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Bhangra and Bhaji to Beckham and Bride

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February 2005
Bhangra and Bhaji to Beckham and Bride

Gurinder Chadha: British-Indian at heart but a global filmmaker in her art.

By Murali Kamma

Whatever one may think of Gurinder Chadha's latest film, Bride & Prejudice, it cannot be denied that this bold attempt to bring together the very distinct genres of Bollywood and Hollywood, without trying to lose the British sensibility of the movie's inspiration (Pride and Prejudice), required ingenuity and a lot of hard work. The $22.5 million production (not high by Hollywood standards) involved an international crew of film professionals, and the shooting took place on three continents. Reportedly, the stress in the final stages was so great that Chadha became ill once the film was made.

"It was tough because every actor thought their way was the best," she told The Guardian. "The Americans thought Bollywood was very inferior. And the British actors thought they were better than the Americans. I felt like Russell Crowe in Master and Commander; it was my job to keep on course and I kept steering it with my map of British-Asian sensibility."

But Chadha, who adores Indian cinema, has pointed out that even Hollywood makes inferior films. "I do think Bollywood and Hollywood have a lot to teach one another," she noted in a press release. "As a British filmmaker, the one thing that really impressed me is that in India filmmaking is more about taking your time, considering your options and there is a spiritual quality to it that transcends the practical considerations."

Balle Balle! Amritsar to LA, the catchy Hindi title of the dubbed version of Bride & Prejudice, would neatly sum up Chadha's background if only one could add the following: via Nairobi and London. Her grandparents migrated from Punjab to Kenya, where she was born. But then, during a period of political turmoil in East Africa, Chadha's family left and permanently settled in England. And now, since her husband is a Japanese-American filmmaker, she's also partly based in California. "So my whole existence ? like so many of us today ? is very mixed," she said in a phone interview with Khabar. Chadha was in New York that day for a screening of Bride & Prejudice, which kicked off the South Asian International Film Festival last December.

Like the Bollywood films she so loves, Chadha's movies can also be seen as a vigorous masala mix, although in her case the cross-fertilization involves both Indian and Western cultures. At the same time, as she pointed out, she's very much a British-Indian filmmaker. What's most interesting about her work is her ability to draw on her multifaceted background and create a fizzy, feminist-flavored cocktail that can appeal to a wide range of people. This is most apparent in Bend it Like Beckham, of course, but one can also see it in other movies such as Bhaji on the Beach, an art-house hit, and What's Cooking? Her new film, unlike the earlier ones, is more ambitious in that it's not solely confined to the multicultural milieu of Cool Britannia or Melting Pot America. India, too, plays a big role and major scenes are set in Amritsar and Goa.

However, in trying to bridge the considerable gap between Bollywood and Hollywood, Chadha most likely took a daring chance, and judging by the reviews so far, Bride & Prejudice has had a decidedly mixed reception in both India and Britain. A moderate opinion can perhaps be summed up by this brief quote from The Independent: "As a cross-cultural update it's an honorable effort, but rather less than the booming entertainment it wants to be." So it will be interesting to see how the film fares in the U.S. after it opens this month on Valentine's Day.

The Bennets in Austen's novel have become the Bakshis in Chadha's film, and the self-contained world of 18th-century rural England has been replaced by small-town Punjab in the 21st century. Mrs. Bakshi attempts to find suitable grooms for her four lovely daughters, but Lalita (played by Aishwarya Rai) has a mind of her own and the main plot is about her complicated courtship with Darcy (played by Martin Henderson), a wealthy American hotelier who is in India to attend a wedding. Not surprisingly, the class conflict depicted in the novel has been transformed into a clash of cultures in the film, although the broad outline of the story remains much the same.

Some viewers of the movie have remarked on the curious lack of chemistry between the principal stars, but they've also said that the supporting performances are stronger and more entertaining. Khalid Mohamed, an Indian film critic, notes, "The most memorable people here are an upwardly mobile NRI (Nitin Ganatra, outrageously funny), a prudish poppet (Meghna Kothari, cutely wired) who slithers into a snake dance, her gentle-mannered big sister (Namrata Shirodkar, marvelously restrained), a Zen father (Anupam Kher, reliably expert) and also an aloo paratha of a mother (Nadira Babbar, terrific)."

After leaving Kenya, where Chadha still has a lot of relatives, she grew up in England as a typical second-generation British-Indian. Although she grappled with the complex issue of identity, it was only much later, when she made her first documentary, that Chadha used the medium of film to fully articulate these feelings. Meanwhile, she attended the University of East Anglia and worked as a broadcast journalist at BBC, where she was able to hone her filmmaking skills. Her first film, I'm British But?, delves into the bicultural lives of young British South Asians by examining the then-new but growing phenomenon of Bhangra as fusion music.

The success of Bhaji on the Beach, which she made in the 1990s after forming her own production company, signaled the rapid rise of a talented moviemaker. Chadha's father, incidentally, played a huge role in her life and work, and as she once noted, his accidental death some years ago affected her deeply. It's interesting to note that both in Bend it Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice, her father's spirit lives on in the gentle form of Anupam Kher.

Regardless of how one may feel about an individual movie, Gurinder Chadha's oeuvre so far clearly shows why she remains a prominent filmmaker whose global appeal extends well beyond the Indian diaspora. As she mentioned in her concluding remarks over the phone, her target audience is every single person.���

"You always have to make movies that you want to see in the cinema?"

