Khushwant Singh

Gurinder Chadha OBE Filmmaker

‘He faced a lot of difficulties,’ she says. ‘He probably thought he could have done something better with his life. But he had the courage to live because he had a tremendous spirit, and you see a lot of his spirit in my films.’ Scarcely a privileged upbringing, Gurinder’s childhood years consisted of the frequent change of schools. She was not encouraged to be ambitious and was prevented from doing things that girls are conventionally not supposed to do, not much unlike the character in Bend It Like Beckham.

And all through her travels and travails, a defiant Gurinder started to take shape. That defiance and ability to not just survive but also succeed in adverse circumstances went a long way in shaping the woman who has managed to crack the Hollywood’s ‘A-list’ of directors.

So, what did a young Gurinder, with Kenya and Southall behind her, want to do with her life? Become a truck driver? A teacher? No no, though geography was her favorite subject and helped her gain an international perspective of the world. ‘I used to have a vast rock collection and used to go on a lot of field trips.’

Then what? A journalist, perhaps, as according to Gurinder, she always recognized the political power it wielded on people’s minds and prejudices. When she discussed with her father that she wanted to try her hand at journalism, he backed her move because it gave her the opportunity to speak about her community.

The Observer, a British daily, reports that when Gurinder decided she wanted to go to the University of East Anglia to do development studies, her teachers suggested a secretarial course or a lesser university. Gurinder didn’t take any notice, perhaps because she’d already developed an insider-outsiders habit of independence. ‘I knew from an early age that people didn’t see the different sides of me. I formulated a kind of bicultural identity quite early and I was always very comfortable with it, but I knew people didn’t quite see that. So when teachers said to me: “You should do a secretarial course”, I was like, “You’re bloody nuts. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not going to do that. You’ve got me wrong”.’

Other people’s readiness to dismiss her only made her more determined. ‘Experiences like that, and seeing my parents struggle, made me think—you don’t believe I can do that, so I’m going to prove you’re wrong. If you tell me I can’t do something, that’s the worst thing to tell me. And that’s what I tell girls, and what Beckham’s about: you can do it, you can do it better, and you can do it in the way you want.’

She did get to UEA, and as part of her degree spent a year in Amritsar, which would later be the setting for Bride and Prejudice. Most of her fellow students went to work in charities but she sensed that the media might suit her better. An instinctive dramatist, she describes her decision to go into journalism in terms of an epiphany.

‘I remember a picture on the front page of the Sun during the Brixton riots: a rasta guy with a petrol bomb, and a headline saying something like: “The Future of Britain”. And I thought — wow! look at the power of that image — and I wanted to get behind the camera to make these people three-dimensional.’

‘More tea?’ she asked, ‘or breakfast?’

‘Another tea,’ I replied.

‘And when you do development studies you usually push towards a career in development in aid and NGOs and that kind of stuff. I actually thought I would end up joining the Red Cross. But a dissertation on “Images of women in the media” was what made me realize the controlling power of the media and how the media perpetuates certain ideas in terms of race but also in terms of sexism. And about these impossible ideals, of being the perfect wife and mother on the one hand and vamp on the other. The idea was redressing the balance and putting up alternate images and different visions of the world instead of the ones we were used to. From journalism, I had thought of moving to television, for that’s how it was supposed to be. People like me are not born to become directors!’ Exactly! And here’s where the twist lies. From an underprivileged childhood to a knighthood of the British Empire, the journey has had its own roadblocks and smooth drives. Something that lorry drivers experience each day!

‘This is for all our ancestors who helped build the British Empire,’ the Punjabi British director was heard saying after the award was announced. ‘I had no idea this was in store. What really makes my OBE special is that it has been awarded to me for my service to British cinema. That really makes me proud. I have never denied my British side. I have always said it is as strong as my Punjabi side. One reason I got it, I think, is that I show contemporary Britain to the outside world. I’m only able to do that—my Britain is only like it is—because of the history of the last 500 years.’

John Woodward, chief executive of the UK Film Council in a quote to the Observer agrees with what Gurinder says and comments that: ‘She (Gurinder) has a much better understanding of what modern Britain is like than most film-makers.’ He’s known her since she made her first full-fledged feature film, Bhaji on the Beach, released in 1993, about Asian women on a day out in Blackpool.

‘There’s something in her background and the ethnic group she comes from that automatically takes her towards making films for a diverse audience,’ says Woodward on Gurinder.

Starting from her directorial debut Bhaji on the Beach, after she set up her own production company ‘Umbi Films’, Gurinder, within a span of sixteen years, has done extremely well for herself.

Bhaji, an Asian feminist comedy with a cheeky wit and a serious political and cultural theme, traced the adventures of three generations of Anglo-Asian women on holiday at Blackpool.

True to the old Gurmukhi saying jithe sanjog likhe hoye ne (wherever God wants) it was during the showing of Bhaji on the Beach that Gurinder met Paul at the Toronto film festival, who got interested in the movie for an Asian film festival he was screening at San Francisco. And as we chatted about how and when the couple met, Paul walked in with some important information for Gurinder.

‘We got married in 1996 in accordance with Sikh traditions,’ said Gurinder, as Paul—appearing to be in some hurry—left us. The sardarni made him sport a beard and tie a turban for the pheras—circling the Sikh holy book to solemnize the marriage— held at the Shepherds Bush gurdwara.

Just before she got married, Gurinder produced a two-part drama Rich Deceiver (1995) for BBC.

Happily married after a full-blown Punjabi wedding, in 2000, the couple put together a fascinating film, What’s Cooking. The film, about four culturally diverse families (Jewish, African-American, Latino, Vietnamese) celebrating Thanksgiving, actually vindicates Gurinder’s position of being a representative of a multicultural community, rather than being merely confined to an Indian diaspora. It received a BAFTA Nomination for Best British Film in 1994 and Gurinder won the Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Newcomer to British cinema. These two awards were for her film Bhaji on the Beach, amongst several others. Her film What’s Cooking won other awards, including Best British Director by the London critics’ circle. It went on to become the opening film for the Sundance Film Festival in the USA in 2000.

Khushwant Singh
  • Cj Singh