The film Bhaji on the Beach, written by Meera Syal and directed by Gurinder Chadha, critiques the contemporary persistence of the bhadramahila or "respectable woman" construct that took root in nineteenth-century pre-independence, colonial Bengal. During that time, an emerging desire for a distinctly modern Indian consciousness set forth gender paradigms for women that would allow them to demonstrate their commitment to a growing nationalist ideology in pre-nationalist times. Summarized briefly, the film, set in late-twentieth-century Midlands, England, in an area heavily populated by Indian immigrants, chronicles the lives of eight South Asian women, ranging in age from sixteen to seventy, who take a day trip to the beach at Blackpool. Organized by the Saheli Women's Center in Birmingham, the trip enables women to temporarily escape the grind of daily life. Prior to the outing, several characters experience personal challenges that confound conventional ideas of what it means to be an Indian female living in the diaspora. For instance, Asha, a middle-aged housewife who helps run the family business, suffers from repeated tension headaches brought on from keeping domestic order, and repressing her desires to do something more with her college education. Another character, Ginder, and her young son seek refuge from an abusive husband at a local women's shelter. And Hashida, whose family plans for her to become a doctor, discovers she is pregnant by her black boyfriend, a certain taboo in the Indian community. These situational crises find a stage for expression during (he Saheli trip. Appropriately named the "Illuminations Outing," the day-long excursion calls attention to the ephiphanistic and adaptive moments that the several women will experience by the film's end.
Secondary criticism on Syal's and Chadha's important film is yet almost nonexistent. Reviews hold sway and only fleetingly mention the film's interrogation of gender, race, and immigration. Even then, reviews like those written by James Berardinelli suggest that the film does not seriously interrogate such topics, doing so in only a "ponderous fashion." Reasons for missing sustained critical attention may possibly be because Syal is most known for authoring, producing, and acting in several popular sitcoms for British television. Her sketch comedies The Kumars at No. 42 (2001-2006) and Goodness Gracious Me (1996-1998) link her directly with a sort of popular sub-genre, covering over her important screen contributions. Bhaji on the Beach, too, has many light-hearted, even comedic, moments, and this may be reason for those wishing to engage in serious criticism to abandon it. Bhaji, however, is worthy of critical exploration. It says much about living in the liminal spaces of diaspora. Its humour and seriousness exposes external and internal perceptions of "Indianess," specifically "female Indianess." But what makes it particularly provocative is its effort to capture character adaptation in process. Bhaji is worthy of serious investigation.
As mentioned at the outset of this essay, Bhaji returns to and borrows from a past complex system of ideas, or cultural stories, developed out of a newly forming Indian nationalism that demanded particular behaviour from women as its support. The essay examines Syal's and Chadha's direct assault upon, and adaptation of, a century-old idea (which originated in the state of Bengal and which was popularized by pre-nationalist, nineteenth-century Bengali writers), the bhadramahila or "respectable woman." The bhadramahila has not adapted easily with temporal and spatial shifts, and still impacts the lives of many Indian females living abroad. Syal and Chadha expose the difficulties contemporary women face when expected to enact traditional roles. The essay focuses on how Bhaji highlights the disconnect that late-twentieth-century Indian females living outside India experience with nineteenth-century codes of conduct, even as they are expected to continue in that tradition.
An intertextual reading of bhadramahila discourse in Bhaji on the Beach is supported by concepts derived particularly from postcolonial theory. For this reason, the essay first briefly canvasses theoretical ideas and defines concepts important to this type of analysis. Next, the essay provides a historical overview of the development of the bhadramahila and establishes its ties to pre-nationalist politics in India. Finally, the essay demonstrates how Syal's and Chadha's film highlights several moments of in-process adaptation for Indian immigrant women living outside India and still reckoning with the respectable woman paradigm.
Graham Allen identifies Julia Kristeva as most associated with foundational work in intertextual studies. Looking to articulate a hybrid theory of language and literature by accommodating ideas from Saussure and Bakhtin, Kristeva--Allen posits--theorizes at a transitional moment in literary and cultural history characterized as a time where critics sought to "disrupt notions of stable meaning and objective interpretation" (3). Julie Sanders explains how disruptive tendencies in literary and filmic work, for instance, have been generically identified as intertextuality where "texts invoke and rework other texts in a rich and ever-evolving cultural mosaic." Sanders usefully connects "the intertextual impulse" to the postcolonial definition of "hybridity" formulated by Homi Bhabha. According to Sanders, Bhabha's "account of hybridity suggests how things and ideas are 'repeated, relocated and translated in the name of tradition,' but also how this process of relocation can stimulate new utterances and creativity" (17). Bhabha's argument refutes "science-led notions of hybridization" like those forwarded by Gregor Mendel in his studies on heredity and that perceive "cultural artifacts as irrevocably changed by the process of interaction" (17-18). Comparing cultures with either recessive or dominant genes is "problematic" in postcolonial societies since the imperial is positioned to always dominate over the indigenous, even in hybrid forms (18).
