Mahmood Jamal obituary

Pioneering producer of films and programmes set in British-Asian communities, and published poet

Mahmood Jamal, who has died aged 72, was one of the pioneers of multicultural television in Britain. As a producer of films and documentaries Mahmood sought to bring talent and material from minority-ethnic communities to the screen.

The launch of Channel 4 in 1982, and its remit to feature programmes and concerns that the BBC and ITV had not, led Mahmood and his brother, Ahmed Jamal, to form the all-Asian Retake Film and Video Collective, the first of its kind in the UK.

Two years later, while continuing to work with Retake, Mahmood formed his own production company, Epicflo, and began to make films set in, and of interest to, British-Asian communities.

Among these was The Peacock Screen (1991), a four-part history of Indian cinema, Turning World (1996), a drama series set in a psychiatric hospital starring Art Malik and Roshan Seth, which Mahmood also wrote, and Quarrels (1996), a documentary series that featured and mediated disputes between different groups of people in Britain.

One programme centred on the relatively new Muslim community of Highfields, Leicester, whose representatives objected to the sex workers who had traditionally worked those streets for decades, if not centuries. Another mediated between the residents of a village in south-east England who objected to the hundreds of Hindu worshippers arriving each weekend to attend ceremonies at Bhaktivedanta Manor, a temple newly endowed by the former Beatle George Harrison.

As the commissioning editor at Channel 4 for these series, I had to fend off criticism that some of these programmes, through their exposure of some possibly repressive traditions, inflamed racism against Asians.

However Mahmood believed that an honest, truthful approach was the most acute weapon against race prejudice, and could only contribute to the assimilation of the new communities of Britain.

Characters from Family Pride, the only Asian soap to be made for British television, 1991-92, which was co-written by Mahmood Jamal.
Characters from Family Pride, the only Asian soap to be made for British television, 1991-92, which was co-written by Mahmood Jamal. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

In the early 1990s Mahmood’s Epicflo also brought a series of concerts by international qawwali singers, such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen and Aziz Mian, to British television for the first time. When I approached the Channel 4 scheduler for time-slots for these performances, I was asked when and for what duration I wanted them. I said a start of 11pm through to 2am, as is traditional for such concerts in the Indian subcontinent. I was told by a bewildered boss that that would entail extending the channel’s broadcasting hours. Still, in the interests of authenticity, it was done.

Another snag occurred prior to the performances, when Mahmood spent hours at the airport rescuing the accompanying choric singers from British immigration. Some of them, much to the astonishment of the director of programmes at the time, Liz Forgan, were, as medically certified heroin addicts, carrying their prescribed supply. They were eventually admitted into the country and the live performances were nevertheless a landmark in the channel’s history.

Mahmood was also a published poet and the co-writer (with Barry Simmer) of the only Asian soap opera to be made for British TV, Family Pride (1991-92, Central Television). Though his import of certified addicts had been unwitting, Mahmood did have a mischievous sense of humour: the European names of several characters in Family Pride doubled as salacious Urdu puns; while the channel received a few protests, Mahmood played innocent.

Mahmood Jamal on the set of Rahm, 2017, a Pakistani adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure directed by his brother Ahmed Jamal, with Faris Khalid playing Gulzar
Mahmood Jamal on the set of Rahm, 2017, a Pakistani adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure directed by his brother Ahmed Jamal, with Faris Khalid playing Gulzar Photograph: HANDOUT

Born in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, into a leading Muslim family who lived in the monumental Firangi Mahal, Mahmood was the son of Jamal Miah, an Islamic scholar, and his wife, Asar Fatima. He attended St Mary’s school in the city, then, after his family moved to Dhaka in what was then East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), St Joseph’s high school.

He came to Britain in 1967 to study chartered accountancy as an articled clerk in the London firm Prince Simon and Co, but his creative and political inclinations led him to enrol in London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), from which he graduated in 1982 in South Asian studies.

He taught accountancy at Lansdowne College in Notting Hill Gate, but from his undergraduate days Mahmood wrote poetry and had his work widely published in, among other periodicals, the London Magazine. He was invited to read his verses on BBC radio and in 1984 published his first collection of poems, entitled Silence Inside a Gun’s Mouth. He had a dozen collections published in total, including Sugar-Coated Pill (2007) and The Dream and Other Poems (2020), and was widely anthologised.

One of the prominent poetry platforms he joined was Apples and Snakes, which features the voices of scores of poets from the minority-ethnic communities of Britain. This poetry collective has brought the benefit of new oral traditions, dialects, and poetic forms to contemporary English poetry.

Mahmood also produced several volumes of translations from Urdu into English, including the Penguin Book of Modern Urdu Poetry (1986) and Islamic Mystical Poetry (2009).

Mahmood’s latest film, Rahm (2017), a Pakistani adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure directed by Ahmed, won the annual award of the Tongues of Fire British-Indian film festival in 2018.

He is survived by six siblings, Bari Mian, Ahmed, Moin, Farida, Amina and Humaira.

Mahmood Jamal, writer, poet and producer, born 11 March 1948; died 23 December 2020


Farrukh Dhondy

The GuardianTramp

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