As a British Asian, filmmaker Gurinder Chadha has managed to find an audience and make a name for herself in India and the West, something very few filmmakers have achieved. She believes her dual identity lends her a unique perspective as a filmmaker. Chadha says she has ‘two statistics that no other filmmaker has’. The first, that she made a film (Bride And Prejudice) that was number one at both the UK and Indian box office at the same time. The second is that she’s the only filmmaker in the world who’s made a film that’s been distributed in every single country in the world, including North Korea. She’s referring to one of her most-loved films, Bend It Like Beckham, widely considered the gold standard in having captured the British Asian experience.
Her latest film Blinded By The Light premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and opened to rave reviews. Set in the late ’80s, the coming of age tale follows a 16-year-old British Pakistani boy Javed, an aspiring writer struggling with racism and overprotective parents. He finds an escape in the music of Bruce Springsteen. In India, the film released recently on Netflix.
Outside of the feel-good coming-of-age British Asian niche she’s carved out for herself, Chadha has also had a fairly varied filmmaking career having worked across mediums. That includes a documentary on Partition, TV show Beecham House (currently streaming on Netflix), reality show Desi Rascals and even a Bend It Like Beckham stage musical. Next up for the filmmaker is an animated musical feature for Netflix titled Pashmina as well as rumours of a superhero film she’s said to be working on.
Over overpriced smoothies at a London café, the jovial Chadha spoke to me about her new film, the criticism against Viceroy’s House and why she is yet to make a Bollywood film.
People tend to associate you with a certain kind of feel-good British Asian movie. Does that ever bother you?
I think it happens with all directors and artists. People associate you with what they relate to. The people who saw Beckham would never have seen Bhaaji On The Beach even though they’re similar films. And people always just want me to make Beckham over and over again but at the same time, enough people also want me to make a Bollywood movie and also an Angus, Thongs And Perfect Snogging again. The thing is when you make a film people relate to, it’s an emotional relationship, and they want more of it which is understandable. But as a creative person, you don’t want to repeat yourself.
What’s interesting about Blinded By The Light is that people come up to me and tell me how much they cried in the film which is wonderful. They didn’t in Beckham so it’s a different kind of appreciation.
Blinded By The Light is set in the 80s and over the last few years, there seems to be a trend of nostalgia-fuelled films being set in the past. Why do you think that is?
I think that’s always happened, I don’t think it’s a new thing. People are always going back and setting films in the past. But I think every film you make whether it’s present or period has to say something about the world you’re living in today.
The reason I chose to make Blinded was because of what was happening with Brexit and how that felt similar to some of the things that were happening in the 80s. I have for the longest time believed I should make films that change society and make it a more tolerant place. I think comes from me being British Asian. But when I decided to make this film, I didn’t realise just how much it would resonate in terms of how much these narratives around race developed in America and Britain.
But it’s not an arthouse film, it’s a commercial film. I wanted to make sure it was steadfastly uncynical. I just felt that was a statement I needed to make right now. There has to be hope. I wanted to make sure people came away feeling uplifted. Most films are quite cheesy but don’t do that powerful political thing as well. And Indians are used to this kind of storytelling because it’s a film that makes you laugh and also cry as well, but I think non-Indians aren’t and it’s unusual for them because they’re not used to having films with a gambit of emotions.
Many of your films are based on the inter-generational conflict between Asian parents and their kids struggling for freedom. Do you think that will always be around to make fodder for great movies?
Yeah, it’s universal. That’s why Blinded was loved by so many people. It’s not because they’re Pakistani or that father-son relationship, it’s because everyone wants to please their parents and it doesn’t always happen. It didn’t happen to Bruce Springsteen. His dad never said to him, ‘Well done, son. I’m proud of you’ and that’s what messed him up. Indian parents don’t often say ‘I love you’. They do it in different ways.
My dad was an ardent feminist and he used to always put me and my sister on a pedestal and that’s what I showed in Bend It Like Beckham. I had an upbringing where I was allowed to be all the things I was, but like everybody, I ducked and dived and hid things from my parents because that’s just how you do it. And it’s been an endless source of drama for me to mine and I continue to mine it because you realise just how universal that is.
But now I’m a parent and over the years I’ve turned into the mum from Bend It Like Beckham (laughs). I started off as the girl and now I’ve turned into the mum.
Your last film Viceroy’s House faced some pretty strong divided opinions on the approach you took to depict Partition and British rule in India. What did you make of that criticism?
I think it’s interesting to see if it’s Indians having an issue with it or non-Indians. If you’re Indian, of course, you’d want a much more hard-hitting film. But because we’re British and were making a British film, I made it in a way that was for me about exposing what was happening. It was enough for me to have the twist at the end to say ‘everything you thought was true isn’t true and actually this is what happened’.
