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Gurinder Chadha

Sunday Herald (September 2004)

The year is 1984. Success as the director of the multi-million grossing ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ is almost two decades away for Gurinder Chadha, at this point a 23-year-old radio journalist. After a confused childhood, in which she rebelled against her Punjabi roots by refusing to sign up for dance lessons or watch Bollywood films, Chadha spent a year exploring her roots in India and read a dissertation on women in the media which inspired her to join the BBC. But instead of helping to “create better images of people like me”, she’s bogged down with “silly local stories”. It’s frustrating. And she’s taking out that frustration with the only man who could possibly understand: Bruce Springsteen.

“I love Bruce Springsteen,” hoots Chadha, sitting in a deserted Soho Theatre café, holding court in between sips of hot water flavoured with mint. “I love his songs, I love the man he is, I love his politics, I love the fact he’s the people’s poet. I was there at Wembley in 1984, standing on the seat, singing ‘tramps like us, baby we were born to run’. I’ve seen him six times live now. I think he’s a fantastic man with a great heart and a great vision and I’d love to work with him someday.”

It’s fitting that the woman best known for turning social and racial struggle into feelgood gold dust, and looks set to repeat the trick with her latest film, ‘Bride And Prejudice’, should connect with America’s working class hero. While at a distance movies like 1993’s ‘Bhaji On The Beach’ and ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ appear joyful and affectionate, close up they possess a sharp political sting. ‘Bhaji…’ tackled racism and domestic violence, while ‘…Beckham’ dealt with the conflict between second and third generation British Asians and the younger generation’s desire for a sense of self (plus the offside rule explained with pepper pots). It was this emotive core, believes Chadha, that helped a movie purportedly about soccer gross £32m in America.

“The football was a metaphor for trying to break out and do things differently,” nods Chadha. “But not wanting to be a rebel. Wanting to take your culture and the essence of who you are with you. The fact that ‘Beckham’ travelled so well internationally is testament to the fact that there are a lot of people in that position around the world. Who aren’t necessarily Indian but Mexican American or Chinese Australian.”

On paper, ‘Bride And Prejudice’ is a simple proposition. A Bollywood version of Jane Austin’s ‘Pride And Prejudice’ given a contemporary Western spin. The Bennet family of Longbourne become the Bakshis of Amritsar, while Darcy is the heir to an American hotel chair. You can almost hear the cash registers ker-chinging with delight at its gobal feelgood potential. But what interested Chadha were the parallels between Austin’s pointed drama and Bollywood’s often overlooked tradition for social commentary.

“I didn’t want to do ‘Bride’ at first because I felt that Bollywood had been hijacked by the west. It was being reduced to a very kitsch level, like anything Bollywood’s somehow loud and has kitsch value. But there were some great filmmakers in the sixties and seventies who had a lot of social commentary. A lot of it was about installing pride in this new nation that was fresh from independence and trying to find out who they were. And social injustice. All dressed up with songs and dance.”

Chadha started coming around to the idea when she considered who she’d be making the film for. “I realised that I wanted to aim it at people who don’t normally watch Hindi movies because they find them impenetrable. I didn’t want to do the Indian thing for India, I wanted to do the British Asian thing for the world. So in making my film, I’m launching Hindi films globally. I think it’s going to present a new vision of India to people. And introduce them to a new film language.”

These might appear bold claims, but ‘Beckham’ had a profound affect on the lives of some Asians living in America. Chadha remembers meeting a Sikh in Texas who’d been treated like an Arab terrorist before the film’s release but was accepted afterwards. “He kept saying, ‘this film has changed my life’.” Making Darcy an American for ‘Bride’, therefore, wasn’t just a commercial decision, but a political one.

“In the book, Darcy is from the nobility, he thinks he’s of the upper echelons of society, he’s here to rule. And I think a lot of Americans feel that America takes that place in the global economy. Bush is talking about getting rid of the UN and that America should be the UN of the world. Incredible stuff. Not that our Darcy is a Bush-ite, but I wanted to point to the fact that America plays this role and make the conflict between the first world and the third world.”

In one memorable speech, Lalita Bakshi (ie the headstrong Lizzy Bennet), played by Bollywood’s leading actress Aishwarya Rai, rightly described by Julia Roberts as the most beautiful woman in the world, reminds Darcy that independent India is still a very young nation. “The US after sixty years of independence was ‘fighting and killing each other over slavery and blindly searching for gold’, as she says. That is a bit of a wake up call in America, that line. Because they’re not used to thinking about America in that way.”

