• Freida Pinto stars in TV series ‘Guerrilla’. (SBS)Source: SBS
What does a woman have to do to be considered a revolutionary leader?
Annie Hariharan

28 May 2020 - 11:17 AM  UPDATED 28 May 2020 - 11:17 AM

This is a question that Jas Mitra (Freida Pinto) seems to ask in almost every episode of TV political drama, Guerrilla. “Sometimes leadership is measured by the size of cocks in the room. If you don’t have one, you’re not needed in the room”, she tells fellow revolutionary, Eliette (Bella Dayne).

Inspired by the political activism of the British Black Panthers (BBP) in 1970s United Kingdom, Guerrilla is set against the backdrop of racism, political violence in Ireland and colonial rule in Rhodesia. The characters are a composite of various real-life individuals, and the showstarts when British–Indian Jas and her Black British partner Marcus Hill (Babou Ceesay) hatch a plan to free a felon and activist, Dhari Bishop (Nathaniel Martello-White) from prison. They then fumble their way through a resistance movement. Everything that happens tests their patience and their relationship.

Nobody wants to believe that Jas is capable of plotting, scheming or even killing. Her former lover, Kent (Idris Elba, also serving as executive producer) constantly tries to rescue her from her ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ ways because he assumes she is acting under Marcus’s influence. The Marxist revolutionary members they seek help from refuse to negotiate with Jas, preferring to speak to Marcus instead. The police officers who are chasing them try to get Jas’s mother to give them up. She’s just been mixing with the wrong crowd, they tell her. Help us to help her.

This could not be further from the truth. With each episode, Jas becomes more radical but also calculated and driven. In an early episode she threw up after a night of law-breaking action. Now she wants to do more, train properly, build a bomb. Eliette comments on the chasm that has come between Jas and Marcus, “I don’t think your man has a problem with your tactics. The problem is you succeeding without him”. This is astute because the men are caught up in in-fighting, petty crime, jealousy and egoistic challenges. Dhari, whom they rescued from prison in the hope of his becoming the face of the revolution, turns out to be a rather disappointing leader. He does not have a plan or an endgame. Instead he spends his days in listless boredom and plays psychological games with Marcus in the battle for Jas’s attention.

In all fairness, it is difficult to understand the endgame because the players are too different. At the start, Jas and Marcus were small-time community activists. They endure daily indignities but fight for equality and fairness for minorities. This changes when their BBP friend Julian is targeted by the police during a protest and beaten to death. Their common target then becomes the Met – the British MetropolitanPolice Service. Even then, Dhari, Jas and Marcus struggle to reconcile their different experiences and approach to the revolution. Add in the German Marxist-Leninists, the Front de Libération du Québec, (American) Black Panthers and the IRA, and it can be difficult to follow the many causes and their individual justification for violence.

The saving grace is that the Met as an institution is the series’ villain of Disney proportions. Even if you disagree with using violence to achieve a cause, you may change your mind when you see the way the policemen wield their batons, harass people who don’t fall in line or detain people with vague connections to ‘terrorists’. The in-built racism within the Met and the fact that they have a Black Power desk to monitor and crush dissent is not something that can be dismantled with polite discourse.

There is some satisfaction in seeing Freida Pinto finally get a role that suits her and then deliver such an impressive performance. After her breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire, she struggled to get decent movie offers and continued to be typecast as ‘the exotic girlfriend’ or ‘the sidekick’. However, Pinto’s casting as Jas is not without issues. There have been many questions raised about the erasure of black women in the series and the prominence given to a South Asian woman as the face of the revolution. Director John Ridley pointed out that Jas’s character is loosely based on Mala Sen, a South Asian woman and active member of the BBP movement, but it has remained a sore point for some viewers. 

Six-part TV series Guerrilla is now streaming at SBS On Demand:

Also featuring a South Asian female protagonist navigating racism in the UK is Brick Lane, largely set in a post 9/11 world. Based on the novel by Monica Ali, the movie is told from the viewpoint of Nazneen (Tannishtha Chetterjee) who is transported from her village in Bangladesh when she marries her much older husband Chanu and raises their daughters in the UK. Although Nazneen’s life centres around her family and her fellow Bengali neighbours, she cannot escape the racist flyers that appear in her mailbox which paint all Muslims as extremists who should be feared. As someone who has always deferred to her husband’s judgement, she finds herself slowly trying to work out her own moral compass and her sense of identity.

Nazneen starts a relationship with a leader of the Muslim community, Karim, who becomes increasingly radical in response to the harassment they face. However, unlike Jas in Guerrilla, Nazreen is no community leader, radical or revolutionary. Her battles are internal, and her primary concern is her own family members.

Both Guerrilla and Brick Lane shed a rare light on the everyday experience of immigrant women in an intolerant country. While one masterminded violence, the other just wanted to stay under the radar. Both are valid choices.

Brick Lane is now streaming at SBS On Demand:

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