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, an Anglo-Saxon mother, white skin and is fluent in Punjabi – for young Jassa this was the norm.
It wasn’t until early adulthood, when he moved away from Leicester and into an industry ‘where your looks are a big part of what makes 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 fully express his Indian heritage as an actor and performer.
Viewers tonight will be able to see Jassa, who is known for his roles in TV shows such as Peaky Blinders, Some Girls and Unforgotten, dive into his identity journey as he talks to his father, mother and sister, as well than to influential writer and presenter Sathnam Sanghera. In his documentary, ‘Am I English?’ Jassa discusses their experiences, as well as her own, to learn more about how her upbringing shaped her own sense of English.
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Together with her sister Ramanique, another actress, Jassa grew up in Oadby, attending primary school in Launde, where her Indian grandfather was a teacher. He fondly remembers his early years in the region where, he says, he would fit in wherever he went.
“Whether it’s going to see the Christmas tree at the clock tower or taking part in the Diwali celebrations in Melton Road, I fit in everywhere, and because my turban-wearing grandfather taught 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 continuing his acting career (which began with a role in the British film Journey to the Moon when he was 16), Jassa went on to obtain 10 A* GCSEs and straight As to 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 leaving Leicester, Jassa says he realized he “didn’t fit neatly into any box” and began to internalize a feeling of half-heartedness. However, in 2019, Jassa created the #BothNotHalf hashtag in an attempt to take control of his identity.
He created video sketches of himself speaking Punjabi, which went viral and led him to do 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 it was not something primordial, I dismissed it as a means of reconciling 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 was. I was like, ‘this sounds a lot like patriotism or national identity,’ and I started to reevaluate my relationship to national identity. As I was in this process, the BBC got in touch,” he said.
According to Jassa, it was serendipitous, coming at a time when he had begun to reconnect with and wanted to redefine his sense of national identity.
Part of the documentary, part of the BBC’s ‘We Are England’ program series, was filmed in Oadby and Leicester in late 2021 and January this year, and sees him talking to his father about his experience growing up in Leicester, and revisiting his grandparents’ former home in Oadby, with his sister.
“In making this documentary, I really felt like I found an answer, which is ‘yes, I’m really English.’ For me, the journey of making the documentary made me realize that what is patriotism, it’s love of place, and belonging to that place, whether it’s Oadby, Leicester, the Midlands, England or Britain,” Jassa said.
“National identity is no different from our personal identity in that it grows and changes over time. Whether I say I am not half-hearted or proudly British or proudly English, we in as individuals, we have the power to contribute our voice to the nation’s story.
“I think we’ve accepted for too long that national identity is something that’s decided by those at the top and we have to agree with it or we’re branded as unpatriotic. A big part of the reason Why I engage 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 her journey “Both Not Half” and working with her 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 watch nationwide on BBC iPlayer.