Growing up in Leicester – a place he describes as a “mixed heritage city” – actor, writer and filmmaker Jassa Ahluwalia never questioned his mixed heritage identity. He has an Indian father, Anglo-Saxon mother, white skin and speaks fluent Punjabi – for young Jassa, that was the norm.
It wasn’t until early adulthood, when he moved away from Leicester and into an industry “where your appearance is a big part of what gets you work”, that he began to struggle with his sense of identity. He felt that the world saw him as a white person; he was frustrated and unable to express his Indian heritage fully as an actor and performer.
Viewers will tonight be able to see Jassa, who is known for his roles in TV shows including Peaky Blinders, Some Girls and Unforgotten, delve into his journey of identity as he talks to his father, mother and sister, as well as influential writer and presenter Sathnam Sanghera. In his documentary of him, ‘Am I English?’ Jassa discusses their experiences of him, as well as his own of him, to discover more about how his upbringing of him has shaped his own sense of Englishness.
READMORE: Leicester International Short Film Festival to feature world premiere of film by Leicester writer and director Jassa Ahluwalia
Along with sister Ramanique, a fellow actor, Jassa grew up in Oadby, attending Launde Primary School, where his Indian grandfather was a teacher. He fondly remembers his early years of him in the area where, he says, he would fit in wherever he went.
“Whether it was going to see the Christmas tree at the Clock Tower or joining in the Diwali celebrations in Melton Road, I fit in everywhere, and because my turban-wearing grandfather was teaching at my primary school, I never had to explain myself there It was known that ‘Jassa is Mr Walia’s grandson, he speaks Punjabi’,” Jassa told LeicestershireLive.
As well as pursuing his acting career (which began with a role in British film Journey to the Moon when he was 16) Jassa went on to gain 10 A* GCSEs and straight As at A-level at Beauchamp College in Oadby, before moving to London to study Spanish and Russian at University College London. He left the course in 2010, at the start of his second year, to focus on his career.
After he’d moved away from Leicester, Jassa says he realized he “didn’t fit neatly into any box” and started to internalize a sense of halfness. However, in 2019, Jassa created the hashtag #BothNotHalf in an attempt to take control of his identity from him.
He created video skits of him speaking Punjabi, which went viral and led to him doing a TED talk in India in 2020. “As part of the TED talk, I talked about national identity, how I discovered it was a cultural innovation of the 19th century and realizing that it wasn’t something primordial, I rejected it as a way to reconcile my British citizenship with my Indian heritage.
“Then after coming back to England in 2020 with the pandemic raging and Brexit on the horizon, I had some doubts. I realized I really cared about my country. I had this real sense of connection with where I am. I was like,’ this feels a lot like patriotism or national identity’, and I began to reassess my relationship with national identity. As I was in that process, the BBC got in touch,” he said.
According to Jassa, it was serendipitous, coming at a time when he had started to reconnect with, and wanted to redefine, his sense of national identity.
Some of the documentary, which is part of the BBC’s ‘We Are England’ series of programmes, was filmed in Oadby and Leicester in late 2021 and in January this year, and sees him talking to his dad about his experience growing up in Leicester, and revisiting his grandparents’ former house in Oadby, with his sister.
“In doing this documentary, I really felt like I found an answer, which is ‘yes, I really am English’. For me, the journey of doing the documentary has made me realize that what patriotism is all about is a love of place , and belonging in that place, whether that’s Oadby, Leicester, the Midlands, England or Britain,” said Jassa.
“National identity is no different to our personal identity in that it grows and evolves over time. Whether I’m saying that I’m both not half or that I’m proudly British or proudly English, we as individuals have the power to contribute our voice to the story of the nation.
“I think for too long we’ve accepted that national identity is something that is decided by those at the top and that we have to agree with it or we’re classed as unpatriotic. A lot of the reason why I’m engaging in questioning my identity is because I love my country and I love the people around me, and I want us to be able to have a meaningful shared identity.”
Jassa is currently writing a book about his ‘Both Not Half’ journey and is working with sister Ramanique to create a TV series about mixed heritage.
– Am I English? is on BBC One in the Midlands tonight at 8.30pm. It will also be available to view nationwide on BBC iPlayer.