British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has withdrawn from a film biography of legendary rock star Freddie Mercury, reportedly over "creative differences" with the movie’s producers. It is unclear who could take over the role of the flamboyant lead singer of the wildly successful 1970s-80s supergroup Queen.
In any case, a film about Mercury's life might reveal to the wider world one of its most fascinating aspects – he was Indian. While debates may rage over the quality of Queen’s music, or whether they actually qualified as a “rock” band, there is no doubt about their huge global success and enduring popularity. And the one man most responsible for all that acclaim was Indian. Technically, Mercury was an Indian Parsee, that is, a descendant of Zoroastrians from Iran who fled persecution in their homeland after the Muslim conquest. Other famous Parsees include conductor Zubin Mehta and test cricketer Farouk Engineer.
The rise and fall of Mercury was one of the most incredible, inexplicable and improbable tales of modern music history. Freddie had a wildly exotic back story. He was born Farouk Bulsara in the British protectorate of Zanzibar in East Africa to Indian parents. He subsequently moved to Bombay (now Mumbai), India, where he was schooled, before emigrating to England in 1964 (right at the cusp of the British rock-pop cultural explosion). Mercury was reportedly ambivalent about his Indian-Parsee origins -- but that attitude must be examined in the context of the times.
In the 1960s (while the rock/hippie revolution was raging in Swinging London), millions of immigrants from the Commonwealth nations of India, Pakistan and Jamaica poured into Britain, creating enormous racial tensions in cities like London, Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester and many other areas, like Hounslow, the drab, dreary West London suburb where Freddie’s family settled.
Thus, being perceived as Indian or “foreign” was clearly a disadvantage. Luckily for Freddie, with his white skin and dark brown hair he was physically indistinguishable from any European (or indeed, any British) man. Still, Freddie was actually more “Indian” than he let on.
Like many British singers of the period, his singing voice and accent differed greatly from his normal speaking voice. Interviews of Freddie from the 1970s reveal that he spoke in an accent that sounded much more Bombay than either London or New York.
Freddie also has another secret – he was gay, which made him more alienated from his identity, at least during his youth. Of course, the very name of his group (Queen) was probably an obvious joke, and certainly his sexual orientation didn’t hurt his popularity and success at all. While he led a life of sordid excess (in stark defiance of the Zoroastrian motto of good thoughts, good words and good deeds) when Freddie died his funeral was conducted by a traditional Zoroastrian priest and he was cremated (apparently at his request).
There have been a few other Western rock musicians of Indian descent – including Kim Thayil of 1990s Seattle grunge band Soundgarden – but it is doubtful any of them will ever attain the stratospheric fame of one Farouk Bulsara.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.