I have a confession to make. Until this week, I had never seen Gurinder Chadha’s 1993 breakthrough film, Bhaji on the Beach. Many people were introduced to Chadha’s endearingly irreverent work through this film, but countless more, including me, learned of Chadha through her 2002 mainstream hit, Bend It Like Beckham. The 2014 New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF), which is underway this week, marked the 20th anniversary of Bhaji on the Beach and Chadha’s overall contributions as a pioneer filmmaker, with a screening of Bhaji on the Beach. NYIFF will also be screening several of her documentary films today, including, What Do You Call An Indian Woman Who’s Funny? , I’m British But …, and A Nice Arrangement.
Having finally seen Bhaji on the Beach, twenty years after its release, I was truly impressed by Chadha’s courage to take on a spectrum of very relevant issues in the Desi diasporic community, from interracial relationships, teen pregnancy, discrimination faced by Indians, discrimination against Blacks by Indian communities, domestic violence, Indian patriarchical traditions — all while managing to squeeze out many laughs form the audience along the way.
Although the film can hardly be called nuanced in its approach to handling these issues, its relevance and importance This film still stands out not just for its progressive themes but also its progressive cast. twenty years on are a testament to Chadha’s astute understanding of the issues stirring in British Indian society and her unique lens as a female British Indian director. And while the film made me think about how these issues have played out and continue to play out in my own intergenerational Indian social network, I realized that despite strides to address diversity on both sides of the camera, this film still stands out not just for its progressive themes but also its progressive cast: the film revolves around a core group of intergenerational Desi women in Britain.
In a question and answer session following the screening, Gurinder Chadha further contextualized Bhaji on the Beach within her own oeuvre of work as well as in the broader world of film. I chuckled inwardly when she said that while the film isn’t subtle, “it gets the job done.” But chuckles aside, it stands as the first feature film made by a British-Asian woman and earned a BAFTA nomination for Best British Film of 1994 — high distinctions. Chadha noted that one of the major factors that shaped her approach to her films was that she “consciously made a decision that (she) would make films that would be understood by the people in the film.” The film is chock full of issues because once she and her collaborator, Meera Syal secured financing, they weren’t sure if they would ever again get a chance to make a film like this.
She regards her early films as part of the British social realist movement in filmmaking, which included fellow Chadha — “I think Bhaji on the Beach changed race relations in Britain.”directors like Mike Leigh, who sought to capture the realities of British life. She’s proud that her films are social documents that tell the stories of first and second generation British Indians through film. “They’re entertainment but they’re also history.” But even beyond their role as social documents, Chadha also sees films as vehicles for social change noting, “I’m glad, I think Bhaji on the Beach changed race relations in Britain.”
But Chadha also stated her concern that twenty years after the release of Bhaji on the Beach, she still doesn’t see the field of desi women directors growing. But she has a plan: “I’m trying to change that. In the next five years, I want to create ten more people like me.” She’s asking emerging desi women directors who have a budding project to connect with her on Twitter (@GurinderC) for some potential informal mentoring. Who knows, perhaps with Gurinder Chadha’s expert guidance, we’ll soon be seeing Bhaji on the Beach: The Remix.
After 15 years developing and leading innovative programs in the social change sector, Kavita Das now serves as a nonprofit consultant and writes nonfiction and creative nonfiction. Connect with Kavita on Twitter @kavitamix.