Monica Fludernik explains further how Bhabha interprets host countries as antagonistic to expatriate communities. Victims of a racism incurred through science-based arguments, those living in the diaspora are alienated from being symbolic successors of the former colonial power. Reconceiving hybridity through what Fludernik calls the "Bhabhian paradigm" allows immigrants in diasporic locations to reappropriate and "significantly influence" western structures "for their own private interests" (287). Sangeeta Ray marks the power of Bhabha's argument about the migrant's performative abilities that repeat but do not completely replicate hegemonic national narratives. This performance is an articulation of the constricted nature of such a narrative (222).
Diasporic locations (like Birmingham as the setting in Bhaji, for example) serve as the physical landscapes where performances, like those described above by Ray, are enacted. Marakand Paranjape notes that, following the end of the imperial period, numerous people from colonized nations "occupied their former masters' countries, thus creating a new kind of diaspora" (199) and a new type of performance. Paranjape understands these new communities in terms of Bhabha's "interstitial spaces." In such spaces "counter-narratives continually evoke and erase the totalizing boundaries of the modern nation state." In these new and liminal spaces there is room "for the articulation of cultural knowledges that are adjacent and adjunct but not necessarily accumulative, ideological or dialectical" (Bhabha, qtd. in Paranjape 203).
Linda Hutcheon, like Bhabha, sees liberatory possibilities in hybridity. She, however, theorizes about such potential in terms of adaptation. Like Edward Said, who evaluates the transgeographic and transtemporal nature of ideas, Hutcheon posits that stories, too, migrate. Said speaks about narrative resistance in decolonized authors' revisions of imperial novels when they adopt and reuse source-texts to tell different versions of stories. Such rewritings re-map territories laid out by the colonizing artist by revealing discrepancies (212). No longer understood as a derivative or weaker offshoot, the resistant culture is able to re-see what has been marginalized, suppressed, and forgotten in such texts (216). Hutcheon believes that stories act as adaptations and "constitute transformations of previous works in new contexts [where] [l]ocal particularities become transplanted to new ground, and something new and hybrid results" (150). They repeat without replicating.
But is the word adaptation at odds with Bhabha's perspective on hybridity, since the term "adaptation" itself seems to invoke the language of science? Bhabha's "hybridity," after all, is a direct assault upon Linnaean classification out of which colonialism and multiculturalism have grown. Hutcheon's "continuum model" (172) does not, however, assume that evolution operates in a merely dominant/recessive manner. According to Hutcheon, "adaptation" seems to emerge, in part, out of the contemporary biological recognition that bodies, genes included, are plastic, and that there exists a synergistic relationship between biology and sociology. Hutcheon values Richard Dawkins's "memes." A play on "genes," "memes" are "units of imitation or cultural transmission" that "are not high-fidelity replicators" but ones that "change with time." "Meme transmission is subject to constant mutation" (177). Like Said's migrating ideas, Dawkins's concept of memes resonates in terms of this reading of Bhaji.
Hutcheon also illustrates that both temporal and spatial shifts are critical in the transmission of ideas or stories. She prefers Susan Stanford Friedman's use of the anthropological referent "indigenization" to explain how adaptive texts function.
Indigenization invokes a "kind of intercultural encounter and accommodation" (Hutcheon 150). While familiarly used in political and religious discourse to describe and imagine developments in non-dominant narratives, the anthropological application of indigenization already implies agency: "people pick and choose what they want to transplant to their own soil. Adapters of traveling stories exert power over what they adapt" (150). This idea can be especially powerful for those living in the diaspora. Particularly, the bhadramahila becomes akin to Said's travelling "idea" and Hutcheon's indigenized "story." (1) It is one complex "story" that Syal and Chadha envision the female characters of Bhaji carrying with them. It is the story that writer, director, and characters must "exert power" over in order to adapt.
