Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji is as tangy today as yesterday

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14apr_gurinderinterview-01“The film was screened at Angelika [Film Center], or was it Lincoln Center? I don’t quite remember now,” quipped Gurinder Chadha while recalling her visit to New York from twenty years ago for the screening of her debut film, Bhaji on the Beach.

The British filmmaker is at Village East Cinema in downtown Manhattan, where the New York Indian Film Festival is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of her iconic film. “I hadn’t expected the response it got then. Janet Maslin from The New York Times reviewed it, though I didn’t understand that it was a big deal!” she said. Later, when the Los Angeles Times carried a full-page review of the film, Chadha gauged its popularity across cities in the United States.

Bhaji on the Beach is a day in the lives of three generations of British Indian women who travel together from their home in Birmingham to Blackpool, for the sun and the beach. Led by community worker Simi (portrayed by Shaheen Khan) of the Saheli Asian women group, the day out is an opportunity to break away from the racist and sexist bondages, and “have a female fun time.” The women don’t have much in common, moreover the generation gap among some of them is intensified in their traditional or modern approach towards subjects like marriage, motherhood, family. But as the day progresses, they collectively yet in their unique ways encounter issues of racial discrimination, domestic violence, women rights, family expectations, and so on. They adapt. They learn. They regress. They progress.

“When I was making Bhaji on the Beach, I didn’t think I would make another feature film. So I thought it was my chance to explore all the possible themes I wanted to tell,” she said with a laugh. And she does that well. In a small scene, an octogenarian Pushpa (played by Zohra Sehgal) returns from the seaside and quickly checks her belongings, especially her wallet. Next to her spot, a group of black men have arrived. Belonging to a conservative generation, her first reaction is to suspect the men of theft. In the very next scene as other women join her, Pushpa finds out that one of the teenagers on the trip, Hashida (Sarita Khajuria), is pregnant, and the father of the child is black. She is shocked and angry at Hashida for humiliating her family. In contrast to her rage is the reaction of Simi, a more forward-thinking person, and the other teenage girls who support Hashida’s relationship. Moreover, Hashida and her boyfriend’s engagement is serious, and not just a trifle.

14may_BhajiOnTheBeachArriving on the British realism cinema scene of the nineties, Bhaji on the Beach captured the Asian diaspora unseen on celluloid before. Chadha’s approach was original and refreshing. As the present society continues to deal with these prevalent issues, the film seems as relevant and significant as twenty years ago. Bhaji, which literally means a mishmash of potatoes and other veggies, garnished with a dash of lemon and different spices, is then in essence the complex and diverse society we inhabit.

Prior to directing her first feature film, the Kenya-born filmmaker Chadha worked as a news reporter for BBC radio. In the late eighties, she started by making documentaries, and in 1990, she established her own production company, Umbi Films. She stood tall and undeterred as the first and only British Asian woman filmmaker. And till today, she remains the only one. “My only regret is there are not many Asian women in films. When I come back to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the film, I want to see more of them,” she said.

In 2003, her film on a British Indian woman footballer, Bend it Like Beckham, made Asian cinema mainstream by winning worldwide acclaim. Chadha is currently working on a musical based on her film. Although Bend it Like Beckham is not on the New York Indian Film Festival schedule, Chadha’s award-winning documentaries, including the television documentary I’m British But…on the Bhangra music scene in Britain, and Shabana Azmi-starrer It’s a Wonderful Afterlife will be screened.

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