Aussie with a Punjabi Heart




A true Punjabi at heart and a ‘fair dinkum’ Aussie in spirit, Manjit Singh Boparai is perhaps the best known taxi driver in all of Australia.

He is also an author, a poet, a song- writer, a singer ... and a Realtor. He recently launched the music video of his “Song Australia” nationwide, which included Australian track and field legend, Cathy Freeman as one of the performers!

If Boparai has his way, his song could become the new Australian anthem, reflecting the vast multicultural diversity of the nation and the unique patriotic spirit every Punjabi is endowed with.

Although this 49-year-old could pass off as Mr.Congeniality himself – always ready with a smile, genuine and unassuming, there’s definitely a lot more to Manjit. True to his Punjabi roots, he is a keen writer who has penned dozens of poems. He recently published an anthology of Punjabi songs called “Muthi bhar Swah” - "A Fistful of Ashes" - and wrote a research book, “Jyotish jhooth bolda hai” - "Fortune-tellers Lie" - in 1990.

At the same time, Manjit is unabashedly patriotic about his adopted country, Australia. Born and brought up in Ghudani Kalan (dist Ludhiana, Punjab), he migrated to Queensland in 1988 and has been driving a cab in Brisbane since 1997. “This country has given me a lot – it offers peace of mind, dignity of labour and a lifestyle that I could never dream of in India. Equally, immigrants have played a great role in this country and I’m doing my bit”, he says.

Manjit’s grandfather was in the British Indian Army and fought in the Singapore - Burma area during the Second World War. Two of his uncles later joined the Indian Army. So he always had great respect and admiration for military servicemen. It was only natural for him to start donating his time -- and his cab -- to drive war veterans in the annual Anzac Day Parade, an event comparable to the Fourth of July parades in the US or the Republic Day Parade in India.

While driving the veterans in the Anzac Day Parade of 2003, he realized that there were no patriotic songs in this country – nothing to stir up national fervour, nothing that pays homage to war heroes! Soon thereafter, he decided to write his first composition in English, which many Australians today will instantly recognise as ‘Song Australia’. “I distinctly remember the date June 7, 2003, when I had the flash of inspiration and wrote the whole song in one go”, recalls Manjit. “I was awake all night thinking about it and suddenly the words came together in the early hours of the morning”.

Thereafter, he showed the song to friends and to people who rode his taxi. “You can’t imagine the amount of encouragement everyone gave me. They encouraged me to sing it - and to record a CD. I had never ever sung in my life before but the response of the people made me think about it”, says Manjit.

And so, he recorded the song. With a typically Punjabi tune and the catchy chorus ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie, I’m a fair dinkum Aussie, we all are, fair dinkum Aussie’.

With that, the juggernaut began to roll and it was impossible to stop it, thanks to Manjit’s enthusiasm and determination. He played the song to anyone who sat in his cab and showed them the lyrics. “People just loved it”, says Manjit, “they simply loved it! Some people sang along, some wanted to buy a written copy of the song, and others wanted to buy the CD. I think hundreds of people asked for the CDs and they’d hand me $10 without my even asking for it”.

Manjit entered a competition run by a Brisbane radio station for originally composed music and came second. Soon other radio stations, TV channels and newspapers began to notice him and he became something of a celebrity. Manjit says proudly, ”I don’t thinks there’s any media outlet in Australia that hasn’t interviewed me – all newspapers, TV and radio channels have covered my story. I have worked hard and with honesty. I’ve got all this attention because of my ability and because I’ve earned it, mate”.

But Manjit didn’t stop there. He now wanted to make a music video and release it Australia-wide. Call it divine intervention or just plain luck, but last year, a young Iranian-Australian film-maker happened to take a ride in Manjit’s cab. This film-maker, Faramarz Rahbar, a Bahai refugee from Iran had already made some award-winning documentaries for mainstream Australian TV. Manjit persuaded him to shoot a music clip for “Song Australia”.