For me, that was more interesting as a British film than something like some of the scenes from 1942: A Love Story which is a lovely film but the British guy in it was a complete caricature. That would have been an easier film to make for India. The film I made was more about the inability of India’s leaders at the time to actually work out how they were being played by the British, and that’s not necessarily the story that Indians, or Pakistanis for that matter, want to hear.
Also, people in India never got to see Viceroy’s House the way I made it. It was never released in English which is what it was meant for. I was very upset with Reliance and Phantom who I feel did me a great disservice by not releasing the film in English. We were always going to do a Hindi version, but that would be in conjunction with the version I made because it wasn’t made for a Hindi speaking audience.
Is there a downside to having access to multiple audiences and being known in different markets? Does everyone expect different things from you?
There’s definitely that, but I think that’s part of the territory of who I am. There’s no one else like me and so I think what I do can’t be measured. The only other filmmaker who is a bit like me is Ang Lee. He’s Chinese American so he always has his Chinese side which is why he can make Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but at the same time make a Hulk. He’s part of the diaspora directors and there are very few.
There’s a French guy call Rachid Bouchareb who made a film called Cheb back in the 90s that not many people know about. It had a massive impact on me. It was about Parisian Tunisians who go back to Tunisia and are treated very differently to how they were treated in Paris.
I think there’s a dearth of that and I think sometimes people look at me and see me as Indian and think I should do this and other people see me as British and think I should do that. But I’m this unique voice who does it the way I like to do it and there aren’t enough people who write about film who understand that distinction.
Often in India, I used to have arguments with people because they used to keep saying ‘why do you keep making these films about racism, you’re just causing trouble’. I used to say ‘but in India you lot don’t realise how parochial you are. You don’t get to decide what is Indian. You think you do but you don’t. I get to decide it on in my terms’. And a good example of that is the whole Bhangra music scene. That was us, we did that in Britain. That was a completely British Asian concept and movement that went to India and transformed the whole Indian music scene.
And I think now with Netflix and everything, people are trying to chase that international thing more and I already have a global audience. My Name Is Khan is a good example. A lovely film for India and if you’re invested in Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, but for the West, they weren’t quite sure what this is. For me, Bride and Prejudice was me trying to introduce that genre to the West, so it wasn’t really for India.
I think sometimes people look at me and see me as Indian and think I should do this and other people see me as British and think I should do that. But I’m this unique voice who does it the way I like to do it and there aren’t enough people who write about film who understand that distinction.
Back in 2008, you were almost signed on to direct Hollywood film Dallas which had an all-star cast including Jennifer Lopez, John Travolta and Luke Wilson but the film fell through. Do you ever wonder where you’d be had that film taken off?
Oh yes, I think things would’ve been very different. The film was very funny, and I think it would have been very good. But then I think there was a danger of me becoming a director for hire in America and that wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do at that point. I also then fell pregnant and had my children so I needed to be around the kids. Then I made the Paramount movie Angus Thongs and then I made my comedy horror film It’s A Wonderful Afterlife which no one saw but again was very ahead of its time in my opinion. I think that will be rediscovered in time. It’s a very Punjabi horror film but it came out at a time where everyone was like ‘oh but we want to see Bend It Like Beckham again’. But I often do get asked to do Hollywood projects and I just think ‘is this what I should be using my voice for at this moment?’
I imagine you also often get asked why you haven’t made a Bollywood film yet?
I do and never say never but I just can’t make a film for the masses. I don’t have the sensibility for that. But there have been some great films which aren’t necessarily for the masses. Vicky Donor was a great film and I think that had the potential to crossover internationally if it had been re-edited slightly. If they bought me in on that film and got me in a cutting room, I could’ve made a version that would have travelled outside India. But there are very few films that are like that. I think PK is a good one as well. But I do have a project right now which is Hindi language.
What can you tell me about your animated project Pashmina and the superhero film you’re said to be working on?
I’m working on quite a few things. I have a slate. Pashmina will be the first diaspora Asian animation. It’s for Netflix who are building a big animation studio. We’re working with a wonderful woman who worked on Pixar’s Toy Story 3 and Coco. I wanted to do it because I’ve never done it before, but it’ll take a few years.
With the superhero film, you’ve actually pulled me away from it today (laughs), I’m literally on it right now. I’ve been working on writing it for a while and I’m very excited by it. But it’s a challenge, it’s a lot of money. The great thing about it is it’s a very powerful idea and it’s very now, and again it’s my point of view and no one else thinks like me.