BHAJI at 20

AmritsarCrop“I know how personally empowering it is to show the world from my own perspective.”

That’s what filmmaker Gurinder Chadha said last night at the New York Indian Film Festival’s 20th Anniversary celebration of her breakthrough film Bhaji on the Beach (which was originally released in the USA in May 1994).

Since Bhaji’s release, Chadha has made some big budget films like Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice, and What’s Cooking? What these films all have in common is a riotous clash of isms: sexism, racism, ageism, classism, you name it! The women who are her central characters are typically victims in one scene and perpetrators in the next scene. No one is immune. We all embrace “tradition” when it suits us and rebel when it doesn’t. The challenge is to keep yourself from becoming the kind of person who blindly casts the first stone.

How does she get away with it? “Always with affection,” said Chadha. “When you are affectionate, you can say these things.” And it’s true! There is no condescension and therefore there are no stereotypes. As a result, even tiny scenes like a conversation “Oliver” (Mo Sesay) has with his father (who is an immigrant from the West Indies) feel completely inhabited. This one artfully constructed scene helps make Oliver, a critical character with a minimal amount of screen time, totally three-dimensional.

“How do you find your inspiration?” “I made a conscious decision to make films for the kind of people that would be in the films and not for academics… I wanted to see people like my parents onscreen.”

The proof of this is making Bhaji’s lead character a woman named “Asha.” A matron with two almost grown children and a demanding husband, Asha spends most days minding the store. But her visions alert her to the fact that she has reached a critical point in her life, and when the moment comes, she acts with strength and determination. Lalita Ahmed gives a poignant performance as Asha, and in her own quiet way, she deftly walks the razor’s edge between the old and the new.

I saw Bhaji on the Beach for the first time years and years ago (most likely when it was first released), and while I didn’t remember all the details, I had a delicious feeling of deja vu as the film unfolded again for me last night.

Does Bhaji hold up? Brilliantly! Audiences all around the world have come to love the films of Gurinder Chadha since Bhaji, and she has already gone far in achieving her goal: “Loving the society you live in and wanting that society to recognize you as an organic element rather than ‘a problem.’”

Do audiences really need to see more films by women filmmakers?

“I know how personally empowering it is to show the world from my own perspective.”

Click HERE to read my 2005 interview with Chadha (timed to the Chicago release of Bride & Prejudice) in which she says:

“I don’t make films that are Eurocentric and I don’t make them so that they are Indocentric. I make films that are Diaspora-centered. I operate in global cultural paradigm, so that’s the kind of the movie I wanted to make.”

Brava, Gurinder 🙂

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Top Photo: Gurinder Chadha taken during the making of Bride & Prejudice in 2004. The Golden Temple of Amritsar is clearly visible in the background.

Bottom Photo: “Asha” (Lalita Ahmed) is the luminous anchor of Bhaji on the Beach.

 

Tags: Bhaji on the Beach, Gurinder Chadha, Lalita Ahmed

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