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‘Dragon’s Food’ (1987) – actor Bhasker Patel on his film screening at the inaugural BFI Film on Film Festival and other South Asian gems…

‘Dragon’s Food’ (1987) – actor Bhasker Patel on his film screening at the inaugural BFI Film on Film Festival and other South Asian gems…

Legendary ‘alternative’ Indian director Mrinal Sen film and pioneering documentary maker Sarah Erulkar also feature in this new festival produced by the BFI, selecting actual print films from their archive…

Bhasker Patel

LEARNING the German language and asking for the lead role in a feature film are not an everyday occurrence for a young British actor – much less for one who was still making his way in the industry at the time.

It was 35 years ago when ‘Emmerdale’ actor Bhasker Patel took on the starring role in ‘Dragon’s Food’ (‘Drachendufutter’/Spicy Rice) and this Sunday (June 11), people can see the film at the BFI Southbank in all its glory, with Patel set to talk about the film and the impact it had on his long career.

It is part of the first ever BFI Film on Film Festival, which starts today and runs through till Sunday (June 11).

Xiao (Ric Young) and Shezad (Bhasker Patel) – Picture courtesy of BFI

It is essentially a celebration of actual film, in its 16mm, 35mm, 70mm and Super 8 and nitrate forms.

The BFI says watching these films is similar to the experience of enjoying vinyl records and provides a deep connection to audiences who saw these original films. The prints come from the BFI National Archive.

Patel’s film ‘Dragon’s Food’ was shot in 35mm and tells the story of Shezad (Patel) and Rashid (Buddy Uzzaman), who are trying to build a new life for themselves in West Germany (as it was then before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany). Shezad’s bid to remain in Germany fails and he knows he cannot return, as he and Rashid are likely to be thrown in prison back in Pakistan from where they fled – and they saw no future for themselves there anyway.

Rashid (Buddy Uzzaman) and Shezad (Patel) – (BFI)

Shezad’s dream of running a Lahore cuisine-inspired restaurant in Hamburg are destroyed.

The German film in German, was directed by Jan Schütte, and written by Thomas Strittmatter. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1987 and won two awards there.

It helped to launch Patel’s film and TV career – and was among the first of his big roles – up until then he had mostly appeared in the theatre in Britain.

Patel told “As an actor, you just do your work and you never know how a film is going to turn out.

“I couldn’t travel to Venice, because I was appearing in a theatre production of ‘A Passage to India’ (as Dr Aziz, one of the leading roles).

“After it won those awards in Venice, I just caught a plane and went for just a day and half – because I had to get back for the play.

Bhasker Patel at the London Indian Film Festival ©BTM/ACV

“It really shaped me as an actor, I was young and didn’t have a lot of experience. It’s marvellous the BFI has selected it – thrilling.”

Patel loved the script and admired and respected both Schütte and Srittmatter – and was cast.

“It felt great to be given a role, but Jan wanted to give me the second lead. Something at the time just kept bugging me and I went to Jan and said: ‘Only take me, if I can play the lead part’ – I didn’t have a lot of experience behind me at the time and normally one doesn’t do that – but something made me. I learnt a lot from them both, especially Jan.”

Patel’s performance was widely praised and Robin Baker, head curator at the BFI National Archive and one of the festival’s curators, writes: “Patel’s beautifully understated performance – full of wide-eyed gentleness – haunts you long after the credits roll.

“Such warmth is a counterpoint to the threat of racism, people smugglers and freezing weather, the latter captured so evocatively through the stark black and white cinematography.”

Patel told acv: “The film really changed me – subsequently I did about 10 German TV and Film productions.”

Patel got the script in English, but just like Shezad had to learn German to communicate with locals and understand other parts of the film.

“I am almost in every scene, that is very rare,” shared Patel. “I think me learning German gave it a kind of authenticity. I was worried about it though – I thought how am I going to deal with all this? Yet Jan put me at ease.”

Patel is one of the first Asian actors to have broken through in the 1980s in the UK and has a long list of film, TV and theatre credits – and has been in ‘Emmerdale’ for many years now and appeared in Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’.

‘And Quiet Rolls the Dawn’ (BFI)

The BFI Film on Film Festival starts tonight (June 8) with a 1945 film ‘Mildred Pierce’ starring Hollywood icon Joan Crawford; and a new short film shot on 35mm, ‘A Dog called Discord’; and ends with an another already sold-out screening of Steven Spielberg’s legendary, ‘Jaws’ (1975) on Sunday.

The festival is also screening ‘And Quiet Rolls the Dawn’ by the late and great Indian director Mrinal Sen. It is a 1979 film about a Calcutta (Kolkata) family struggling to cope with the pressures of modernity.

Sarah Erulkar (BFI)

There is also a documentary, ‘Sarah Erulkar: A woman in demand’. She was a pioneering documentary-maker of Indian and Jewish heritage and enjoyed a 40-year career which also saw her win a Bafta. Curator Ros Cranston discusses her life and work. There are two separate sessions on her – one marking her centenary and another looking at her legacy (see listing details below).

Dragon’s Food’ obviously has deep resonances with present day political issues concerning immigration, asylum and refugees. Schütte was originally a TV news reporter and first made a documentary on the subject of refugees, before making ‘Dragon’s Food’. He has a long career of filmmaking and went to the US, and became director of the influential, American Film Institute for a time and is understood to divide his time between Berlin and LA now. Strittmatter passed away in 1995, aged 34 and has several features after ‘Dragon’s Food’ to his name. Uzzaman also passed away some years ago, in Pakistan.

Tickets were available for individually listed items below at the time of publication

BFI Film on Film – BFI Southbank, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XT.

Dragon’s Food (NFT2): Sunday (June 11) 3.30pm. – see here

And Quiet Rolls the Dawn (NFT2): Saturday (June 10) 12.05pm – here

Sarah Erulkar Centenary – (NFT3) Sunday (June 11) 12.30pm – here

Sarah Erulkar: A Woman in Demand (Studio) Sunday (June 11) 2.20pm – here

BFI Film on Film June 8-11 full programme: here

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture