Third Cinema revisited

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Two films by Gurinder Chadha.

Posted by keith1942 on October 1, 2014

Bhaji on the Beach

Bhaji on the Beach

This article is part of the argument set out in Diaspora Cinema and globalisation.

Gurinder Chadha had already made a short documentary about Asian women when she came to direct her first feature-length film. Bhaji on the Beach was released in 1993. Meera Syal, (an auteur in her own right) scripted it from a story by both Chadha and Syal. The film was produced in association with Channel 4, with its connotations of independent film, new voices and offbeat stories. It centres on a day trip to Blackpool organised by the Saheli Women’s Centre in Birmingham. The female day-trippers provide a cross section of Asian women, and of the problems faced by Asian women in Britain. Among the central characters are Hashida, a teenage girl about to start at medical school. She has just discovered she is pregnant by her African Caribbean boyfriend, Oliver. There is Ginder, who after physical abuse by her husband Ranjit has taken sanctuary in the Women’s Shelter with son Amrik. And there is Asha, who despite her earlier university education, is married and tied to a newsagent’s shop.

The varying contradictions and problems faced by the women unravel during their day at the coast. At the climax of the film Ranjit, with his two brothers, attempts to wrest Amrik from his mother. The action of the women and the men’s own conflicts sabotage this attempt. The bus leaves with Ginder’s situation unresolved, but with her supported by the group. Meanwhile, the bus passes Hashida and Oliver putting together their relationship and future.

One of the pleasures of the film is the way it takes a fresh look at a very traditional British icon, the seaside. The confrontation between Ranjit and Ginder takes place under the pier, on the beach. All of the women have various minor adventures in the entertainment environs of the resort. The film mixes British social realism, the observational depiction of Blackpool and its frequenters, with a more fantastic Bollywood element, a series of dreamlike sequences fantasised by Asha. The values of the film privilege the interests of the women over the male characters. Our sympathies are definitely with them in their struggles with tradition and patriarchy. Crucially the resolution of the film depends on the rest of the group coming to the support of Ginder. This reverses an earlier breach, between the younger women who are striving to break out from traditional Asian mores, and the older women who are upholding them. As the coach leaves Blackpool there is active support for Ginder in breaching

convention by leaving her husband’s home. The acceptance of Hashida’s situation, pregnant and joined to someone from outside the Asian community, is more fragile, witnessed by her absence from the bus.

The men, as is frequently the case in today’s films, are threatened and in crisis. In fact, the review in Sight and Sound commented in somewhat over-the-top fashion, “Syal clearly has an axe to grind about Asian men – ideally against their testicles.” (Farrah Anwar, February 1994) Among the male characters Oliver seems the most positive as he accepts his responsibilities to Hashida and the unborn child. And Manjit, the youngest of Ranjit’s brothers, also emerges in a positive light when he finally takes action against his macho eldest brother Balbir.

bend it like beckham - cinema quad movie poster (1).jpg

Nine years later Chadha directed Bend It Like Beckham, which she also jointly scripted. This has a rather different place in the British Film Industry. It was part-­funded by the newly-formed Film Council and BSkyB, with additional public funding from Hamburg; (there is a sequence in the film set in that city). It received full distribution in the multiplex circuits, and has now appeared on retail and rental DVD. Its mainstream credentials can be gauged by the use of Britain’s major sports icon, David Beckham, in both the title and the story line. In this case, Jess Bhamra, from a Punjabi Sikh family, dreams of becoming a professional footballer

