The film “Bend It Like Beckham” just turned 20 this year. It is my movie equivalent of mac and cheese, a movie I turn to when I want something warm and comforting and familiar. I can probably even recite most of the lines by heart! The near-perfect script is written by Gurinder Chadha, her husband Paul Mayeda Berges, and Guljit Bindra, and is directed by Chadha herself. The film set all kinds of box office records in the UK and was a hit around the world. Though my Indian background is quite different than Chadha’s, I have great admiration for her body of work and what she has done to pave the way for South Asian women in film.
Of Sikh descent but born in Nairobi, Chadha is British-Indian and quite an excellent representative of the community. A filmmaker beginning at a time when there were very few women filmmakers, let alone minority women filmmakers, she has addressed a variety of themes and subject matter that speak to the Indian community in Britain and in the diaspora as well as in India. But she takes things a step further, showing how these Indian communities relate to- and interact with the larger world.
Chadha usually puts women at the front of her films, and they hold key roles. Consider “Bhaji on the Beach,” which was Chadha’s breakout film as a feature film director. The ensemble cast features a group of women on a day trip to the beach–and not just women, but South Asian British women of all ages. This was a big deal in 1993, when it was released. “Bride and Prejudice,” a brilliantly fun and true-to-the original musical retelling of Austen’s classic novel, deals with marriage in a family of four daughters in the Punjab, with Bollywood megastar Aishwarya Rai as the Elizabeth Bennett character. Chadha shows an outspoken Indian character confronting a wealthy American man and his formidable mother; if we examine this more deeply, it is not just a tale of romance, but also a critique of colonialism and imperialism. And yet it is woven into an enjoyable story, complete with catchy songs to dance to. Chadha never loses her sense of fun as she gets a message across.
Chadha is equally at ease with Indian characters as she is with non-Indian characters, making them all seem authentic. The Los Angeles families of different ethnicities in “What’s Cooking?” (a flawed but enjoyable Thanksgiving movie) are all different yet so similar in their humanity. They aren’t stereotypes created by a white director, but real families who are Latino, Vietnamese, Jewish, and Black. It doesn’t hurt that her husband Paul Mayeda Berges was a co-writer, and he is from California and of Basque and Japanese heritage. The Paxton family in “Bend It Like Beckham” come across like a typical lower-middle-class English family, with the mother’s highly conventional attitudes about gender roles and Indians. In “Quais de Seine,” Chadha’s contribution to the marvelous “Paris, je t’aime,” the lead character is a Muslim young woman (not even British Indian and Sikh or Hindu) who is befriended/romanced by a young Frenchman who resents her being bullied. It is two characters of completely different backgrounds to Chadha’s, in a different country, and of a different religion, and yet it is one of the strongest shorts in the film compilation. I believe this is because Chadha has a way of getting to the emotional heart of the situation and characters, in the way only a master director can. “Blinded by the Light” juxtaposes two seemingly unlikely things–a British Pakistani teenager and the music of Bruce Springsteen–that over the course of the film come together beautifully in a way that intertwines culture, racism, politics, economics, religion, and the power of music.
“Viceroy’s House” is her most serious film and one that has deep personal meaning to her. It addresses The Partition and Mountbatten’s departure from India. Naturally, the British characters are some of the lead roles; however, Nehru and Jinnah are equally important and there is a subplot that features Indian characters and deals with religion. There are some, especially historians, who criticized its lack of gravity and accuracy, and these criticisms maybe true. However, it is rare to find a film beautifully dramatizes and makes accessible a significant event in history that too few in the West know about.
Some might find Chadha’s films to be a little melodramatic or not serious enough. These criticisms are also valid, as tastes differ. Some also find her characters or even her film “Bend It Like Beckham” to be too predictable. This is also a valid criticism. Chadha’s primary goal is to entertain, and no one could ever accuse her films of not being entertaining. But she entertains in a way that is South Asian-focused, intelligent, multicultural, and socially relevant. One could also apply these adjectives to the filmmaker herself, who always comes across as jolly and friendly in interviews. There is no one really quite like Gurinder Chadha, who has an impressive body of work, and is truly a groundbreaker in the world of film.