“I was so taken in by his enthusiasm”, recalls Rahbar. ”As a fellow migrant, I instantly identified with the lyrics. The message was so simple, even hilarious, yet so powerful. I was impressed by Manjit’s passion on the one hand and was completely swept away by the song on the other! I had never heard anything like it before”.

Rahbar agreed to make the video clip. “What struck me was that here was a guy who was financially well-off with his cab and his property business, but wanted to sing a song just because he believed in it – I was really touched”.

Boparai enlisted the help of the local primary school where his eight-year-old son studied. The school offered the use of its gym and around 200 children volunteered to dress in their traditional clothes for the video shoot. After the shoot, Rahbar recognised the potential of making a full-length documentary film on Manit and the result was that in June 2006, hundreds of thousands of Australians watched the documentary “Fair Dinkum Manjit” on national television.

“Manjit’s enthusiasm was so genuine and infectious”, says Rahbar, “that I got completely involved in the project. We approached as many celebrities as we could and many agreed to donate their time voluntarily, because even they were moved by Manjit’s message. Cathy Freeman became involved, many stars from the Australian soccer team agreed as well, even though the timing clashed with their World Cup training schedule.”

Finally the video clip was completed earlier this year (with nearly 300 volunteer performers) and the whole experience was shown as a documentary on SBS Television, Australia’s national multicultural broadcaster. The documentary film was both meaningful and entertaining and was an instant success with the Australian masses. By the end of June, Manjit Singh Boparai’s “Song Australia” was among the top ten ‘most downloaded music by radio stations across Australia’.

The wonderful thing is that the success of “Song Australia” has almost nothing to do with Manjit’s talent as a singer. With no previous experience as a performer, probably even he realizes that he isn’t one of the world’s best singers. But what he lacks in musical prowess is more than made up for by his passion, his enthusiasm and his originality.

Rahbar adds, “Manjit has such a personality, he gets people to laugh at him in order to laugh with him. It’s the element of entertainment in the documentary (and in Manjit’s personality) that helped us pass on his message of multiculturalism so easily”.

There is no doubt that Manjit’s intrinsic sense of humour and Punjabi congeniality greatly add to his charm. As he quips in the documentary, “An Aussie once called me ‘hey you curry-muncher’, and I immediately called him back ‘you holy-cow muncher’ and we both had a great laugh”. It’s the simplicity of his style and his ability to make light of a serious message that his song has been such a roaring success.

Probably the most popular cabbie in Australia today, Manjit is enjoying a celebrity status. “So many people greet me when I go out on the streets. I thank Australians for all the love they have given me. He adds,” I don’t care whether I’m a star or not. It’s such a privilege to be recognised like this”.

Has Manjit Singh Boparai achieved all that he wanted to? Far from it, if you ask him. “Song Australia is my second-best achievement. My crowning glory was my expose on fortune tellers, ‘Jyotish jhooth bolda hai’, which was a big success in India. As for the future, I want to give more time to my property development business, and I want to start an Indian restaurant somewhere here. I also want to campaign in India against superstition and want to promote women’s rights. But the major project I’m working on at the moment is ‘Harmony’. I’m writing a book with Ten NEW Commandments. They relate to family, social, environmental and innovational values that should apply to all modern-day human beings. Whether you’re a Christian or a Sikh or a non-believer, we all should share these common values. ”

Time will tell if his future ventures have the same phenomenal success that “Song Australia” has had, but Manjit’s heartfelt patriotism for his adopted country has truly paid off. His “Ode to the Diggers”, the song paying homage to war veterans might not top the musical charts ever, but it has shown that in a country like Australia anyone with a vision, a good sense of humour and a measure of goodwill will be embraced with open arms. Although deep in his heart he is a true Punjabi who hopes that from Vancouver to Auckland, “hovey Punjabian di sarkar” - "May the Punjabis Rule Forever!" - Manjit has a genuine fondness for the country that has accepted him as its own.

He is, after all, a fair dinkum Aussie.

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