Screening as part of the ICA’s New British Cinema strand this month is The Blue Tower, the blistering debut from Smita Bhide, which won the best UK feature award at last year’s Raindance Film Festival. Made for a scant budget and set in the director’s hometown of Southall, the film takes familiar themes such as twenty-something angst and traditionalist family oppression, weaving them in a romantic thriller framework that’s at once realistic and thoroughly gripping.
Abhin Galeya plays Mohan, an out-of-work twenty-seven-year-old stuck with a beautiful wife with whom he shares no chemistry, her oppressive family ever increasing the pressure on him to extend the family line and join their import/export business. As he sees it, his only real chance to escape is a job with his old friend Vivek, who at best has an unreliable reputation. Adding to his troubles is his bedridden Auntie Kamla (Indira Joshi), his only living relative, whom he relies on for money. Tyrannical and unappreciative, Auntie K appears to represent everything that is wrong with his life at present. Things change when he begins to fall for her pretty white nurse Judy (Alice O’Connell), a seemingly simple yet enigmatic girl who not only gives Mohan a temporary escape from his problematic life, but also suggests how he could permanently solve his dilemmas if he’s willing to go the required distance.
The Blue Tower is a remarkably assured film, especially given that this is Bhide’s first feature. The lead characters are all multi-layered, allowing the script to take many unpredictable turns while remaining believable and coherent. It’s also palpable that much thought has gone into even the minor characters, such as Mohan’s slacker friends who spend most of their time eating cheap food in a high street restaurant or hatching ridiculous money-making schemes, and there’s a convincing sense of menace in his wife’s intimidating family. There’s a great authenticity to be found in the film, which sets it apart from other British Asian hits such as East is East or The Guru, which arguably played upon racial stereotypes. The Blue Tower appears more like a solid Mike Leigh film given a new perspective by Bhide’s fresh female voice.
The relationship that builds between Mohan and Judy is engaging and heartfelt, making it difficult not to empathise with them despite the forbidden nature of their liaison, and while the lengths they go to in securing their future may appear extreme, in the context of the piece their actions are understandable. The natural yet beautiful cinematography and orchestral score further evoke the realities of Mohan’s experience dealing with his own culture and underline the difficult choices he has to make to change his situation.
With strong performances and a refreshingly smart and darkly funny script The Blue Tower is a little gem, and one hopes that the current interest in British Asian cinema in the wake of Slumdog Millionaire‘s success allows it to be discovered by eager audiences nationwide.
There will be a preview of The Blue Tower at the ICA (London) on June 23 followed by a Q&A with the director and cast. The film will then show at the ICA from June 26 to 30.