Each year, the Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration Society (VIBC) puts on a ten-day celebration known as the City of Bhangra Festival. Bhangra, for anyone not familiar, is a type of traditional Punjabi dance that was originally performed to celebrate the harvest. You may recognize it from last year’s viral video of two Halifax men dancing at Peggy’s Cove. The Festival’s events are dedicated to spreading the joy of bhangra and South Asian culture. This year’s Festival introduced Reel Bhangra, a curated film night that showed off the best of South Asian cinema. I had the pleasure of attending the night in person, where three short films and one longer documentary were screened―some bleak, some funny, but all of them offering a valuable window into the lives of the South Asian community.
Vancouver filmmaker Monica Cheema pulled no punches with her selections. The opening film was the aptly-titled I Want To Kill Myself, an autobiographical short by Vivek Shraya. Shraya’s own voice, accompanied by still frames, narrated her struggle with depression in a format reminiscent of slam poetry. This intensely personal piece is also available online.
Next came a lighter pick: Episode 7 of Brown Girls, Fatima Asghar’s web series about queer, artistic women of colour navigating early adulthood. HBO has picked it up to be developed into a full TV show for wider audiences, but this was my first time watching Asghar’s indie comedy. Happily, beginning partway through the series had no effect on my enjoyment.
Rounding out the short films of the night was yet another title that earned the event’s 19+ rating: Haneri. It follows the decline of its protagonist, Ruby, while examining the intersection between casual misogyny and women not receiving treatment for their mental illness. While many people find it difficult to talk about their mental health, minority communities like those portrayed in Haneri can be especially affected by cultural stigma.
After a brief intermission came the main event of the night: the world premiere of Bhangra City. The event page offers an excellent summary of the film:
“Bubbling just under the surface of Vancouver’s natural beauty and expensive real estate is a vibrant Punjabi music and dance scene that produces some of the world’s biggest bhangra superstars. Tarun Nayar and local band Delhi 2 Dublin give us a tour, including a chat with Jazzy B, watching a sold-out Diljit Dosanjh show in Abbotsford, and crashing a wedding in Surrey. The film also addresses the factors that keep this scene hidden, including the difficulty South Asians face in getting booked at local festivals and clubs, and the broader lack of diversity on screen and stage in North America.”
As the summary implies, the documentary didn’t focus solely on the spectacle of Bhangra. Instead, the spotlight was on the lively underground community within Vancouver and the challenges it has faced. It was a good introduction to bhangra for beginners, tracing the roots of the community as a political movement to assert Punjabi presence in Vancouver. Thanks to being shut out of most Vancouver clubs, today’s bhangra scene thrives mostly at Indian weddings, expansive parties that often include thousands of guests.
After the screening, nearly everyone who worked on or appeared in the documentary crowded onto the stage to take questions. One of the more interesting queries was whether bhangra DJs still felt legitimate despite lacking the visibility of other Canadian artists; the ones who, say, get interviewed by the CBC. Horsepowar, a Desi rapper who actually had been interviewed by CBC, chimed in to say she didn’t need mainstream attention if it meant attracting racist comments online. Not that she gave a shit, she added.
Later, the elderly father of one of the men who’d crashed a wedding in the film offered some scathing criticism of contemporary bhangra music. He had been part of the original bhangra revival in Vancouver, and felt that today’s bhangra lyrics didn’t have the same political focus. Mo, another of the Surrey wedding-crashers, countered with a succinct summation of the politics behind the scene today: even if the lyrics aren’t meaningful, visibility is already a type of activism.
“Our bodies are politicized”, he said bluntly. “I go into a white restaurant and make a reservation, and I am a political fucking revolution.”
Another question arose: Was it harder for women to participate in bhangra than men? This time, the wife of the man who’d called out modern music came down to the stage to speak. She had taught dance classes for women in the early days of Vancouver’s bhangra community. Back then they frequently weren’t even allowed onstage at events. It had been hard enough for the men involved in bhangra to gain acceptance in the Punjabi community; many resented that they were pushing their cultural differences instead of trying to assimilate. But whatever hardships the men had faced, she said, it was nothing compared to what the women had dealt with. Bhangra had met resistance every step of the way.
“But like you said”, the woman concluded, with a matronly nod to Horsepowar, “We did not give a shit.”
Keep up with future bhangra events on VIBC’s Facebook page here.