Theend of em­pire

Art Ma­lik has seen cin­ema’s en­gage­ment with race change a lot over the years, but he can’t shake his anger at Bri­tain’s im­pe­rial legacy, he tells Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

Art Ma­lik be­came a Bri­tish in­sti­tu­tion more or less overnight. In 1984, Granada TV fol­lowed up their suc­cess with Brideshead Re­vis­ited by tack­ling Paul Scott’s mon­u­men­tal Raj Tril­ogy. The Jewel in the Crown made stars of Charles Dance, Geral­dine James and Tim Pig­ott-Smith. It also in­tro­duced Art Ma­lik to the world.

Ma­lik’s per­for­mance es­tab­lished him as one of the most un­avoid­able Bri­tish Asian ac­tors of his time. He ap­peared in David Lean’s A Pas­sage to In­dia, James Cameron’s True Lies and the Bond film The Liv­ing Day­lights. We blinked and he be­came an el­der states­man. Now 64, he spends his Sun­day af­ter­noons mind­ing his grand­child in Devon.

“We’ve been here 30 years. We don’t need to sup­ply the fam­ily with a large house,” he says wist­fully. “My wife is from Ply­mouth. And it’s some­where I’ve known since we met at drama school. I came here first years ago to do some surf­ing. But I spent more time drink­ing I think.”

Ma­lik now brings a distin­guished pres­ence to Conor McDer­mot­troe’s new Ir­ish film Ha­lal Daddy. Ma­lik plays an Asian busi­ness­man who em­ploys his son to run a Ha­lal abat­toir in Sligo. There is a lot here about the chang­ing na­ture of so­ci­ety. There is also much un­com­pli­cated fun. Ma­lik sees the story as a way of ar­gu­ing for tol­er­ance and an em­brace of dif­fer­ence. He also feels a bit of a debt to the Ir­ish.

“I grew up next to an Ir­ish­man in South Lon­don and if it wasn’t for Peter Fitzsim­mons then I wouldn’t be here. He helped me lie to Eq­uity about hav­ing a job. In those days, no­body wanted some­body like me. They’d put it very nicely. They’d say the part was ‘very An­glo-Saxon’. I’d say: ‘Yeah. I’ve got your mean­ing.’”

Ma­lik was born in Pak­istan as the son of an oph­thalmic sur­geon. He moved with his fam­ily to Lon­don when he was three and spent a happy child­hood in that city. Ma­lik re­mem­bers the usual gen­er­a­tional dis­putes, but his dad was con­tent when the young Art se­cured a place in the Guild­hall School of Mu­sic and Drama. He had a dif­fi­cult five years af­ter grad­u­a­tion, but Jewel in the Crown proved a dra­matic pivot.

Then there was A Pas­sage to In­dia. David Lean’s adap­ta­tion of EM Forster’s novel – the di­rec­tor’s last film – is a hand­some, pro­fes­sional epic let down by the al­ready un­fash­ion­able de­ci­sion to have Alec Guin­ness “brown up” as Prof God­bole.

“I was a bit un­com­fort­able. I knew what David was try­ing to do,” Ma­lik says. “His thing was: ‘let me just tell the f**king story. I don’t give a sh*t about who the ac­tor is.’ But that was a dif­fer­ent time. Now we are into such nat­u­ral­is­tic act­ing.”

Ma­lik’s own views about what is proper in cin­ema’s en­gage­ment with race have changed over the years. In 1994, he played a grimly ar­che­typal ter­ror­ist in James Cameron’s un­pleas­ant thriller True Lies.

At that stage, with the Cold War drift­ing into his­tory, the av­er­age Hol­ly­wood vil­lain was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly Asian. That sit­u­a­tion has im­proved lit­tle in the suc­ceed­ing decades. I have read Ma­lik say that he wouldn’t take such a part now.

“If that was a script that was sent to me now, I would say no,” he says. “I said no to one last year. There was some im­mor­tal line about ‘How many whites/Jews/ Amer­i­cans will this bomb kill?’ Why would I say that line? For this project? No­body will come out of that say­ing: ‘The world’s a bet­ter place. I un­der­stand now.’ When I was at col­lege, we’d turn on the tele­vi­sion and see North­ern Ire­land. We’d learn noth­ing about your rep­re­sen­ta­tives. What’s the point? We need to learn.”

Ma­lik seems driven by a very mea­sured sort of pas­sion. As beau­ti­fully spo­ken as you’d ex­pect a Guild­hall man to be, he can do five min­utes on ris­ing in­tol­er­ance with­out tak­ing a breath. He is happy about the swing to­wards Cor­byn in the UK elec­tions. He loves Eng­land, but he can’t shake off anger at the im­pe­rial legacy. Gen­tle, rea­soned anger is never too far away.

“It would be a very sim­ple de­ci­sion if they were to of­fer me any­thing in the Queen’s birth­day hon­ours or the New Year’s Hon­ours,” he says fore­stalling any queries about his lack of an OBE. “E stands for Em­pire. Why would I want an award that says that is what makes you fan­tas­tic. I know what that means. I grew up aware of 250 years of im­pe­rial rule. Why would I want that?”

The United King­dom seems to be in an odd place. The re­cent ter­ror at­tacks have caused some to fear a rise in dis­trust between the com­mu­ni­ties. Ma­lik sees a film like Ha­lal Daddy as a be­nign re­sponse to those ma­lign en­er­gies. There is never a bad time to say “let’s get along”.

“I’ve al­ways wanted to do some­thing that ad­dressed that. Not least be­cause I was in­volved with True Lies pre-9/11. There are now more peo­ple ques­tion­ing all that. This is about all that.”

Maybe we can see the re­cent elec­tion as a col­lec­tive move to­wards Ma­lik’s views. There seems, among the young at least, to be a surge against the old im­pe­rial values.

“The idea that some­how we should ap­plaud in­ward think­ing, the idea that we should ap­plaud small­ness is ter­ri­ble,” he says. “And then the thing they hate the most is called ‘so­cial­ism’? Read some books and then come back and talk to me. You sound like an id­iot.”

He takes a breath and moves on to some­thing else.

For all the stereo­types hang­ing around cin­ema and TV, Ma­lik has, in re­cent years, man­aged to se­cure end­less de­cent parts. He had a re­cur­ring role in Home­land and the re­vamp of Cold Feet. Later this year, we will see him in the lat­est BBC adap­ta­tion of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. He shot that se­ries in Belfast.

“You do re­alise in Belfast that one day you’re be­ing driven from some­body on one side of the wall and the next day by some­body on the other side. They recog­nise there’s a wall. But we can get on. Can’t we? We can ban­ter?” He sighs dra­mat­i­cally. “That’s why I take hope. We can still ban­ter.”

Why would I want an award that says that is what makes you fan­tas­tic. I know what that means. I grew up aware of 250 years of im­pe­rial rule. Why would I want that?

Art Ma­lik “The idea that we should ap­plaud small­ness is ter­ri­ble.” Be­low: as Aziz in True Lies

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