Ackley Bridge: English, Hindi-Urdu and Bollywood languages on the telly

school corridor
Rajinder Dudrah

Ackley Bridge, Channel 4’s new TV drama set in a fictional town in Yorkshire, follows the lives of school pupils, teachers and their families, as two previously segregated schools – one largely white British and the other British Asian – are merged together under one new academy in an attempt at social integration. The programme has opened to mostly favourable reviews, especially on social media, as it enters its fifth episode this week.

The show has been described by audiences and TV critics as a mixture between previously successful school drama formats (most notably it has been compared to the BBC's long running Waterloo Road), with outlandish aspects of comedy and the hyper-realism of social class, such that as found in Shameless.

As one might expect then, the school has its fair share of ups and downs and comic moments in the lives of its protagonists, as well as some unexpected gems of TV that pave the way for what the future of modern and multicultural broadcasting could look like on mainstream TV. One such instance occurred in episode 3 when sixth former Nasreen’s (Amy-Leigh Hickman) crush on her science teacher Miss Sharif (Anneika Rose) becomes more apparent, leading to a daring on-screen lesbian kiss between a British Muslim girl and her British Asian teacher depicted by the end.

The build up to this storyline starts at the opening of the episode when the Hindi-Urdu language of Bollywood love songs are used in the school canteen. Missy (Poppy Lee Friar), Nasreen’s best friend, urges her to talk to Miss Sharif, or failing that she suggests she should break into song and dance, à la Bollywood film style, and declare her love for all to see and hear. Missy begins to recite the song lyrics to ‘Suraj Hua Madham’ (The Sun Begins to Set) from the film Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes Happiness Sometimes Sadness). As she sings and dances to the chorus four other British Asian pupils join in, as if accompanying her as a backing group. Everyone else in the canteen including pupils, teachers and the dinner lady (Nasreen’s mother) look on with fascination: a white working class girl who has been brought up on a mixture of British popular culture alongside Bollywood films through her neighbour’s and best friend’s family is telling of the possibilities of languages living side by side, and demonstrating their potential for apt romantic use.

Missy nudges Nasreen in front of Miss Sharif as she walks by their table, and true to Bollywood fantasy mode Nasreen imagines the school canteen becoming emptied in an instant, with only the two of them left standing facing each other. As they begin to talk, almost romantically, sunlight reflected from the canteen’s windows shine on both Nasreen and Miss Sharif’s faces. The musical soundtrack to ‘Suraj Hua Madham’ accompanies their onscreen intimate, albeit fictitious, encounter. Later on, this same musical motif also accompanies them towards the episode’s climax before their actual kiss.

This creative use of languages, of English alongside a vernacular Hindi-Urdu from popular Hindi cinema, enacted through the bodies of largely white and brown working class teenagers on the small screen allows for a moment of escape for two potential lovers, while also representing a possible moment of socio-cultural understanding that transcends differences and divisions in an otherwise unpredictable mixed-school setting. The snatches of community languages, spoken as they might be in British Asian homes, fused with English and youth catchphrases in a school environment, expressed in Northern working class accents, allow for a performance of eclectic identities illustrating how mainstream British TV does not have to be monocultural nor monolingual.

Our research in Strand 4 of the Creative Multilingualism research programme – Languages in the Creative Economy – is exploring some of these related interactions that can occur in multilingual and multicultural settings. By working closely with our cultural partners (Oxford Lieder, Punch Records, and Sputnik Theatre Company), including their roster of artists and networks, we aim to understand how different languages are used artistically in and support the creative industries in the UK and beyond.

Rajinder Dudrah is Professor of Cultural Studies and Creative Industries at Birmingham City University. He is Co-Investigator on the Creative Multilingualism research programme and leads our 4th research strand: Languages in the Creative Economy.

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