‘E stands for Empire. Why would I want an award that says that?’
Halal Daddy star Art Malik’s views about what is proper in cinema’s engagement with race have changed over the years
Art Malik: ‘While we can still banter, I can take hope.’ Photograph: Stuart C Wilson/Getty Images for BFI
Art Malik became a British institution more or less overnight. In 1984, Granada TV followed up their success with Brideshead Revisited by tackling Paul Scott’s monumental Raj Trilogy. The Jewel in the Crown made stars of Charles Dance, Geraldine James and Tim Pigott Smith. It also introduced Art Malik to the world.
“Oh, it changed everything,” he laughs. “I was in India shooting A Passage to India when it came out. Peggy Ashcroft and I watched it on set. It was about then that Alec Guinness turned up. There I was, an unknown actor surrounded by names you could drop in the Sahara Desert and people would know who you were talking about.”
Malik’s performance as young Hari Kumar established him as one of the most unavoidable British Asian actors of his time. He appeared in David Lean’s A Passage to India, James Cameron’s True Lies and the Bond film The Living Daylights. We blinked and he became an elder statesman. Now 64, he spends his Sunday afternoons minding his grandchild in Devon.
“We’ve been here 30 years. We don’t need to supply the family with a large house,” he says wistfully. “My wife is from Plymouth. And it’s somewhere I’ve known since we met at drama school. I came here first years ago to do some surfing. But I spent more time drinking I think. Ha ha!”
Art now brings a distinguished presence to Conor McDermottroe’s upcoming Irish film Halal Daddy. Malik plays an Asian businessman who employs his son to run a Halal abattoir in Sligo. There is a lot here about the changing nature of society. There is also much uncomplicated fun. Malik sees the story as a way of arguing for tolerance and an embrace of difference. He also feels a bit of a debt to the Irish.
“I grew up next to an Irishman in South London and if it wasn’t for Peter Fitzsimmons then I wouldn’t be here. He helped me lie to Equity about having a job. In those days, nobody wanted somebody like me. They’d put it very nicely. They’d say the part was ‘very Anglo-Saxon’. I’d say: ‘Yeah. I’ve got your meaning.’”
Malik was born in Pakistan as the son of an ophthalmic surgeon. He moved with his family to London when he was three and spent a happy childhood in that city. Malik remembers the usual generational disputes, but his dad was content when the young Art secured a place in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He had a difficult five years after graduation, but Jewel in the Crown proved a dramatic pivot.
Then there was A Passage to India. David Lean’s adaptation of EM Forster’s novel – the director’s last film – is a handsome, professional epic let down by the already unfashionable decision to have Alec Guinness “brown up” as Prof Godbole.
“I was a bit uncomfortable. I knew what David was trying to do,” Malik says. “His thing was: ‘let me just tell the f***ing story. I don’t give a s**t about who the actor is.’ He thought: ‘you’re an actor; just tell me who want to be.’ But that was a different time. Now we are into such naturalistic acting.”
Malik’s own views about what is proper in cinema’s engagement with race have changed over the years. In 1994, he played a grimly archetypal terrorist in James Cameron’s unpleasant thriller True Lies. At that stage, with the Cold War drifting into history, the average Hollywood villain was becoming increasingly Asian. That situation has improved little in the succeeding decades. I have read Malik say that he wouldn’t take such a part now.
“If that was a script that was sent to me now, I would say no,” he says. “I said no to one last year. There was some immortal line about ‘How many whites/Jews/Americans will this bomb kill?’ Why would I say that line? For this project? Nobody will come out of that saying: ‘The world’s a better place. I understand now.’ When I was at college, we’d turn on the television and see Northern Ireland. We’d learn nothing about your representatives. What’s the point? We need to learn.”
Malik seems driven by a very measured sort of passion. As beautifully spoken as you’d expect a Guildhall man to be, he can do five minutes on rising intolerance without taking a breath. He is happy about the swing towards Corbyn in the UK elections. He loves England, but he can’t shake off anger at the imperial legacy. Gentle, reasoned anger is never too far away.
“It would be a very simple decision if they were to offer me anything in the Queen’s birthday honours or the New Year’s Honours,” he says forestalling any queries about his lack of an OBE. “E stands for Empire. Why would I want an award that says that is what makes you fantastic. I know what that means. I grew up aware of 250 years of imperial rule. Why would I want that?”
The United Kingdom seems to be in an odd place. The recent terror attacks have caused some to fear a rise in distrust between the communities. Art sees a film like Halal Daddy as a benign response to those malign energies. There is never a bad time to say ‘let’s get along’.
“I’ve always wanted to do something that addressed that. Not least because I was involved with True Lies pre-9/11. There are now more people questioning all that. This is about all that.”
Maybe we can see the recent election as a collective move towards Art’s views. There seems, among the young at least, to be a surge against the old imperial values.
“The idea that somehow we should applaud inward thinking, the idea that we should applaud smallness is terrible,” he says. “And then the thing they hate the most is called ‘socialism’? Reads some books and then come back and talk to me. You sound like an idiot.”
He takes a breath and moves onto something else.
For all the stereotypes hanging around cinema and TV, Malik has, in recent years, managed to secure endless decent parts. He had a recurring role in Homeland and the revamp of Cold Feet. Later this year, we will see him in the latest BBC adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. He shot that series in Belfast.
“You do realise in Belfast that one day you’re being driven from somebody on one side of the wall and the next day by somebody on the other side. They recognise there’s a wall. But we can get on. Can’t we? We can banter?”
He sighs dramatically.
“That’s why I take hope. We can still banter.”
- Halal Daddy opens in cinemas on June 30th