Bhaji on the Beach (1993)

2010 #90
Gurinder Chadha | 96 mins | DVD | 15 / R

The debut feature from director Gurinder Chadha (of Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice and Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Perfect Snogging fame) and screenwriter Meera Syal (of Goodness Gracious Me, Anita and Me and Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee fame) focuses on the experiences of a group of British Indian women. One might add “unsurprisingly”, considering the other works on their CVs, but I feel that would just open a can of worms, so moving on…

One gets the sense that, in 1993, Bhaji on the Beach was a break-out film that uncovered an area of British society and culture that had been largely concealed from the wider media landscape. It was no doubt bitingly relevant, showcasing a different set of cultural rules and expectations, not to mention the casual racism that I’m sure was as prevalent as it’s depicted. That’s not to say everything is healed and we no longer need to understand these things, but, viewed today, the film feels less “this is how things are” and more “this is how things were then”, emphasised by the ever-so-’90s costumes, cars, locations… It feels as much a period piece as, say, Ashes to Ashes.

The perspective is definitively female — no bad thing for a medium where, almost 20 years later, there are still few female directors, and those that garner the widest recognition tend to do so in typically male genres. This also arguably helps it transcend a potentially exclusive cultural specificity: topics like unwanted pregnancy, abusive husbands and parental expectations are certainly relevant to a wider audience. Bhaji on the BusIndeed, there’s certainly evidence that the film was constructed with such an audience in mind: when the women settle down for a traditionally British ‘picnic on the beach’, we’re given a close-up to show they’re eating samosas and bhajis instead of sandwiches and what-have-you. If all the talk of pregnancies, abuse and racism sounds a bit serious, there’s also a good degree of humour and an appropriate lashing of sentiment.

The low budget occasionally adds an unfortunately amateurish feel to the film’s construction. Chadha clearly has vision and skill — the numerous daydream/nightmare sequences show this off in spades — but some dialogue scenes are either unimaginatively shot, or in some instances plain flat. Just a pinch of the talent applied elsewhere would serve to give them a necessary kick. Similarly, a few of the performances err on the weak side, to exactly the degree where some viewers won’t even be bothered while others may be frequently irritated.

As a very low budget, very indie, very ’90s film, Bhaji on the Beach has aged rather; yet for that it’s still an enjoyable, informative and affecting feature. It’s no surprise both Chadha and Syal have gone on to bigger things.

4 out of 5

On Film4 tonight, Sunday 27th July 2014, at 1:10am.

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