Khushwant Singh

Gurinder Chadha OBE Filmmaker

‘The Punjab police has its own way of controlling mobs,’ is her opening line as we formally start the interview. In Amritsar, during the shooting of Aishwarya Rai-starer Bride and Prejudice, the superintendent of police, Punjabi style, had let loose a lathi charge on the mob that was demonstrating, saying that the film was encouraging Indian girls to run off with men. The SP is believed to have told the mob ‘je tusi kal aithe aye taan latan tor deyan ga (you guys come here tomorrow, and I’ll break your legs)’.

‘Trust them to behave like this,’ I said.

‘The lathi charge was recorded in the movie and we obviously had to delete those scenes,’ revealed Gurinder.

‘The movie was good, I enjoyed it,’ I said.

‘Oh, thank you,’ Gurinder replied. ‘I needed a good story that everyone was familiar with so they wouldn’t be freaked out by the Indian film language being foreign! So I went with the nineteenth century Jane Austen novel that we all read at school and just started to Indianise it,’ she added. ‘In fact it was very hard continually finding the right balance that would be true to the Hindi film genre but be accessible to a whole new global audience who had never seen an Indian film.’ Bride and Prejudice, a boldly innovative film, went on to break new ground as a British film combining a Hindi and western visual style to create a new kind of musical for the diaspora.

While narrating an incident about the acceptability of Bride and Prejudice amongst a cross-section of people globally, Gurinder told me of a white American lady masseur from Los Angeles, whose grandchildren keep watching the movie over and over again. ‘They have the music playing in the car all the time and her son is getting sick of it. The people who loved it just loved it and who didn’t like it, hated it,’ said Gurinder, bursting into another bout of laughter.

‘Actually, that’s the thing: lots of people didn’t like my venturing into Bollywood. The interesting experience with the film was that a lot of people felt that instead of moving up I was actually going down, by choosing to do something in Bollywood style. They considered Bollywood a lesser cinema form—or perhaps they considered the western style more forward than the eastern. Interestingly, those who said so were from India, questioning why I would like to do that when it’s such a lowly art form in comparison to, say, Hollywood. I found that a really interesting debate.’

‘How did you come to cast Aishwarya?’ I asked, ‘and didn’t she look a bit plump?’ I carried my critique further.

‘Poor Ash, she had just recovered from that horrid accident that had made her immobile,’ replied Gurinder. ‘But the weight suited her as a Punjabi woman, I thought.’ Of course, Punjabi women and their heavy bottoms! ‘Look at me!’ says Gurinder, laughing.

Gurinder’s ‘Punjabi’ figure apparently had a lot of English contribution. The extra kilos are thanks to the beer she guzzled in pubs where she would spend a lot of time after hours, during her stint as a news reporter with BBC.

‘One of my most embarrassing moments was after the making of Bride and Prejudice when I was asked to stand next to the beautiful Aishwarya for a photo. Phew, I hated it.’

‘And why Aishwarya for the movie?’ I repeated.

‘Because she wanted to work with me,’ pat came the reply. ‘And obviously, I offer an international platform to people very quickly. I just open doors and offer a wider platform to actors, beyond Indian cinema. In Bride and Prejudice, I cast her as an Indian. But Aishwarya is now doing a film with Dino De Laurentiis. It’s a mainstream Hollywood film.’ Gurinder feels that it was because of Bride and Prejudice that she got the role. ‘It was the first time people saw Aishwarya speaking English. From Beckham, Anupam Kher has done some movies in the USA and Britain,’ adds Gurinder. And then how can we forget his portrayal as Mr. Kohli of Bride fame? ‘He’s playing a pilot for a comedy TV show,’ she says.

‘She’s (Aishwarya) excellent in The Mistress of Spices,’ adds Gurinder, who was leaving for the Toronto film festival the next day for the premiere of the movie. The Mistress of Spices, a debut direction by her husband Paul and co-written by Gurinder, was made nine years after the couple had together read Chitra Bannerji Divakaruni’s book and fallen in love with it.

The movie is based on the life of an Indian girl who has learned the use of spices for cooking, healing and as talismans from a wise Crone. The girl, Tilo (Rai) runs a shop in contemporary Oakland, California dispensing healing, and advice to the locals. The movie has mostly been shot in Oakland, and some parts in Kerala, Gurinder says.

‘This film will open a lot of doors for Aishwarya, more than Bride and Prejudice,’ Gurinder added. Unfortunately, contrary to expectations, the movie has run into rough weather and has attracted some scathing reviews, upsetting Gurinder. In an interview to a newspaper, she said she was hoping a turnaround would come in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland, ‘being younger countries with very mixed populations’, and the movie did show a turnaround in revenues in these countries. ‘I don’t think it is a perfect film,’ she says, but the fact that so many Indians just focused on Aishwarya without even examining what the film was trying to explore has not pleased Gurinder. ‘The film was trying to explore the idea of maintaining your roots when you move abroad and how sometimes strong traditions and roots can actually strangle you,’ she says.

But this is a minor hiccup in the entire scheme of things; Gurinder Chadha is a survivor, an instinct probably inherited from her culture and family. Sikhs who have settled in the UK have, by and large, prospered using indigenous strategies. Earlier settlers were largely uneducated and the only jobs available to them were in foundries and heavy engineering. The lack of formal education and their skin color was a further hindrance, making upward movement practically impossible. In order to survive, Sikhs looked at the marketplace and explored opportunities and soon became self-employed.

Chadha’s parents, after emigrating from Kenya to West London, where the family ran a timber business, didn’t find life in Britain particularly easy. Her father got a job with the post office, but on the humiliating condition that he take off his turban. Feeling disgraced, as the turban remains an integral part of the Sikh faith, he established a series of shops in the London suburbs of Ealing, Corydon, and Walthamstow. The business, not very hot to begin with, declined further and further through the Thatcher period and, according to Gurinder, her father went through difficult times.

Khushwant Singh
  • Cj Singh