It was electrifying to watch Rami Malek perform as Freddie Mercury in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, showing us a man grappling with soul-searing despair and alienation even while the world was feting him for his extraordinary musical prowess. Yet, the movie was deeply frustrating for avoiding Mercury’s back-story; his evolution from boy Farrokh to man Freddie.
Mercury arrived on the public stage as a nimble-fingered pianist with four more incisors in his mouth, which gave him, “more space in my mouth, more range.” But where did he come from? How did he arrive with the skills and presence that he possessed?
Hollywood has still not arrived at a palatable version of brown portrayal. Too often there is a tendency to gloss over cultural and ethnic syllabary. Bohemian Rhapsody perpetuates that reductionism.
The movie disassembles Freddie Mercury’s heritage in one quick scene. Farrokh Bulsara was born in Zanzibar, spent most of his childhood in India, and all of his adulthood in England. Oh, and he is of Persian ancestry.
Perhaps the fact that the world knows so little about Freddie Mercury before Freddie Mercury is deliberate. Few interviews dove into his ethnicity and even when the interview did, Mercury’s response was curiously affected, “I’ll always walk around as a Persian popinjay.” (3:14-3:19 in video clip)
This reference to his Persian ancestry is one way that the singer so skillfully re-engineered his identity. Connections to Persia — the origin of his religious affiliation — are often invoked, misleadingly.
Between the 8th and 10th centuries, Persians who followed the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra) escaped from religious persecution in Persia to find safe haven in the western side of India — in Gujarat, Mumbai and Diu. Over the next hundreds of years, the Parsis set down roots in India. Bomi and Jer Bulsara, Mercury’s parents, belonged to the Parsi community of India practicing the Zoroastrian faith.
The surname Bulsara has its origins in the township of Bulsar in Gujarat.
Bohemian Rhapsody alludes to Mercury being Persian, as does a documentary produced by the Biography channel, calling Mercury: “Persian by ancestry and Indian by nationality.” Even Mercury’s relatives play the game. Roger Cooke, Mercury’s brother-in-law is quoted in The Guardian as saying, “He was accused of denying his Indian heritage. I don’t think he ever did, but if he did, it would have been because he was Persian.”
How does that work out? An ancestry defined by a 1,000-year-old migration?
“Did you know that Freddie was born in Zanzibar?” Mercury’s mother, Jer Bulsara, asks his bandmates in the movie. At the brief, uncomfortable pause, Mercury’s sister coquettishly delivers the witticism that Freddie was “born in London—at the age of eighteen.”
That remark has more truth than wit, though, telling viewers that Freddie Mercury’s heritage—beyond being British—is irrelevant and incidental.
Even before his metamorphosis to Queen’s front man, Mercury may have been constructing his English identity carefully and precisely. Certainly, British clout infused the cultural settings he found himself in throughout his life.
Zanzibar, where Farrokh was born, was a British protectorate. Bomi Bulsara worked as a cashier at the British colonial office in Zanzibar. At that time Indians were considered British subjects and as such occupied a privileged place in the social firmament.
When he was seven years old, Farrokh was sent to St. Peter’s Boy’s School in Panchgani, Maharashtra, a missionary school established by the British in 1902, funded by a donation made by Miss Mary Ashlin to the Colonial and Continental Church Society in London, which invested the money in the school “with the duty of forming and instructing the natives,” as written in The Scottish Church and Missions to the Heathen.
At an early age, Farrokh was introduced to the idea of British patronage. Some reports claim he came to be called Freddie while at the school. It was at St. Peter’s that he read literature, learned to play the piano, tuned his ear to western classical composers like Chopin, Mozart and Debussy, and became part of a musical band.
The countries that Freddie Mercury lived in outside of Britain shaped his allegiance to Britain. He understood the class structures of English society, and the privilege vested in Tom, Dick or Freddie.
In the movie, the picture of Queen Elizabeth II hanging on the wall of the Bulsara home suggests the household’s reverence for the royal structure in England, inculcated most likely as subjects of Britain in her colonial territories. The band name Queen, a clever pun, was also a reminder of that obsession. In an interview, Mercury remarks that the name “seemed outrageous at the time.”
It’s clear that his Indian ethnic erasure was carefully planned and executed, perhaps that’s why the movie had such a hard time with it.
One reference to Freddie Mercury’s Indian heritage is wrapped up in being catcalled “Paki,” a racial slur. And his parents and sister are mere caricatures in the high drama of Mercury’s multi-dimensional swagger.
For Mercury, music was his currency. He methodically stripped all the other details from his persona.
In a scene heavy with purport, while Freddie’s mother is showing his bandmates pictures of his youth, Freddie sings himself a birthday ballad, while staring meaningfully at the mirror.
For many of us, identity is about where we live or lived, who we love, and who came before us. But for Mercury, it was about what he wanted the looking glass to see in him. Mercury crafted his own reflection, allowing only those parts that he summoned up. And the mirror showed us a legend.
Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.