A rebellious daughter playing football, a Pakistani son of immigrants obsessed with the music of Bruce Springsteen and the final British Viceroy of India. These are characters at the heart of filmmaker Gurinder Chada’s extensive filmography, dating back to her 1993 debut, Bhaji on the Beach.
The award-winning director has not only helmed 11 feature films and earned an Order of the British Empire award, but also remains an advocate for women in the male-dominant industry. She writes and directs stories that feature diverse female characters, often focusing on “the struggle of Indian women finding their place in English culture and traditional Indian homes,” according to FF2 Media contributor Lesley Coffin.
Chadha spoke to FF2 Media in 2005 about her background, inspiration and her musical Bride & Prejudice, a spin on the classic Jane Austen novel, following four unmarried daughters in an Indian family.
“I am both English and Indian, and I’m married to a Californian who has a Japanese mother,” Chadha told FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner. “Not only that, but I was born in Africa. So between us, Paul and I cover the world.”
Though Austen’s novels remain a popular subject in film adaptations: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma (2020), Jerusha Hess’ Austenland (2013) and the somewhat-fictionalized story of the author’s love affair, Becoming Jane (2007) are all well-known. But Bride & Prejudice (2004) started the trend in 21st century cinema.
“It was incredible how well the novel fitted contemporary Indian society,” Chadha said in 2005. “The cultural mores were identical. Jane Austen was writing at a time when women were not considered ‘whole’ unless they were married. It’s only through marriage that they gained status. They were supposed to be coy, and paint and play musical instruments – but not use their brains. And this is all stuff that’s relevant in small town India today, but also in other places all over the world. Many Elizabeth Bennets are alive and well in India today. I’ve met them.”
Gurinder said she took the “the very alien film language of Bollywood” and combined it with traditional English literature because “that’s the metaphor for integration. I want you to know side-by-side that you are looking at something that is 200 years old and English, and you’re also looking at something that’s very modern and Indian, and look how beautifully these two things can work together.”
She continued the thread of finding modern themes in old stories with Viceroy’s House (2017), starring Gillian Anderson and Hugh Bonneville as British officials attempting to smoothly transfer power from the British government to the Indian people in 1947.
“During the course of making the film, things really changed [in global politics], and it made us realize how this part of history, although it took place 70 years ago, still has resonance in our modern world,” Chada told Coffin in a 2017 interview with FF2. “We were shooting the refugee scene in India, with a thousand extras dressed as refugees but in period clothing. And it seemed bizarre to be filming those scenes, but up the road, in Syria, we were seeing the real news footage of people fleeing. It was sobering. The reality of today became very stark while making the film.”
While Bride & Prejudice is adapted from fiction, Viceroy’s House is based on the true story of the last British Viceroy, which Chada told us was an “endeavor…to get everything accurate.” But she stressed that “we have to remember that history is partial and that’s the reason we open with the quote: ‘History is written by the victors.’”
“My intentions were to tell a story about my family’s history, as a British-Indian woman,” she said. “So it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to take all that information, all the historical data, and filter it through my own lens.”
Chada’s filmography has reflected a multitude of other experiences; her name is most synonymous with the 2002 hit Bend It Like Beckham, starring Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra as a daughter who rebels against her orthodox Sikh parents and joins a football team. “Put A League of Their Own, Blue Crush and Monsoon Wedding into a blender and out comes this multi-cultural feminist fun,” Huttner wrote her 2002 review.
Bend It Like Beckham was the highest-grossing Indian-themed film at the U.S box office since Academy Award Best Picture Ghandi (1982). But Chadha was quick to point out the gender parity that still plagued the film industry, even later in her career.
“Despite her success, Chadha noted that in all the years that have passed since her first feature, she is still one of a small handful of female directors that have made more than one film,” FF2 Media Contributor Nicola Freeman wrote after attending a Bird’s Eye View event with Chadha in London in 2017. “While stressing the importance of actively supporting female filmmakers at the cinema, especially on the opening weekend, she also noted that women can no longer be passive in the fight for change within this historically male-dominated industry.”
Most recently, Chadha wrote and directed a critically-acclaimed adaptation of the memoir Blinded By the Light, following Bruce Springsteen superfan Sarfraz Manzoor. The Pakistani teenager grew up in 1980s England and was changed by discovering Springsteen’s music. “The universal theme of connecting with the work of a singular and special artist is carried on Blinded by the Light’s flannel-clad shoulders,” FF2 critic Brigid Presecky wrote in her review, calling it a “joyful and meaningful” feature. “It is a tribute to art, and its ability to bring healing or understanding or inspiration into our lives right when we need it most.
“Chadha actually accomplishes the difficult task of making you feel the emotional connection to the music,” Presecky writes of the film, streaming on Hulu and HBO NOW. “She uses creative techniques to show how happy and relieved he is to have someone communicating exactly how he feels, and she does it without simply telling the audience through dialogue.
FF2 Associate Danielle Solzman included Blinded By the Light on her list of the best women-directed films of 2019 after viewing it at the Sundance Film Festival. She praised cast members Viveik Kalra and Nell Williams in this “stunning tribute to the great New Jersey singer-songwriter,” with “one of the great soundtracks of the year.”
Next the prolific director will co-write and direct the animated Netflix feature Pashmina, the story of an Indian-American girl “who rediscovers her heritage through her magical pashmina,” according to IMDb. Pashmina is reported to be a musical adapted from Nidhi Chanani’s graphic novel. She continues to bring authentic portrayals of intersectional culture to the screen, an all-too-rare feat for a female director whose work we have been proud to celebrate for 15 years.
“No true Bollywood films have been remotely successful in the West in the way [Bride & Prejudice] has because they are too much geared toward the Indian audience,” Chada said in 2005. “But ‘Bride’ is about me knowing my audience, and knowing my market and actually being a part of it myself. I am as much a part of the West as I am Indian. Jane Austen is just as important a part of my life and my school time as Bollywood movies are. It’s the combination that makes me who I am.”
© Georgiana E. Presecky (4/1/20) FF2 Media
Read FF2 Media’s interviews with Chada in 2005 and 2017, plus our in-person coverage of her 2017 London Bird’s Eye View interview and 2014 New York Indian Film Festival’s 20th Anniversary Celebration of Bhaji on the Beach.