Khushwant Singh

Gurinder Chadha OBE Filmmaker

Then came the big hit in April 2002, though initially, nobody would buy it because it had Asian characters. Bend It Like Beckham, starring Bollywood’s Anupam Kher, Parminder Nagra — a young British Sikh girl, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Keira Knightley, who’s now one of Hollywood’s top leading ladies.

‘I went to my local pub to watch the games and was amazed to see grown men crying on the pavements of Camden High Street when England was out of the World Cup. I’d only ever seen the country like this when Lady Diana died. I had got the football bug and thought wouldn’t it be great to take all this energy, and put two girls in the middle of it all? Bend It Like Beckham, by all means, is a British movie about an Asian family and not, as so many Indians see it, as a crossover film. To me, that is an alien term. We are mainstream in Britain now and BILB is not crossing over from anywhere.’ It is a firmly center-stage film, for which Gurinder has received two honorary doctorates from two different universities, Leeds and Sheffield, citing ‘her contribution to British cinema and her success in showing the influences of Asian values in mainstream British culture.’

Since its release, the movie has achieved a mild cult-like status. A comedy about an Asian girl who takes a fancy to football while trying to balance it with her parent’s demands, the film’s title is a reference to the English footballer David Beckham and his skill at scoring from free-kicks by bending the ball. The movie became a smash hit and earned over eleven million pounds at the UK box office, the most ever for a British financed, British distributed film. The film topped the box office charts in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa won audience favorite film awards at the Locarno, Sydney, and Toronto film festivals, and received a European Film Academy Nomination for Best Film in the 2002 European Film Awards.

In 2005, Chadha’s next big movie Bride and Prejudice was released. A Bollywood style movie, Gurinder made the transition with ease. And Gurinder has nobody else but the Deols of Bollywood to thank for it. A project with Dharmender, Sunny and Bobby had run into rough weather, giving Gurinder insight into the functioning of Bollywood. ‘They had approached me for a movie, but the project went for a six. Bollywood is different. It has its own rules, own moral codes, own sense of professionalism and does things its own way. If you want to make a Bollywood film, live by their rules and do it their way.’ But the same goes for England, as Britain produces films very differently from America. Bride and Prejudice did huge business, touching up to $60 to $70 million US dollars.

The top director has a word of advice for aspiring actors. ‘If anybody says to me—oh, my daughter is very pretty and she wants to be an actress—I’ll say forget it, don’t do it. It’s a terrible profession. Ninety-nine percent of the actors are unemployed most of the time. Fine, she wants to be an actor but she must find a solid career. Don’t land up in Bollywood with a bag, at the cost of your career. If you have an interest in acting, join amateur clubs, join drama clubs.’

Attributing her success largely to qualities that she has imbibed because of Sikhism, Gurinder feels her religion has taught her to be confident, fearless and stand up to injustice, especially racism. ‘It has taught me civil responsibility towards others and helped me acquire a moral code that is very egalitarian and socialist. I could go on, but when we shot Bride and Prejudice we got permission to shoot the movie in the sanctum sanctorum of the Golden Temple at Amritsar purely on the basis that I was a Sikh and had promoted Babaji in Bend It Like Beckham in such an international way. I had put the picture of Guru Nanak Devji in a prominent way in the movie because I had grown up with that picture.’

Recalling her childhood days, Gurinder says, ‘Just as in the film, I had to bow my head in reverence in front of the picture as a child. My mother does it all the time and we do it after we complete a script.’ Gurinder keeps a prop from each movie. She kept Babaji’s picture from Beckham. It became a big thing when one of Gurinder’s friend’s children walked into Gurinder’s mum’s house in Southall and on seeing the picture hanging on the wall, became really excited—‘oh, look at Babaji. It’s Babaji!’ And her mum sighed, ‘Hai, kithe kithe sada message gaya. Chote chote gore bacheyaan noon vi pata lagya sade Babaji da (how far your message has spread! Small white children too have started recognizing our god).’

Gurinder’s mother, a very religious lady, came from a family that propagated Sikhism in East Africa. Her maternal grandfather Kartar Singh was known as a very spiritual man; he laid the foundation of the first Sikh temple at Makindoo in East Africa and imported a copy of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib from India.

Gurinder has not let success go to her head, even though many would disagree. Punjabis swell with pride and arrogance, once successful. But then Gurinder is different and she finds it particularly embarrassing when at family weddings, relatives insist on being photographed with her. ‘I hate it and it gets irritating because it’s taking away from the bride and the bridegroom their day. I don’t mind people stopping me and saying thanks for doing this. It feels nice. And it’s overwhelming when people come up to me—especially the old people—and tell me, keep up the good work. It almost makes me tearful.’

Success necessarily does not mean a celebrity status. It means a happy marriage, good friends and being able to eat well in your home—over and above being a millionaire. Gurinder Chadha was declared one of the richest Asian women in Europe in 2004. But unlike many rich people, Gurinder is not a big spender and follows a not-too-expensive lifestyle. Her problem is that she does not spend too much money. That’s what her tax lawyer keeps telling her, to spend. On what, she keeps asking him?

‘Well, it’s 11.30—do you think we should have a quick breakfast?’ she asks.

‘Sure,’ I reply, and I follow her into the kitchen and help her take out the fruit bowls. Hungry, we attack our strawberries, grapes, and cantaloupes as we chat about what Gurinder’s fans should expect from her in the future? ‘Who knows?’ she replies, though latest media reports suggest that she has, in 2006, firming up what’s unarguably her most expensive and challenging film, based on the successful American series Dallas, that will star John Travolta. ‘The really gratifying thing about me doing a big-screen Dallas is that all the actors, who were cautious and skeptical about the project, became interested after they got to know I was at the helm,’ says a clearly thrilled Gurinder.

Other than this, Gurinder is working on several films, some British, some Hollywood and a few set in India. ‘I am lucky enough to work in all these countries, in all these different industries and my own banner projects reflect that,’ she says.

Khushwant Singh
  • Cj Singh