Bhaji on the Beach

Gurinder Chadha in conversation
By Ali Kazimi

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Ali: What does the title of the film refer to?

Gurinder: People always ask me that. Bhaji on the Beach generated a bit of fun because it connoted a nice day out. In England, when Fred Smith goes out to have his weekly curry, he always orders chicken korma, palal rice, naan bread and cucumber raita. But to start he always has onion bhaji, which is an anglicisation of bahajia, so we felt it was quite a good name for the film.

Ali: How did the film evolve?

Gurinder: It was Meera's idea [Syal, the screenwriter of Bhaji on the Beach] to make a film about a group of women who go to the seaside. We sat down and started thinking it through. For me, it wasn't enough to make a film like that because it would have been basically an ethnic comedy. I came up with the other two story lines, the most taboo areas in the community at the time. One was domestic violence, and the other was mixed race relationships between Blacks and Asians. We went right in at the deep end to where [the couple] have already been together and now she's pregnant. So it's a crisis situation; what's she going to do? Is the relationship going to survive? The fetus also serves as a metaphor for the Black and Asian communities. I just wanted to play around with that. Not provide any answers, just play around.

One of the biggest problems in England is women's increased independence and the associated rise in domestic violence. Although support groups exist for Black and Asian women, I wanted to explore that problem within the Asian community, and why Asian men behave the way they do. I tried to look back at family and upbringing and see what it was about men's emotional make up that makes them act the way they do towards women who are being assertive and who stand up to do what they feel is right for themselves.

Ali: Where did you draw these characters from? Was it through interviews or personal experience?

Gurinder: All of the characters in the film are loosely based on relatives or friends. When anybody Indian goes to see the film, they will see someone they recognize from their own social environment. The actors found the same thing. They were able to base the characters on real people that they knew and they all started to interrelate as a family. In my head, I also 'knew' who certain actors 'were.'

It was a very closely knit procedure; the improvisation the actors did worked well because they drew on very strong, recognizable character traits and they were all speaking the same language. As a director, that's fantastic. A lot of the hard work [associated with working with many actors] had been done for us because we had chosen characters who were readily recognizable.

Ali: Did you encourage actors to improvise around the lines?

Gurinder: For me, one of the pleasures of making the film was working with the actors and trying to make the film real. While writing the script, it was very difficult to get all the story lines in and balanced. So when it came time to go to production, it was great to be able to pass some of the responsibility on to the actors. The actors, with one or two exceptions, had never been involved in a cinema film project before.

Their ability to suggest specific details that were so important to the film involved a lot of trust between us. Anishia Nair completely changed the character of Laddu and in the end it was much improved as far as I was concerned. It brought an honesty and a complexity to the character that I didn't feel existed before in the script and I encouraged her to explore that. Shaheen Khan, who played Simi the bus driver, based her character on me, so whenever the character became too horrible or bossy, I had to step in and correct her! It also added to the sense of intimacy and fun between the actors and myself.

Ali: One of my favourite scenes was between Oliver and his father in the workshop. It was interesting to see how you dealt with a culture that wasn't yours and with a relationship between two men. How did that come about?

Gurinder: What I was looking for in all the characters and scenes was the humanity, regardless of race. In the Indian scenes, I tried to remove any trace of distinct 'Indianness' and replace it with something universal. The same with the scene with Oliver and his father. It didn't have anything to do with being Black and that was why it worked so well. A lot of that is part of what makes a well written scene. Meera wrote the dialogue very well, with a lot of help from the producer Nadine [Marsh-Edwards], who is Black. We were all putting in what we knew and taking out what we didn't know, so Nadine's input was quite present in the Black and Asian story line.

We wanted to focus on the ordinariness of the characters, like in the scene were Oliver goes to visit her [Hashida's] parents. It could have turned into a scene about race versus culture, but instead it was about a young man going to meet his new parents-in-law when the parents don't know that he's married their daughter. Mo Sesay played the part very well, with a sense of honesty that came again from seeing the characters not as Black or Indian people, but just as people.

Ali: Yet within the narrative, there are continually incidents that remind the characters that they are Black or Indian.

Gurinder: Yes, but I didn't want to focus on that as such. I think [the incidents] contextualized the characters' relationships within the film. The opening shot of a butcher throwing a lump of meat against his shop window [which is typically British] then of a young man spray-painting a swastika on the window, immediately followed by the sound of Indian music coming from a radio, set the context of the film in its first three seconds. It's important to show that racism is not only there, but that women deal with it assertively. Their treatment of racism turned into quite a powerful tool but we had to use it lightly.

