By this time last week, the riots were beginning to lose their "wow" factor. That might seem like an insensitive thing to say, but at that stage we didn't know three men from Birmingham were going to lose their lives while defending their communities from looters. Generally speaking, the TV footage of young people in sportswear hurling petrol bombs at police was starting to get depressingly familiar. One thing Birmingham had that no other city did, though, was Upinder Randhawa, a reporter for Sikh satellite and internet broadcast channel Sangat TV.
When the rioting started to envelop his hometown, Upinder didn't cower behind a twitching curtain. He stuck a camera on the dashboard of his car and took us all out for a riot-ride-along; weaving his way through the unrest, pausing occasionally to help police officers collar young crims and to point his camera at vigilante communities eager to pole-thwack any young hoodlum on the ransack. Sangat and Upinder had tens of thousands of new fans overnight, to add to their pre-existing audience of people who like to watch carpet shop openings and faithful but unspectacular re-readings of the Guru Granth Sahib. We got in touch with Upinder to see how fame's been treating him, and if he's spent the last week suffering from the same post-riot withdrawal symptoms we have.
VICE: Hey Upinder, how's it going?
Upinder Randhawa: Great, thank you. I just got back to Birmingham from London. I was on Channel 4’s Debate Show last night.
Sounds sweet, how did it go?
I think it was good. Everybody seemed happy with me.
So things are picking up for you and Sangat TV…
Yeah, I've done some stuff for Sky News and ITV; the BBC and CNN took our footage too. It’s been really tiring, but in a good way. Also, it gave me a chance to help people.
That's a nice thing to say, but as much as the riots were a nightmare for a lot of people, they made journalists' jobs pretty exciting for a few days, right?
I wouldn’t say it’s a 'job', as such. In my opinion, they give us a chance to help society. In order to become a journalist, in order to become involved with this field, one must have an empathetic nature, where you can feel the people’s pain. So that – when the times are hard – you can be their voice.
Is that why you went out onto the streets on Tuesday night?
Well, I wanted to go out on Monday when there was a little unrest, but everything was closed and it got really frustrating trying to get around. Tuesday was much worse, and actually harder to cover because there was trouble everywhere. I mean, I’d get messages from all over the city saying, “come to this area", "come to that area”. But I am a Sikh, and my religion teaches one simple thing: to be a human being, to help humanity. And that’s basically why I decided to go out there. I needed to show people what was going on, which areas were safe and which were not. So, I called up our studio manager, Nirmal Singh, and my mate Juggy Singh, who is the cameraman, and George, who stayed at the studio editing, and we went for it.
Was there a small part of you saying “this is my chance” on the night? You seemed like you were in the zone. Journalists are fairly ambitious people, career-wise.
I think journalists are the most ambitious people you could ever meet. Now that the riots have stopped I want to do more – I want to go to other countries, work with other channels – but I didn’t think about it once on the night. I didn’t have time, really. You see shops burning, people running around, you get so caught up in the whole thing you forget about everything else. I even forgot to go home that day. I also took this vow that I wouldn’t have a drop of water until the riots stopped. So, I didn’t have water for three days.
Watch live video from Sangat Television on www.justin.tv Are you serious? How did your body respond? I don’t even want to know about the colour of your pee…
Yes. I knew I was on the right path, and my God knew I was on the right path, so I knew he’d put an end to it. I also do a lot of medication, which helped control my body and its needs. I did have a fizzy drink though, and it made me more dehydrated. But yeah, my pee was very normal, thank you for asking.
You’re welcome. There’s always a little bit of comedy in tragedy. What was the funniest part of Tuesday night?
It really depends on how you see it. I always try to look at the funny side of things, too. For example, at one point I came face to face with a looter. He had his face covered and was holding a stone, and he said to me, “If you don’t switch your camera off, this stone’s meeting your face.” And I turned to him and said, “Look dude, we live in the same country. Why do you even need to do that? Instead of throwing the stone at me, why don’t you give me a hug. And we can go for a drink, and talk this whole thing through.” And he was like, “Do you think that’s funny?” And I said, “What I find funny is that you are covering your face, hiding your identity, and yet here you are, talking about how you’re facing the whole world. So, if that is going to make you feel like a better man, then do it. But I am not moving.” And he just dropped the stone and walked away. I think he’d heard too much.
That’s not that funny, but anyway. What was the overall feeling you got from the Birmingham riots? What would you say was the reason behind them?
It’s the lack of opportunities. Nobody cares about these young people. Out of all these thugs there must be about 10-15% who are actually really angry with the government. The rest just got involved because it was fun. They have no motive, they don’t want to find a job, or go to college…
So, they’re angry young men, rebels without a cause?
They’re not just men, there were many girls as well. And I would never call them rebels, but they certainly do not have a cause. They’re trying to be something they are not. They watch these films, like the Godfather, and they think this is a cool way of life. This thing with the Godfather, it really pisses me off. It’s a crap film, for God’s sake, it’s about the lives of gangsters. Don’t watch the Godfather, watch Pretty Woman instead! It’s a much better film.
But Pretty Woman is about a rich guy falling in love with a prostitute. Are you sure this is the right message to send young women today?
It is, because the message is love. The message is that you can’t judge somebody by their past. Julia Roberts found someone to stand up for her, that’s all she needed. There are always two sides to each story.
OK. It’s Independence Day for India and Pakistan today, right? How are you going to celebrate it?
Yes, that’s right, today we celebrate getting rid of the English rule. So, my family and I, we are travelling to Watford where my sant, Baba Kashmira Singh Ji, will be giving a speech. I’m really excited about it, he’s a very inspiring individual. Also, there’ll be food, chanting and loads of friends to talk to.
Sounds awesome! Have fun, Upinder!
INTERVIEW BY ELEKTRA KOTSONI