I wondered whether Gurinder Chadha was making a statement or trying to be ironic when she wanted to meet in a posh curry-house above the Soho Theatre, in central London. It was a bit too much like her films: British-Asian fusion, with a load of actors. This, after all, is the British director who has established herself as a major purveyor of Asian life in the West.
Yet, important though the racial theme is in Chadha's films, it's the gender of the main protagonist in the trend, and the director's status as a commercially successful British director, that set her works apart. In Bhaji on the Beach, a bus-load of Asian women on a day trip to Blackpool challenge the stereotype of the subservient veiled Asian woman. What's Cooking? is set in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving, around the traditionally female domain of the dinner table. And, audaciously, the director has a girl dreaming of a career as a footballer in the international box-office smash hit Bend It Like Beckham.
Her latest film, Bride and Prejudice, is her most ambitious to date. Chadha has taken Jane Austen's quintessentially English novel and fuelled it with Bollywood kitsch, transplanting the romance (with Fitzwilliam Darcy becoming plain Will Darcy) from 1790s England to 2004 India. Although Bride contains many of the cliches of the Hindi cinematic diaspora - most notably, the protagonists burst into song and dance at the drop of a turban - the histrionics and over-dramatisation of Bollywood have been replaced by a more subdued Western acting sensibility.
The director, recovering from an energy-zapping illness brought on by stress, orders a hot water with lemon and explains why she approached Jane Austen with a bhangra beat: "The whole film is an experiment. We talk about a British Asian, British Punjabi, Indo- Brit, East and West, multicultural, whatever - everyone talks about these terms, but the film is a very detailed analysis of what that actually means. It is a discourse played out in terms of cinema language."
Cinematically, the re-creation of the British Asian experience had its pivotal moment in 1985 with the Hanif Kureishi-scripted My Beautiful Laundrette. Henceforth, the Asian rather than the Afro- Caribbean experience became the major race story in British film. The clash over religion, marriage and cultural heritage is fertile ground for the Romeo and Juliet forbidden-love story that has appeared in some form in My Son the Fanatic, East is East, Bend It Like Beckham and lately Ae Fond Kiss. These movies inevitably end with an Asian character falling into the arms of a white English counterpart: they seem designed as much with an eye to not alienating potential audiences than showing the Asian second- generation experience.
Motivated by Chadha rolling her eyes despairingly at the mention of Ken Loach's Ae Fond Kiss, I put it to the director that essentially the British Asian experience on film has usually been told in a one-dimensional way - and that she herself has at times been guilty of that.
Chadha counters with energetic fervour: "I really detest this notion of all Asian films being the same experience, because they are all very different. Hanif Kureishi's films are very different from where I come from; they might have brown people in them, but his perception of the community and his experience of them is vastly different from mine.
"He has a very disenfranchised view of his Indian-ness and his Asian- ness, because he has not lived it the same way as me. I'm very different from Hanif's middle-class literary Pakistani father, English mother; very different from the experience of Ayub Khan Din [East is East] up north. I don't think there is a film made in England that shows the same experience that I have, but I can say that to you - and cannot always say that to white people because they don't recognise the differences."
Our conversation has become like banter between friends who respect each other's points without always fully agreeing with them. …