StarCity which opened just outside Birmingham last week, is Britain's biggest cinema complex. It expects 4000 visitors a day, and has 30 screens showing both Hollywood and Bollywood movies. Is this multicultural Britain rendered in concrete and celluloid? Garry Younge went to find out.
On screen three in StarCity, a bride-to-be breaks into song. With a wiggle of her hips, replicated by the 30 or so dancers behind her, she sways with just a hint of sensuality, leaving the gushing water fountains that surround her to do the rest. On screen 13, a transsexual is finding love, identity and homophobia in the American midwest with the help of vicious beatings and a gruesome inspection of her genitalia. On screen 19, John Cusack is having trouble with commitment and mulling over the direction his life is taking to a breezy soundtrack spanning three decades of pop.
In this 30-screen multiplex cinema on the outskirts of Birmingham globalised culture has been carved into celluloid slots and sold with popcorn. Bichoo, Boys Don't Cry and High Fidelity are just a few of the films showing within a few hundred metres of each other, but those who are watching exist alongside each other as in a parallel universe. This is where Hollywood meets Bollywood (to which six screens have been dedicated) and where different ethnicities congregate but rarely coalesce - a segregated experience within an integrated space.
Star City announces itself with a swirl of neon and a 30ft model of Batman, standing tall against a backdrop of the brownfield suburban desolation just off the A47. Its opening last week was as surreal as its appearance. Far away from the red carpets of Leicester Square, accompanied by the roar of traffic on the nearby Spaghetti Junction and the shrieks of adoring women, George Clooney arrived for the premiere of The Perfect Storm. Geographically, Star City may be only a few miles from Birmingham, but economically and culturally it occupies a territory all its own. It is the largest multiplex in Britain, an enormous commercial monument to the disparate, competing and, at times, contradictory forces that are shaping British culture.
From abroad comes the inexorable drift towards Americana; from home come the commercial and cultural influences of our own multi-ethnicity. The American influence goes way beyond Clooney and Gotham City's favourite son to the site itself, which already houses several restaurants, bars and a megabowl and, when completed, will include a huge gym as well. By that stage it will not be a multiplex but a leisure park. An opportunity to spend at every turn. "You don't think it's going to be too expensive when you set out," says Gavin Palmer, who came to see Chicken Run with his two boys. "But by the time you've' bought the popcorn and cokes before you go in, had a go on the computer games when you come out and then had a Burger King it soon adds up. They love it so it's great, but it's more like going to the funfair than going to the cinema really."
This is not just a huge indoor shopping centre but a signifier of an all-embracing philosophy with its roots in the US, whereby retail provides the starting point for much of human interaction. "If the shopping centre becomes a place that not only provides suburbanites with their physical living requirements, but simultaneously serves their civic, cultural and social community needs, said Victor Gruen, the man who built the first mall in Minnesota in 1956, "it will make a most significant contribution to the enrichment of our lives."
This puts going to the cinema on a par with going to a football match or a demonstration. It is a mass, anonymous experience. Projections for Star City's Warner Village cinema are that it should attract 1.5m visitors per year - more than 4,000 a day.
While malls are nowhere near as prevalent here as they are in the US, they will none the less soon dominate our consumer culture. It is only 24 years since Britain got its first air conditioned mall in Brent Cross, north London. Today the top three retail sites in Britain, judged by turnover and profitability per square foot, are all malls - the MetroCentre in Gateshead, Meadowhall, near Sheffield, and Merry Hill in the West Midlands. Oxford Street came 11th and Princes Street in Edinburgh 12th. And while public transport is available Star City is built for the car, as is the case in most of the US.
The building was designed by US architect Jon Jerde a man with a portfolio that reads like a roll call of the world's more flamboyant malls, including the Universal City Walk in Los Angeles, Canal City Hakarta in Japan and the Fremont experience in Las Vegas. The huge counters selling ice creams and popcorn bear the names not of British or Indian stars but Americans - Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood. The huge murals inside the foyer were hand-painted in California and then shipped to Britain.
