind it, rewind it! Guys, quick! There’s a Singh on TV!”
If you’re brown, Punjabi and own a TV, chances are you’ve said this at least once in your lifetime.
That’s why, if you are Punjabi, when you heard that a short, made for TV movie was coming on called “The Boy with the Topknot” you instantly set reminders, pressed record and possibly sent out viral chain messages over texts and social media alerting everyone you know about this show starring a cast of people just like you.
I live in Wolverhampton, where the majority of the story was set, and I was born here. I’m a Sikh, Punjabi and British. I was very excited to watch the show, especially after reading the book just a few years ago. I knew what to expect and knew that this particular story needed to reach a much wider audience than it had already done.
Books are wonderful. They force imagination and let you escape into the pages and words written; but for this particular story, I’m glad a movie adaptation was made as I knew more people would be likely to engage. It’s not that common that British Punjabi people are shown on primetime TV with so much hype and excitement attached around it, and already knowing the story that was about to unfold, I was also aware that for many families who would be watching, it would be the first time they would see a story like it shown on TV.
Most Punjabi characters on prime TV are often shopkeepers, taxi drivers or doctors. They are usually extras in background scenes or a part of comedy skits and scenes to give light relief in dramas. “The Boy with the Topknot” however showed a normal working class family living in a small part of Wolverhampton living a normal life – or so it seemed. Much like many Punjabi families, things looked pretty and perfect on the outside. Family photos of gatherings, the whiff of freshly flipped chapatis and the cackling of cousins and siblings sat around chatting about old times and making each other the butt of their jokes.
As the story went on, we learnt that Sathnam, the lead of the story, was the lone wolf of his family. The youngest of the children, he had been given the chance of a wonderful education and had not been pressurised into marrying young, unlike his siblings who married in their very early twenties. Studying and excelling at one of the countries top universities, he moved away from Wolverhampton and built a new life in London. His career was going great and romance even better. Just one problem, his girlfriend was not what his family would want and not the covergirl for a typical Punjabi daughter in law marrying the only son of the family. She was a white girl called Laura.
As well as this dilemma of love, the story also tackled mental illness. Something which is not very often spoken about in many families, let alone the brown ones. Sathnam didn’t know this until quite late into his adult life, but his father had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He had been on medication to control his violent episodes and had totally been a different man to that his mother had first met when marrying him in the late 1960’s. The film showed flashbacks of the wedding and how Jagjit, the father, had been violent throughout their wedding day. It was mentioned how such awful events were covered up back then with the notion of black magic or casting spells. Rather than admit or deal with the pressing issue of mental illness, almost fifty years ago, blame was passed onto the new wife and that she had put a curse on her newly wed groom to make him act in such a way.
As the story progresses, the mother at the centre of the memoir opens up more about her story and how she got her husband the help he needed to make him the man he is today and the father that Sathnam grew to know and remember. As well as flashbacks of the husband he once was before seeking medical help, memories that Sathnam had of his father whilst growing up were highlighted also. Walks in the park sharing chocolate and a mention of him being a normal guy were touchingly beautiful and really put emphasis on just how much the mother of the family didn’t want Sathnam knowing about his fathers past as his memories of him all seemed to be rather positive. Punjabi families, and I can only talk from experience here as I am one, are very good at keeping things private, so it is not a surprise that Sathnam had no idea what was going on at home whilst he lived away in London.
By nature, Punjabi people are not talkers. Unless its to brag about land, their children’s educational or employment stats, or that they saw so and so doing this and that with so and so, you won’t really get into the nitty gritty about the ins and outs of what goes on behind the closed doors of a Punjabi home. Now, I’m not saying we’re special or have anything particular to hide, its just that our business is our business, and much like The Sanghera Family in the story, there is a real sense of pride to think about before airing out any dirty laundry to all and sundry.
Some of the Punjabi people who watched Tuesday nights film, shown on BBC Two, have said it was “not really what I was expecting” or “quite boring to be honest” but one criticism that I’ve heard was that it had shone a bad light on Sikh, British Punjabi people and that it was not a true representation of family life for our culture. Now this is only a handful of people to comment on the show, and the majority of the feedback has been positive – but I can’t help but notice, all negative feedback I have seen has been from Punjabi people.
The importance of this show was a great deal. It highlighted topics which go on in more families than we probably know. Mixed relationships and metal health are massive taboos still to this day in 2017. The story that Sathnam wrote about stemmed from as far back to the late 1960’s where mental health was not as big of a talking point as it is now. Still to this day, mental health and the many illnesses that stem off from it, are not spoken about in Punjabi homes.
We have a growing number of teenagers, young adults and women who suffer in silence day in and day out with demons which they are scared to deal with because of the shame and fear held upon by family values and pride. Most of the stories of poor mental health in Punjabi people that I have heard seem to stem from marriage, childbirth and sexuality. All very taboo subjects to speak about around any Punjabi family home and are often labelled as black magic, voodoo or a sign from God.
“The Boy with the Topknot” opened the firmly closed door of a normal family household and let viewers in to see a real Punjabi home where nothing was as it really seemed. It showed that even decades ago, mental health was a huge unspoken about problem, not only caused by social media, the pressures of stressful jobs or something we have “just because its popular.” It showed that its not a fad or a phase, and that its a real growing problem we need to talk about and address in our communities. The story also highlighted the strength that our mothers have in upholding the family home as well as the family name, but never get credit for, and it also acknowledged the huge pressure in marriage and the stigma around having a non-Sikh, brown, Punjabi, Jatt girlfriend (that list of check boxes is long, aye?!)
It also, more importantly, gave the opportunity for our families to have a conversation and to look and to delve into our pasts.
How did our parents meet and who introduced them? What was the wedding like? What was going on in the world the day you were born?
Simple questions which can turn into conversations unravelling a whole history of things swept under the carpet because of pride.
Shame is a wasted emotion, don’t let the thoughts of the others stop you from living your best life. Speak to your families, learn about your past and befriend your parents. They have probably been through more than you know and will ever get to experience. They are a fountain stories, knowledge and wisdom.
A lesson to be learnt from Tuesday nights show is that opening up and being truthful with those closest to you is a thing of beauty. You don’t have to fling your closed door open for all to enter at once, but let people in now and then. It’s good to talk.