like her idol Beckham. Despite her parent’s opposition to such a breach with tradition, by the end of the film she has achieved her first step on the ladder of this ambition. The wedding in the film is that of her elder sister Pinky, an arranged Asian marriage. However, Pinky and Taz’s relationship is actually one of choice, and is sexually active in a very untraditional manner, though this is kept secret from the parents. Bend It Like Beckham crosses over with the earlier Bhaji on the Beach in highlighting the problems for British Asian women caught between tradition and modernity. It also crosses over in other ways. There are dream sequences that echo Asha’s in Bhaji on the Beach. These though, resolutely follow mainstream conventions. So the scene when Jess imagines her female relatives guarding the goalmouth in a crucial game is shot as a subjective image, whilst Nessun Dorma plays on the soundtrack. Another scene in Bhaji on the Beach featured Ginder treated to a hairdo and new clothes. In this film it is an assertion of her personality as a woman. In Bend It Like Beckham Jess has her appearance transformed by a team-mate. This is so she can attend a disco celebration during the team’s trip to Germany. But here her transformation acts to catch the eye of Joe, the team coach. He and Jess develop a romantic relationship. Another breach with the traditions favoured by her parents.

This romance creates conflict with her friend Jules, a star player in the girl’s football team. These romantic problems and feuding add plot problems to the later part of the film. They are resolved and Jules and Jess renew their friendship. Joe gets a kiss from Jess in an Airport scene. The plotting in of an appearance by David and Victoria Beckham distracts the parent’s attention at this point.

The conflict between Jess’ passion for football and her parent’s opposition is resolved during her sister’s colourful wedding celebrations. Jess’ father’s opposition is in part based on his own youthful problems in Britain, when he was barred from playing cricket by the game’s covert racism. Struck by her misery, he relents. He even attends the match and sees her score a winning goal. This match results in Jess and Jules being offered US sports scholarships.

The crucial difference between the two films is in this resolution of conflict. Bhaji on the Beach foregrounds women’s solidarity. Bend It Like Beckham relies on the more traditional and conventional change of heart by a father. His acceptance of Jess’s desires and ambitions allows Jess to pursue her own choices. The acceptance and embrace by a father of his daughter is a powerful, and usually conservative, closure to many narratives. There is also much less emphasis on the female group in Bend It like Beckham. The film’s focus is on Jess and her close friend Jules. The rest of the football team are ciphers. The Sight and Sound review featured a shot from the film of Shaznay Lewis (who plays Mel, team captain) in football kit. This is presumably because she features on the film soundtrack, as does Victoria Beckham). But Lewis has little to do in the plot, and her presence in the film would seem to be part of the marketing. Bhaji on the Beach leaves the audience as the women express their solidarity with Ginder. In Bend it Like Beckham, the only member of the football team who comes to see off Jess and Jules is the coach Joe, for his token kiss. These rather differing closures speak volumes about the films.

Further both films feature peripheral female characters, Asian girls who pursue western styles and romance. In Bhaji on the Beach, the pair of Ladhu and Madhu do provide humour but they also fill out the action and the group dynamics. ­ In Bend It Like Beckham the equivalent trio of ­Bubbly and her friends are stereotypical and their sole function seems to be ­ humour. The film hints at lesbianism in its depiction of Jules and provides Jess with a gay friend, Tony. But Jules soon proves to be heterosexual and Tony is just nice and not very sexual. I also felt scenes set in the team’s dressing room, with ample display of young women in their lingerie, could be read as just titillation.

Gurinder Chadha’s more recent films have continued to be sited in the mainstream. Bride and Prejudice (2004) is an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, filmed using many of the conventions of Hindi or ‘Bollywood’. However, the film lacks the irony that suffuses the Austen novel. More recently we have It’s A Wonderful Afterlife (2009), a nice combination of comedy and black humour. The film does focus on the problems of women and in particular Asian women. But a number of the characters seem rather stereotypical. And the unlikely romantic resolution of the film tidies away some of the problems that arose in the story. Gurinder Chadha remains a successful director whose films are always entertaining. But they are resolutely mainstream, partly generic and not unsettling in the way that Bhaji on the Beach seemed.

This was originally part of a longer article in the Media Education Journal, Spring 2003. My thanks to the Editor for agreeing to this posting.


One Response to “Two films by Gurinder Chadha.”

  1. […] Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges have collaborated on a number of films. Essentially they are upbeat family dramas, Bend it Like Beckham (2002), the most successful, is a […]

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