‘Defiance’ Director Talks Generational Differences, Today’s Politicians & How “Brave People Had To Literally Fight Fascists In The Street”

EXCLUSIVE: The director of Riz Ahmed and Rogan Productions’ Channel 4 series Defiance: Fighting the Far Right has opened up about how the show spotlights generational differences within the British Asian community.

Defiance, which launched earlier this week to positive reviews, shines a stark light on the violent struggles of the British Asian community in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, and is told over three hours of interviews and archival footage.

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Satiyesh Manoharajah tells Deadline that the show co-produced by Oscar-nominated British Asian star Ahmed explores themes of conflict within the South Asian community, between the older generation who wanted to maintain a low profile and the younger ones who felt that staying quiet was going to get them nothing of significance. This, he adds, is particularly stark due to the fact that the the first British Asian Prime Minister was appointed two years ago.

“I found that there had always been this sort of narrative that served people well, which was that Asians came to Britain, worked hard, kept our heads down and now, look, the Prime Minister is Asian,” says Manoharajah. “That is true, but what it also hides is that really brave people had to literally fight fascists in the street, and none of them came here wanting to do that. They just wanted to get on with their lives.”

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher says in the doc, “we must hold out for the prospect of a clear end to immigration,” potentially intended to cause viewers to wonder how much things have changed between then and now given recent debates around immigration.

“It’s a tricky one to respond to,” says Manoharajah, cautiously. “We looked at the press headlines 40 to 50 years ago and they were talking about our families, our parents, and the parents of Rishi [Sunak], [former Home Secretary] Priti Patel and [Patel’s successor as Home Secretary] Suella Braverman using terms like ‘swarms of immigrants’ or ‘floods of Indians’. Every single day we could find the exact same headline, just with the group changed.”

“I think our politicians have lived through some of this, but they haven’t necessarily felt they want to make a connection between what their families experienced and the experiences of people coming after them,” he adds.

When Manoharajah set out on the project, he asked every interviewee if they had spoken about this with their children or grandchildren. Almost everyone said no.

Defiance was developed by Rogan Productions (Uprising, Freddie Mercury: The Final Act). As the project developed, Ahmed and his Left Handed Films boarded, bringing a strong track record gained on the likes of Academy Award-winning short The Long Goodbye and Flee.

The doc begins in June 1976 when the murder of 18-year-old Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall rocked the British Asian community – especially due to reactions from those outside the community. In response to the killing of a young man in an area South Asians considered a safe space, John Kingsley Read, the chairman of the vehemently anti-immigration National Front party, chose to say, “One down, one million to go.” This provides the backdrop.

Manoharajah is no stranger to productions highlighting sensitive and important matters of race. Most recently, he wrote and produced BBC Sounds series Vishal, chronicling the abduction and death of seven-year-old Vishal Mehrotra on the day of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding.

For the director, more opportunities have opened up in this space of late. “Ten or 15 years ago we would be in meetings trying to get topics like this commissioned, and commissioners just said, “Who’s going to watch it?’,” says Manoharajah, whose background is South Asian and South American. “But now we’ve got so many people of South Asian heritage in power in Britain that people are saying, ‘Hang on, we do need to know [about British South Asian history]. We need to know how we got from there to here?”

He hopes the series can “act as a catalyst” for others picking up these stories and stresses that limiting it to only three hours was quite a task in itself, considering how many tales there are left to tell from the struggles of the South Asian community. Manoharajah mentions the Newham cases, the Grunwick strike, Anwar Ditta’s struggle with the Home Office and virginity testing being imposed on Asian women at UK airports as examples.

Emotional footage

Balraj Purewal
Balraj Purewal

Manoharajah conducted around 40 Defiance interviews, which proved to be an emotional experience. “It’s funny, you get used to being in the edit and you see each scene thousands of times over 12-14 weeks, but there are still clips that you see and something clinches in you,” he recounts.

He uses disturbing footage of Chagga’s funeral, where you see him in his coffin with his injuries, as one example. Unsurprisingly, several of the interviewees therefore became emotional when face to face with the archival footage.

It may seem like a grey haired Balraj Purewal had little in common with the thick sideburns of his younger self who founded the Southall Youth Movement in London, but as the documentary goes on, it is clear he still feels the righteous indignation that put him at the forefront of the resistance. Meanwhile, an elegantly dressed Alma Haq has a quiver in her voice as she recalls her teacher saying, “Did you have curry today? I can smell it.”

There are also examples of inter-generational difference within Defiance. An especially searing contrast is showcased by Rafiq Mughal, a journalist who was against the National Front, and his brother Shaf, who was a Met policeman tasked with protecting the National Front at their rally in Southall. Even though he objected to a colleague dragging an elderly lady across broken glass, when he was told to leave, he left. “I was probably a coward, I don’t know,” reflects Shaf in the series.

He recalls an incident where a friend saw their mum getting pushed over when they were about three. Shopping went everywhere on the pavement and people were laughing and did not offer to help. Only years later, when his friend was well into their 40s, did their mother confirm that those people were from the National Front.

“What’s been incredible doing the promo for this series is that young people in particular are going, ‘I didn’t even know that this happened,’ and I can partly understand that because the nature of it was so brutal,” says Manoharajah.

“It’s really interesting that it’s not taught as part of our civil rights education in Britain,” he adds. “We learn a lot about civil rights in America, and we’re just starting now to sort of learn more about Black struggles here. But this doesn’t figure at all as far as I’m aware. Things like the events in Southall, the murder of Gurdip Chaggar, Altab Ali, the Bradford Twelve, those [should] matter not just to British Asians, but to everyone in this country.”

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