Gurinder Chadha Talks With Khabar About Bride & Prejudice and Other Films?

By Murali Kamma

You've mentioned that both Raj Kapoor and the musical Fiddler on the Roof inspired you in the making of Bride and Prejudice. Also, of course, it's an adaptation of Jane Austen's novel. How did these very diverse influences come together in your film?

Well, those are all the different influences that make up my life. And I think what I try and show in my film is the fact that, culturally, people might look at me and think that just because I'm Indian I should do things that are uniquely Indian. But actually, I was born in Kenya, my grandparents are from what is now Pakistan, I grew up in England, and I'm married to a Japanese-American. So my whole existence ? like so many of us today ? is very mixed. And so, for me, Jane Austen is as much a part of my upbringing, my education in school, as are all the movies of Raj Kapoor or Hollywood musicals like Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story. So culturally for me, when I make a film, it's not about fitting into one slot. It's opening all the slots and just seeing what happens.

Bend it Like Beckham brought you international acclaim. After that, was it hard to make this film? Was there a lot of pressure on you to meet certain expectations?

There was certainly a lot of expectation; but if you think about that, then it stops you from working. You can't really take that on board. And I think the most important thing is you always have to make movies that you want to go and see in the cinema. That's how I judge it. If it's a movie that no one else is making and I'd like to see, then that's really my criteria.

Bollywood masala films, with their mass appeal and lavish song-and-dance routines, can be quite entertaining, but often they're also known to be melodramas with stereotypical characters and plots and situations. Why did you decide to take this route in the making of your new movie?���

Well, because I grew up with Bollywood movies as well as Hollywood movies and as well as British movies. As a filmmaker, I wanted to take this Indian film language and find a way of expressing it as a British-Indian. I think we know there is a lot of crap from Bollywood, but out of every 100 movies, at least 5 are really good. The movies I grew up with had some great social commentary. For instance, Manoj Kumar, Yash Chopra, Raj Kapoor. And I loved Aditya Chopra's Dilwaale Dulhania Le Jaayenge. I thought that was a fantastic film. It was watching Dilwaale that made me think that I'd like to do a Bollywood-style movie, which would be my version. So Bride & Prejudice is definitely a British movie; it's not so Hollywood and not so Bollywood. It opened recently in Britain and India, and it was number one in both countries. That was very important for me. That's fantastic because Bollywood is a whole new genre for so many people. And for my movie to get to number one is a major feat, because it's a British movie that's not very Euro-centric.

Your movie was supposed to come out on Christmas Day (in 2004), but its release date in the U.S. got postponed to Valentine's Day (in 2005). Why?

There is a very good reason for that. We were going to release it on Christmas Day on 25 prints. But after the film came out in England and after more test screenings here in America, Mirimax realized that it was not an art-house film. It's a much more popular film than that. So they decided to release it on 400 prints on Valentine's Day, with a big TV campaign behind it, since they feel it's much bigger than an art-house movie.

Darcy is, in some ways, the most intriguing character in the story. What made you pick Martin Henderson for the role?

I picked Martin because he is extremely good-looking. Very cute, very tasty. [Laughs] But more than that, when I met him, I really liked him. Being a New Zealander, he was not fearful to be in a movie like this. And he quite relished the opportunity.

Is it true that Colin Firth, who is known for his role as Darcy, was hesitant to step into this Bollywood world?

No, I'd have never gone to Colin Firth! He'd been totally wrong for this movie. He so belongs to the original A&E version, the 18th-century version. This is a modern, 21st-century version. Colin would not have really been appropriate for the role.

Is that why you also chose Aishwarya Rai for the role of Lalita Bakshi?

Absolutely. If I was going to make a Bollywood-style movie, I needed to have a big Bollywood actress in the lead role. She is number one in India, and you know, the Bollywood industry is a man's world. So for her to get to the top, she had to be very assertive, very smart and very outspoken. And these are all the characteristics of my Lizzy Bennet (Lalita). She was perfect for the role.

Recently it was reported that you're hoping to make a big Hollywood action film set in Rajasthan. Are you also working on a film version of I Dream of Jeannie (a popular American TV series from the past)?

It's the same movie. What I'm doing is making a prequel to I Dream of Jeanie. I'm exploring the possibility of shooting in the palaces of Rajasthan, but that's not confirmed. I've been location scouting. I'm making a movie, which is a fantastic action adventure but with a girl in the lead. So it's not just about guys. Even a movie like this can have a girl in the lead!

Isn't your husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, making a film that's based on The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni?

Yes, he is directing it. I'm the producer and Aishwarya Rai is playing the lead. That should be happening imminently; it's our next project. It's all set in Oakland, California.

Do you think crossover movies like Bend it Like Beckham can continue to have a broad appeal in this country?

It depends on whether people make good ones. You can't expect people to pick it up and like it.

Would you care to name any favorite films and filmmakers?

My favorite film, Tokyo Story, is by a Japanese director named Yasujiro Ozu. It's an old black-and-white film that's absolutely wonderful. I love Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. I love, as I said, Dilwaale Dulhania Le Jaayenge. And I really love Manoj Kumar's Purab aur Paschim. That's one of my favorite ones. In fact, I referenced that movie in Bride & Prejudice.


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