Gurinder Chada has hit a nerve within her own community with Bhaji On The'Beach, a comedy drama where vegetable pakoras meet sticks of Blackpool rock. Alan Morrison talks to the first British Asian women to direct a feature ﬁlm.
It's a quintessential image of Englishness: rows of wrappedup pensioners sitting on white plastic seats with their elbows flapping to ‘The Birdie Song'. Blackpool — if it didn‘t exist. they'd have to invent it. The smell of ﬁsh ’n’ chips in the seaside air. the tacky ﬂash of the amusement arcades. kid’s mouths pink with the dye from that good old traditional stick of rock. Forever England. and yet living in a world of its own; the perfect place fora day-trip and release from the cares and woes of daily drudgery.
The Lancashire resort is the destination for a bus— load of Asian women from Birmingham in Bhaji On The Beach. the feature debut of 33-year-old director Gurinder Chadha. It's a trip which becomes. well, illuminating for the members of the Saheli Asian Women‘s Centre. as a day in the sun provides an opportunity for them to discover their own individuality while temporarily freeing them from an overly patriarchal society. Teenagers Madhu and Ladhu are on the hunt for boys; Ginder has just walked out on her abusive husband (who soon makes an unwelcome appearance); Hashida has just discovered that she's pregnant by her West Indian boyfriend; middle-aged Asha discovers unexpected romance with a gentlernanly actor; and Pushpa. the eldest of the party. despairs at the behaviour of the younger generations. until she has her own encounter with a Chippendale-like group of male strippers.
Even better than last year’s Wild West (written by Harwant Bains who. coincidently. once lived literally down the road from Chadha in London‘s Southall). Bhaji ()n The Beach makes the most of its culture- clash comedy. but never at the expense of the more serious issues it raises. Though it has been criticised by some older members of the Asian community. the ﬁlm avoids favouring one generation‘s beliefs against another‘s. and shows respect and understanding for all. Meera Syal‘s script is fresh and free of cliches. while Chadha's direction allows for some great ensemble playing from the cast.
‘What I was trying to do with the ﬁlm was challenge whatever the audience was expecting in every shape or form.’ says Chadha. ‘Every area was subject to subverting the prevailing image. whether it was ideas about a community, a generation. or whatever. I tried to create characters who are as complex as we are as human beings. I took the very obvious concepts of the shopkeeper. the medical student. the community worker, that sort ofthing.
e "I - a o
and subverted them by giving you a whole life
beyond what you've come to expect. In fact. I started out making ﬁlms in order to challenge the way people like me were being represented in the media. I decided that somehow I had to get control of this
. very powerful means of communication to create alternative images and alternative stories which were based much more on reality.‘
‘The ﬁlm shows that we continually have this duality, whether you want to look at it in terms of modernism or traditionalism, old or young, eastern or western, Indian or British.’
Chadha grasped that control just over three years ago by forming her own independent production company. Umbi Films. which — in addition to the feature Bhaji — has produced three television documentaries and is currently developing a fourth for Channel 4. Before then. she studied Development Economics and Politics at the University of East Anglia. worked as a radio reporter in Birmingham for the BBC. spent time as a researcher on various Channel 4 programmes including The Media Shaw. and presented Sunday 15am. Her ﬁlmmaking break- through came with the award-winning short I'm British. Bur . . . which was made as part of the BFI‘s New Director‘s scheme in 1989. By concentrating on four young Asians whose strong Scottish. English. Northern Irish and Welsh accents were at odds with their traditionally accepted screen image. this ﬁlm foreshadowed Bhaji‘s principle concerns of subverting expectations and deﬁning the nature of daily life for British Asians.
‘Bhaji is very much about trying to ﬁnd a new version of Britishness. and at the same time lndianness. and then a combination ofthe two.‘ says Chadha. expanding on this theme. ‘As people living in Britain. we often veer between different cultures.
Bhaii On The Beach: ‘makes the most of its culture-clash conedy’
which is something we’re easily adaptable to. It‘s not a problem now. but when I was growing up. most people did see it as a problem. The ﬁlm shows that
we continually have this duality, whether you want to look at it in terms of modernism or traditionalisrn. old or young. eastern or western. Indian or British — everything has a dualism and that‘s what ends up motivating the ﬁlm. It's also played out in the style ofthe ﬁlm too. between the British style of narrative
and the Indian fantasy interludes.‘
By approaching the trials of everyday life from this
' two-pronged direction. the ﬁlm shrugs off the ‘Asian' pigeon-hole label that some would place upon it. The sense of a male-dominated community is certainly heightened in this particular context. but Chadha‘s portrayal of troubled marriages and problematic relationships touches more universal themes. Simi. the co-ordinator of the trip. may well bring a soap-box approach to her complaint that Asian women are doubly discriminated against in Britain. and she has a point. but the ﬁlm never belabours such issues or restricts its accessibility. Ultimately. the emphasis is on fun and forgiveness.
If the forementioned duality exists on ﬁlm. it splits three ways in Gurinder Chadha‘s own life. Born in Kenya. her family moved to Britain when she was two-years-old. ‘Kenya was always a part that I'd had to cut out of my life.‘ she explains. ‘because [just couldn't cope with the divisions between the Asians and the Blacks and the Whites. But. having been back a couple of years ago. I‘ve realised it’s actually quite an important part of my make-up. Indians from East Africa have a completely different way of operating than Indians from India — there is much more of an African sensibility and much more of an African way of relating to people. I've realised there’s part of me there. even in terms of the food: whenever we have a barbeque. my mother always puts on yarns and sweet potatoes and things like that.‘
Bhaji On The Beach opens a! the Edinburgh Film/rouse on Friday 4 February and the Glasgow
Film Theatre on Friday 25 February.
sponsored by BACARDI BLACK
The List 28 January—l0 February I994 21