Ali: How was it working with Peter Sellier [the only principal white actor in the film], and how did he respond to the film?

Gurinder: He was a great sport. He knew exactly what we wanted in the character of Ambrose and he played it fantastically. When he saw the finished product, he was very moved. He was a great person to have around because it showed the progress we were making. Here the majority of actors were Black, and only some of the supporting cast was white, while so often in feature films it's the other way around.

Ali: Your use of sound, especially music, in the film was particularly interesting.

Gurinder: My first film, I'm British But..., was about music. I made that film because during the late 1980s, great new music was coming out made for us by us. It was a particularly British Indian thing, and it moved me very much. I've taken that on to every film I've made because it's the best way to show the sort of fusion that exists between the two cultures in a celebratory way. In Bhaji, all the character have their own sort of sound. The film score is very intricate and tells its own story.

Ali: Why did you choose to use the flashbacks and dream sequences?

Gurinder: I wanted the film to look essentially English, with Indian characters. The old Carry On films used the dream sequence technique. I also wanted to incorporate some Indian cinematic styles. All the fantasy sequences relate to stock Indian films and represent Asha's attempts to reconcile traditionalism and her imagination with modernity and reality. I wanted to show both that we were able to exist quite happily combining aspects of two diverse cultures.

Ali: Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Gurinder: From everything, all the time. From magazine articles, television shows, conversations. It's a manifestation of how I react culturally with what's going on around me in terms of race. In terms of film, I'm influenced by the new, political English film makers like Ken Loach and Mike Lee. [Films like] Riff Raff and High Hopes had something to do with the creation of Bhaji, as did Tokyo Story. In a way, I think Bhaji shares a resonance with that. Italian family dramas and irreverent French films also contributed something to Bhaji, but I think that Indian films have perhaps had more of an influence than I give them credit for. Some of the scenes that were shot, for example the one of the men under the pier, were particularly Indian.

Ali: What is it like for you, as an Asian or Black woman film maker in Britain, in terms of working with the crew and the independent film institute? Are there certain expectations?

Gurinder: Obviously there's some struggle involved because what I'm doing is new and it can make people uncomfortable. There are also some problems because I'm assertive. I've learned that when you are the first to do something, everything will be a struggle. Although I get some of the benefits of breaking new ground, I am assured to get most of the problems, and as long as I'm taking money away from white male film makers, the white men on the film set will question why I was able to make the jump and they weren't. I get very upset when people are surprised by how good the film is but I try not to dwell on that.

Ali: In terms of characters and the women that you draw on, they are from India. Your own family is from East Africa. Your next project is supposed to deal more directly with your own roots. Could you tell me about that?

Gurinder: I've been trying to write that film for three years, but it's so hard and other projects are always taking precedence. It's a project called In the Early Hours of the Day, and it looks back on the life of an elderly couple in London; their last thirty years in England and their first forty years in Kenya. It looks back on their parents' lives, but also at the life of their son who lives in Vancouver, so it is a sort of poetic look at movement and journey, of cultural gain and cultural loss. It's difficult to write about what exactly is being lost and what is being gained because it's not tangible. It's half written in my head, but I haven't found the proper way to express it yet. Perhaps when I am an old woman I will have found it! I like the fact that as my environment changes over time, so does the project. It's a work in progress that influences other works I do.

Ali: How have men will responded to a film like this?

Gurinder: In the first screening we had in the Southampton Film Festival, we asked some of the Indian men who had attended what they thought. Some of them were able to strongly identify characters in the film with people that they knew. What I think will appeal to people who see the film is its realism and truthfulness. If there is a problem, it will be with people who say we shouldn't 'air our dirty linens in public.' Frankly, I have no patience with those people. For myself, I have to accept that some people are bound to be upset by what I do, but at the same time I have to be glad about that because at least I'm causing them to confront what's going on.

Ali: How common is a relationship like the one between Oliver and Hashida?

Gurinder: Very common. People just don't want to talk about what's going on. The opposite scenario—Black women with Asian men—is also common, particularly in the Midlands, but it's still hidden. This sort of denial probably won't disappear until the next generation grows up, by then the reality of mixed-race relationships will probably be accepted instead of merely tolerated. The few parents who have seen [Bhaji] have by and large welcomed the fact that it's being talked about. It's quite encouraging.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Gurinder Chadha
Gurinder Chadha is one of the United Kingdom's most proven and respected Film Director and Producers.
Ali Kazimi
Professor Ali Kazimi is a filmmaker, writer, and visual artist whose work deals with race, social justice, migration, history, memory and archive.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre