Pardesi

Review of the Documentary “Pardesi”

Pardesi

This is a rare documentary, Pardesi (L’ étranger), released in 1992 by French filmmakers Martina Catella and Michel Follin, produced by PMA-Ethnies Visions. Most of the dialogue is in English with French subtitles throughout. The word “pardesi” means foreigner or stranger in (ironically) both Urdu and Hindi, from par (other) and desi (country).

I didn’t discover Pardesi until 2017, but I was long familiar with this music having been a world fusion music DJ since 1998. This is the music I love and more so, the independent but reverent spirit toward music that I love and admire. I highly recommend it.

The Student on a Quest

The film follows Aki Nawaz (best known as a member of the musical group, Fun-Da-Mental) as he explores the meaning of the Asian Underground music scene that was emerging in England in the 1990s. But this is not a straight music documentary but an exploration of the combinations of spirituality and music and East and West.

Born in England of Pakistani heritage, Nawaz speaks with a number of musicians and scholars seeking to understand his musical and spiritual journey. The movie presents interesting insights on how cultures and music can clash but also can blend and fuse. The film reflects on the question of identity faced by the children of immigrants who grow up needing to reconcile and balance multiple cultures.

Nawaz remarks that “we have a duty to understand our traditions and decide which values we wish to keep.” He seeks to understand how to express through music the problems of personal and cultural identities and the question of how to mix spirituality and music.

Central to considering these questions for Nawaz is his Islamic faith and tradition. In one scene, Nawaz asks Dr. Akbar Ahmed (formerly Chair of Pakistan Studies at the University of Cambridge) “Can I be a musician and a Muslim?” Dr. Ahmed’s basic answer is yes, if done in the right spirit, and among Dr. Ahmed’s words of wisdom is this:

Go back to your roots, go back to the source, to the book. Go back to your own music, and once you do that, I think the answers will come themselves, because you have to resolve modernity and tradition–your father’s time with your time.

Nawaz watching a musical performance in Pakistan. (Source: Pardesi)

Going Back to His Roots

So, Nawaz travels back to Pakistan to talk with and hear from musicians there. We hear some beautiful traditional music from Pakistan and learn about its genres and their histories, including Bhangra, Ghazal, and Qawwali. The ever-serious Nawaz respectfully watches, listens, and records. but doesn’t seem to quite find the answers he seeks. Perhaps, as Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan says to him, it is a matter of perpetual research.

The film is serious, at times brooding, but never descends into maudlin sentiment. It remains always a celebration of South Asian traditional and fusion music. The film is beautifully shot and pieced together. We also get to meet multiple artists central to the then soon to explode UK Asian Underground: Talvin Singh, Farook Shamsheer (Joi), Sheila Chandra, Najma Akhtar, and Bally Sagoo.

There are too many gems in Pardesi to discuss it all and you should discover them yourself. The film spoke to me even though I have little in common with the people in it except our common humanity and love for music. Yet, I think it translates well to those of any culture who are open to what it means to be human.

That is the beauty of world fusion music: there are many musical genres, but they are sub genres of human music. For example, I hear the mournful love song of Ghazal singer Farida Khanum and it reminds me of Portuguese Fado. They connect, intertwine, and speak to each other.

Pardesi is also a brilliant glimpse into a pivotal time in music history. The world fusion revolution was just starting. There in Bradford, Yorkshire were some of the people who helped kick it off just before they burst into prominence.

In the years since this movie was made, so much has changed because of so much learning and sharing. One musician tells Nawaz in the film that “bhangra is essentially Punjabi, there is nowhere else in the world where you have the bhangra.” Nawaz says respectfully off camera, “except in England.” Now 33 years later we can say, “except everywhere.”

 

5 comments

  1. I discover this publication 30 years after the publication of my film and I am extremely grateful to your presentation. My relation with Pakistan started with this documentary and never stoped. I continued to work on several musical expression, in particular Ghazal and Qawwali and I am still working on it. I would like to share this film with some students who are essentially English speakers. Do you know where the short version with English subtitles could be ? If yes, you would make many people very happy to discover how the function of music can be numerous and how the status of musicians is not necessarily linked to its importance. With my regards Martina A. Catella

    1. It is an honor and pleasure to hear from you. I first want to thank you very much for your film. I initially discovered it because as station manager of WorldFusionRadio.com, I admired the music of Aki Nawaz and other artists in the “Asian Underground.” I love your film also because as a professor of philosophy and religion, I appreciate the thoughtful, sensitive look into the cultural and spiritual journeys shown by the film. I’m afraid the only version of the film I am aware of is here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJ5dqXuezAI, which is with French subtitles and what you probably already have. Wish I could help more, but thank you for writing.

      1. thank you for your answer. I am trying to write an article on Qawwali for young people to open their view on muslim culture. it’s a very difficult task to be clear and to avoid so many traps with such a subject ! Are you reading French ? If yes, I’ll send you my proposal and I would be very open to your comments and critics. my mail : martina.catella@wandoo.fr With my regards

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