Bhaji on the Beach
English Title: Bhaji on the Beach
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: Umbi, Channel 4/Film4 International
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Producer(s): Nadine Marsh-Edwards
Cinematographer: John Kenway
Editor: Oral Ottley
Runtime: 101 minutes
The working class seaside resort of Blackpool, that ‘great roaring spangled beast’ according to JB Priestly, has provided a vivid setting for many British films, from the Gracie Fields’ extravaganza Sing As We Go (Basil Dean, 1934) to the meditation on comedy Funny Bones (Peter Chelsom, 1994). Blackpool provides material for generational and culture clash comedy, as a diverse group of Asian women enjoy Blackpool’s pleasures, from the innocent enjoyment of paddling in the sea and donkey rides, to the rather more risqué delights of boob-shaped Blackpool rock and male strippers. However, the town’s colourful flamboyance also acts as a reminder that Britain is far from uniformly monochromatic and that sometimes, perhaps, the cultural distance between Blackpool and Bollywood is not so far.
Throughout the film, cultural hybridity is emphasized via small touches such as character’s adding masala spice to a bag of chips or the witty Punjabi cover version of Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’ that accompanies the minibus drive along the motorway. In its yoking of Ealingesque ensemble playing and Bollywood fantasy, the film speaks of intermingling British and Indian cinema traditions. Any attempts to adhere to a traditional identity prove impossible and ultimately undesirable, as when Asha (Lalita Ahmed) is mocked by Mumbai sophisticate Rekha (Souad Faress) for trying to stick to the ideals of the home country when that society has modernized beyond recognition. Perhaps the most eloquent expression of the film’s hopes for multiculturalism come from the romance of Hashida (Sarita Khajuria) and Oliver (Mo Sesay), who look like they might be able to overcome the entrenched prejudices of their respective backgrounds, and whose embrace is blessed by the magical touch of the famous Blackpool illuminations that suddenly beginning to twinkle over their heads.
Despite its comedic touches, Bhaji on the Beach retains a keen awareness of the racism that is ‘always around the corner’ according to director Gurinder Chadha, with a nasty stand-off between the women’s group and a group of thuggish men at a service station. Chadha and co-writer Meera Syal also provide a nuanced portrayal of an abusive marriage, refusing to present Ranjit (Jimmi Harkishin) as an outright villain by showing his vulnerabilities whilst never pulling their punches about his brutality towards Ginder (Kim Vithana) and their son. In this sub-plot, along with that of downtrodden Asha who finally revolts against ‘duty, honour, sacrifice’, saying ‘What about me? I wasn’t meant for this!’ Bhaji on the Beach triumphantly lives up to Chadha’s aim (for non-Asian viewers, at least) to ‘draw you in and make you care for my characters, and feel for them, and make you see that they are not ‘other’ any more’. Almost a decade elapsed between Bhaji and Chadha’s next British feature, the highly successful Bend It Like Beckham (2002) but Chadha remains a pioneer of the new wave of British Asian cinema along with Hanif Kureishi, Ayub Khan-Din and Udayan Prasad, while providing her own valuable and often humorous perspective on female identity.
Author of this review: Melanie Williams