Challenging Bollywood traditions was key to Chadha as well. The opening sequence of Darcy and company arriving in the chaos of Amritsar, negotiating rickshaws and cows and hordes of people, is instantly recognisable to anyone who’s been to India, but not something you’d ever see in a Bollywood movie. The decision to cast American singer Ashanti was equally as ground breaking. “Black girls aren’t in Bollywood movies, but it was important to me to have a black girl do one of the songs. Most people take that in their stride, but it’s an incredibly radical thing for a Bollywood movie.”

Going head to head with the world’s largest film industry was small fry compared to her latest confrontation, however. After a screening in India for Bollywood directors like Karan Johar (“He said ‘I’ve learnt a lot today about how to make my films more accessible’.”), Chadha flew to Bath to face her ultimate nemesis – the Jane Austin Society.

“That was hysterical,” laughs Chadha. “It was the closing night of the Jane Austin festival, so there were all these people in their bonnets and top hats and regency clothes. My husband Paul [Berges, who co-wrote ‘Beckham’], asked them what they expected and they said ‘oh, lots of colour and excitement’, and then one woman said ‘I hope she’s true to Jane Austin’s work. I hope she hasn’t meddled with it too much’. I started by saying ‘this film isn’t based on ‘Pride And Prejudice’, it’s not adapted, it’s inspired by’, which is a good get out clause. But they really enjoyed it. Lots of people said how incredibly true to the book it was but it was a completely different world. And I think that was what was amazing to them. That you can still be true to Jane Austin’s themes and characters but set it in a contemporary world.”

This is the point about ‘Bride’ for Chadha. If it was simply a cheery song and dance affair, she wouldn’t be interested (she refuses to name ‘Bombay Dreams’, but thought “that play” was “terrible”). With ‘Bride’, the idea is to educate Americans about India and its film language, bring realism and social equality to Bollywood, and introduce the Jane Austin fan club to a new world. Quite an ambitious remit.

“The whole reason I’m making movies is to make people think outside of the box. Whether it’s race, class, gender, sexuality, whatever,” she says. “Often the difference between that [puts up hands as a closed box] and that [slightly more open] is just ignorance, not having access to these other things. You can’t expect someone who lives in a small town in Yorkshire to be as cosmopolitan as someone who lives in Camden Town. So what I do with my films is present that cosmopolitan view.”

Chadha’s next project is a prequel to the sixties TV show ‘I Dream Of Jeannie’, set in Arabia 200BC and 2004. She turned down two star vehicles after the success of ‘Beckham’ because she didn’t feel ready to surrender to the Hollywood studio system, so signing up to Columbia is a significant step.

“I’m very excited about it because it’s girl power and it’s lots of toys and action and these are the sorts of things that girls never get to play with, never mind people like me. And it’ll be much easier than ‘Beckham’. Here you have to work so hard and you hardly have any time to do what you want to do. But there you’re surrounded by so much talent and people who are bending over backwards that it seems a much easier process. Until you do things differently to what they want. Then it’s not all roses. But if you decide to do that kind of film, you know you can’t go in there and try and turn it into something else.”

How easy is it to be a female director in the Hollywood system? “I don’t know. I’ll find out. There’s not many of us around so obviously it’s not. There’s a lot of women doing TV but not movies.” Has her gender ever been an issue? “Oh yeah. After ‘Bhaji On The Beach’, I didn’t make a movie for six years. I couldn’t get a movie off the ground for love nor money. It was a very tough time and I almost gave up. I was saying ‘I’d much rather go and work in Sainsburys on the check out. At least I don’t have to face this disappointment’. It was only because of my husband that I didn’t. If I had been an Oxbridge bloke after ‘Bhaji’, my career would have been very different.”

But then her film would have been very different.


One thing that came out of those six years was a script for an adaptation of ‘The Mistress Of Spices’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, which Chadha will produce with Berges directing.

“It’s about a woman who gives her customers certain spices to help them achieve their desires and most of her have just moved to America and are trying to live the American dream. Everything’s fine as long as she obeys the rules of the spices and one of them is to never love anyone but the spices. And, of course, Mr Whitey American comes through the door and she falls for him. So it’s a wonderful love story, but it’s actually about integration. About what you choose to keep or not and the spices equal tradition.”

So, like all of Chadha’s films, it’s a story of the heart that’s also about social place. “Absolutely. It’s about my place in the world and it’s about everybody else recognising that my world is their world too.”

Springsteen couldn’t have put it better himself.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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