As a fifteen-year-old on the verge of parties and endless summer nights of cans in the park I was captivated by Skins, which exploded onto our screens nearly a decade and a half ago. At the time, to my unsullied eyes, the depictions of the raging parties and grimy nights out the Bristolian party animals always seemed to find themselves in were everything I thought late teenhood should be. While I made my fair share of silly decisions based on this belief, it’s also fair to say the show had an overall positive impact on my life, and a massive part of that was the introduction of Dev Patel’s character, Anwar.
Up until that point the only real representation of South Asians in UK television had been as sidekicks, comedic relief, or in the stereotypical roles of shopkeeper and taxi driver. Goodness Gracious Me had come out a decade or so earlier, and while the show did so much for British-Indian representation, it didn’t do much to speak to my generation of British-born South Asians. The characters were funny and great and relatable, but only as my aunts and uncles, not me. Bend it like Beckham was another cultural touchstone – but was more about an imported culture accepting the ways of the place they’d settled, not the other way around.
I went to a majority South Asian school in Slough, but the vast bulk of my friends outside of that – the friends I was beginning to go to parties and nights out with – were white. Although I was highly aware of racial issues – as most children of immigrants are forced to be – I had only just begun to grasp the importance of questions of belonging and ethnicity in the UK, especially for those caught between two cultures like I was. Or, at least, I was beginning to put into words what had only been intuitive up until that point, waves of meaning stripping away at the last of my naivety around the realities of race.
In the first few episodes of the series Anwar is portrayed as just one of the gang, his ethnicity and faith hinted at, but not yet a point to strain the plot with. This in itself was exciting, especially as a gangly Indian kid who was always slightly paranoid none of his friends actually liked him. However, like all the main characters, Anwar soon got to take centre stage in what lots of people consider to be the most iconic episode in the entire series, ‘Maxxie and Anwar’, or as it’s more commonly known: The Russia Episode.
The episode is chock-full of flashpoints and the culmination of several major plot points, from Tony trying to give Maxxie a blowjob to Chris and Angie finally sleeping together. It teeters brilliantly between the ridiculous and the heartfelt, managing to straddle a tough line elegantly.
Of course, the main conflict that drives the episode is Anwar’s struggle to choose between his faith and his best friend. Here, Skins does a phenomenal job of showing the real-life tension a lot of immigrant children face: the split in values between the home and the outside world. In Anwar’s case, this was spurred primarily by religion, but that’s tied deeply to culture, and I can guarantee you it’s not just South Asian Muslims who feel constrained by their background as youths. Watching Anwar struggle with faith, hypocrisy, and identity, was as reassuring as it was relevant.
The representation of Anwar’s code-switching, and the internal and inter-relationship battles this engendered in the series, felt all too real to me. I’d had to deal with the ignominy of trying to explain how shame was still a powerful enough tool to keep me in my room if mum and dad said so, even though I had a bus pass and two working legs. I’d gone against my parent’s demand and scraped my knee shimmying down the drainpipe from my flat-roofed garage at midnight to down warm beers in a dark, wet park. I’d felt the embarrassment, then anger, then numbness, at once again having to explain why we dressed like we did, or ate what we ate, or sounded like we sounded. And, after Skins, I’d seen the distillation of these issues in one of the most lauded and popular shows on television, aimed primarily at people my age.
It wasn’t just the content in Skins that was daring; the show was replete with bold imagery and some of the best visual storytelling on YA television. ‘Maxxie and Anwar’ is particularly innovative; the weaving of Friends quotes and the various, highly symbolic classical texts that Tony was reading during the episode plays with inter-and-hypertextuality in a parodical way. It’s also no surprise the stark shift in venue from the familiar and, up until that point in the series, sunny Bristol to what seems to be the frozen heart of the Russian tundra leads to the high point of tension in the first series. The fact that such an important and daring episode was based around a storyline for a brown character was astounding for the time, and in many ways a precursor to the success Dev Patel was about to achieve.
While there are limits to what representation alone can achieve – as well as issues around the common yet dubious use of it by wealthy institutions and companies to look good without making substantial changes to biased practices – seeing Patel flourish has been great. This is especially true as he is joined by a small yet successful group of actors with sub-continental heritage, like Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, and Riz Ahmed. The fact there’s more than one person across multiple types of screen media with a brown face is a sign of progress I’m thankful for.
The most refreshing thing about Anwar on screen, though, was that he made mistakes and his life didn’t end. If I’m honest, somewhere in the back of my head my mum and dad’s voices are still bouncing around, telling me I’ll have to work twice as hard for half the reward, and it was worse as a teen, when life was so small so everything seemed endless and looming – even when you grow up in a place like London, where the world is at your fingertips. Anwar messes up his schooling, dates the worst possible person he could, and almost loses all his friends, but still has somewhat of a happy ending. Before then, in my head screwups without full-time jobs who did what they wanted were a purely white category. Now I’m a freelance writer – you do the maths.