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.

Bride & Prejudice (2004)

2010 #82
Gurinder Chadha | 107 mins | TV | 12 / PG-13

I don’t imagine Bride & Prejudice is going to convert many people who aren’t already predisposed to liking it in some way. That’s not to say it’s not good or doesn’t have potential crossover appeal, but it still has a whole list of things that will put certain viewers off.

Melodramatic love story/stories? Check. A couple of over-acted comedy characters? Check. Characters bursting into song? Check. Bright, colourful, extravagant song-and-dance numbers? Check.

I can’t comment on how much it’s like a Bollywood movie because I’ve never seen one, but it’s a little bit what I’d expect one to be like; albeit a Westernised one, as it’s mostly in English, with some significant British and American characters, and runs comfortably under two hours. Another point of reference that came to mind was Moulin Rouge, though it’s not as MTV-style fast-paced as that, and the songs are originals rather than repurposed pop/rock numbers. Also Mamma Mia, though I don’t wish to bring about the negative connotations — it’s well sung and not as cheesy.

The other main facet is that which is (hopefully) obvious from the title: it’s a Jane Austen adaptation. It’s easy to think we’re in no rush for another version of Pride and Prejudice, what with the iconic 1995 BBC series and the Oscar-nominated Keira Knightley film, not to mention the numerous adaptations predating either of those, but Bride brings plenty that’s vastly different to the table. It converts the novel very accurately (as best I can tell, having only seen screen versions), retaining both the characterisation and the majority of the plot in a similar sequence of events.

On the surface it’s completely different, of course, transplanting everything from 19th Century England to modern-day India, complete with vibrant song & dance numbers, email correspondence and aeroplane-fuelled globetrotting. There’s no danger anyone will confuse this for a straight adaptation. But for all that it is a faithful retelling, the characters and their actions unmistakably Austen’s.

That said, while most characters are fundamentally unchanged, others are suitably modified. Nitin Ganatra offers a very different Mr Collins (here, Mr Kohli), for instance. Removing the awkward creepiness of the usual interpretation, he’s instead Americanised — brash, mannerless, over-enthusiastic — but still odd, unlikeable, and undesirable.

Little of the plot requires such modification, perhaps thanks to the culture it’s been grafted onto — the predominance of arranged marriages wouldn’t really work in a ’00s British setting — and those bits which are changed are relatively minor. Lydia (here, Lakhi) runs off with Wickham for an afternoon at the London Eye, rather than eloping; Georgiana (here, the slightly more modern Georgina) was impregnated at 16, less legally complicated than the novel’s 15.

As I said, Bride & Prejudice certainly isn’t for everyone, but for those that can accept its musical, colourful, comical style and familiar plot (the curse of any version of a much-adapted tale), it’s a wonderful entertainment.

4 out of 5