The Asian influence is far more subtle. For several years now Bollywood films have attracted a huge following in Britain. We are now the biggest export market for Bollywood. There are cinemas dedicated to Bollywood films all over the country from Glasgow to Southall. Over the last two years four Indian films - Dil Se, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Biwi Number One and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam - have broken box-office records and entered the UK top 20 on release. Last month the Indian equivalent of the Oscars was held in the Dome, hosted by the Indian Miss World, Yukta Mookhey. The most popular foreign location for filming Bollywood films outside India is Scotland.
Central to their attraction is that with no sex, only cartoonish violence, simple plots and plenty of dancing they span generations. No ethical quandaries here. Good always triumphs over evil, love always conquers all. "When a Bollywood film is on it becomes a real family outing," says Andy Stone, the manager of the Warner Village cinema "Mum, dad, grandma, the kids - they all come along. - films have very traditional values which make for proper family entertainment."
There are few areas where this would be a bigger hit than Birmingham, where Asians comprise 14% of the population. With StarCity hoping to provide a day out for people from Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Wolverhampton, which also have large Asian populations, there is plenty of scope to expand. "I'm amazed it took them so long," says Manjit Singh, visiting StarCity with his wife, mother and three children. There's so much money in Indian films and none of the big names were really talking advantage of it. We used to go sometimes to one of the cinemas in town or watch videos at home. But this seems much better. There's more for everyone to do. More of an atmosphere."
Bollywood has started to respond to its British audience in kind. While the films at Star City are in Hindi, subtitles are becoming more widespread; films, well known for being epic in length, are getting shorter; and many of the actors and storylines are becoming more western in their orientation.
But it is the area's industrial history rather than its ethnic diversity, that convinced Jerde that this small patch of the depressed Midlands was an ideal venue for his latest creation. "Birmingham's rich tradition as the birthplace of the industrial revolution has shaped Star City - a new generation of urban entertainment. Nearby masonry and steel warehouse buildings and transportation canals have been an inspiration for the design of the project."
None of this is obvious to the naked eye, but even Jerde's aspiration tells a tale. Built on the site of a former power station, Star City stands as a marker of the shifts that are taking place in the British economy; a thriving service industry is taking the place of ailing heavy industry. A culture of consumption is taking over from a tradition of production.
In truth, were it not for the accents, you would have little idea that you were anywhere near Birmingham. The mall is embossed with a collection of national and global imprints. Burger King, Warner Bros, Baskin Robbins, New Orleans, Nando's, MVC, Megabowl, Books etc and a New Orleans Restaurant. These are brands you can see everywhere, which gives you the sense that you could be anywhere. You are essentially divorced from any definite sense of place. Consumption has not only replaced production; it has trumped location. The consumers. may be diverse, but the outlets are standardised.
Back in the mall the parallel universes remain equidistant and shows few signs of converging. None of the white people that the Guardian spoke to there were aware that the multiplex even showed Bollywood films. That is not surprising. For, while the Warner Brothers may have discovered a niche market in Bollywood that has drawn more Asians to Star City, there seems scant evidence that anyone else has spotted a business opportunity in directing their trade specifically towards the large number of Asians that come here. Of the several posters advertising films in the entrance of the multiplex, none is for Bollywood movies. There is not even an Indian restaurant, let alone an ambala sweet store or a sari shop.
It shows how much more there is to integration than geography. Like Birmingham itself _ there are a lot of people of different ethnicities - Asian, Afro-Caribbean, and white British - milling around. They knock down skittles in adjacent lanes at the megabowl, eat at adjoining tables in Burger King and stand one behind the other in the queues for tickets, hotdogs and ice cream. But with the exception of the odd mixed-race couple or mixed group of teens, there is very little interaction between them. There are no non-Asian people watching the Bollywood films - not surprising, given that they are in Hindi - and only a handful of Asians going to watch Hollywood films. What interaction there is is between whites and Asians or whites and Afro-Caribbeans, but very rarely between Afro-Caribbeans and Asians. Old women in saris walk past young women in short skirts as though invisible to each other. Divided by ethnicity; united by consumption.
Last updated: 27/07/00