Indian male perception about women's participation in nineteenth-century Indian society during the independence movement against British imperialism was driven by the goal of becoming a modern nation separate from Western domination. The Indian nationalist agenda, however, was founded upon an instrumentalist philosophy grounded in an economy of use, specifically symbolized in the creation of the bourgeois Indian woman--a critical tool in the carving of the nation. As with most goal-oriented processes, the steps taken toward change are often cast off and elided with the emergence of the desired outcomes. So proved to be the case for the bourgeois Indian woman who would tackle the constraints of her modern utilitarian role for a generation to come.
Partha Chatterjee's nationalist theory of the woman question, outlined in "Colonialism, Nationalism and the Colonized Women: The Contest in India," expounds on the inclusion of women in the nationalist movement, but only as their role as freedom fighters was ascribed to them by the men. According to Chatterjee, the publications of several nineteenth-century male writers, such as Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, align a new patriarchy with Indian nationalism. Bhudev specifically identified the home as having to become a sanctified area because "the very institutions of home and family were threatened under the peculiar conditions of colonial rule" (Chatterjee 626). Further, Bhudev attests that in the Western, colonial system, the wife is a partner and companion; whereas, according to Chakarbarty in Provincializing Europe, in the Aryan (Eastern) system, the woman is the goddess (226). To create a deliberate schism between that which was Indian and that which was not, the "new patriarchy" (Chatterjee 627) demanded that the woman protect traditional Hindu spirituality by blocking external influences, or Westernization, from entering her home. She would use the home's walls to keep out social and cultural promiscuity that would lead to unwanted syncretism, hermetically sealing in sanctity and purity. This placement of women into a clearly defined role became known conceptually as the bhadramahila or "respectable woman." Although, as we will demonstrate, the bhadramahila ideology originated in Bengal, it was indigenized across India and disseminated under different guises because of colonialism. Critics like Padma Angol study its relation to women from Maharashtra (Western India), while Veena Oldenburg examines women in Lucknow (North India). Even critics from areas outside of Bengal, such as Lata Mani, refer to the importance of the bhadramahila concept in their studies of Indian nationalism, even if they do not use the term. We have restricted our study here to its origins in Bengal.
Lata Mani makes the masculinist sub-text of the Indian pre-nationalist agenda transparent through her contextualization of the bhadramahila in terms of the historical development of the Bhadralok or "respectable folk" of the eighteenth century. Mani links the emergence of the Bhadralok in Bengal with the colonial development of the "Permanent Settlement" instituted by the English following the famine of Bengal in 1770. According to Mani, the "Permanent Settlement" placed "a ceiling on revenues appropriated from the lands owned by the zamindars [landowners]," in a sense regulating landowner power. This "restored social stability undermined by the disruptions caused by initial years of excessive levies" (43). From the colonial Bhadralok class arose iconic pre-nationalist leaders like Rammohun Roy and Bankim-chandra Chattopadhaya.
Mani illustrates that, while male leaders like Roy, Chattopadhaya, and others did fight for the rights of Indian women in the areas of female education, they did not support other aspects of female liberation, because Hindu Shastras or scriptures indicated women's subservience to men. Historically, scriptures marked women as more tolerant than men of enduring pain and suffering--through sati, for instance--because of their natural lack of virtue (75). Even when pre-nationalist leaders envisioned alternatives for rituals like sati, however--ascetic widowhood, for instance--these were merely new vestments stitched with ancient thread. Mani explains that there "is after all nothing necessarily logical or inevitable" about such an alternative (74). Debates about nationalist politics and the "moral challenge of colonial rule" were acted out upon female bodies, or, as Mani observes, "women became the site on which tradition is debated and reformulated" (79). Most frequently the notion of the bhadramahila makes "abstractions" out of women, which give way to a "callous indifference" for their condition in society (Mani 82).
The Zeitgeist of pre-nationalist politics covered over what Mani calls "callous indifference" by publicly encouraging, for example, liberty for women in the form of education. Support of female education could be identified as a sign of how reformers (especially in Bengal) still viewed "the historical role of colonialism as an instrument of progress" (Nandy 101). For instance, as illustrated by Ashish Nandy in The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism and Lata Mani in Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India mentioned briefly above, Rammohun Roy used the tools the British brought for education for women as an active propaganda against sati or widow burning. Basically, the newly emergent pre-nationalist agenda used female education in a way particular to its own development.
This education asked Indian women to retain an identity separate from westernization in "her chastity, self-sacrifice, submission, devotion, kindness, patience, and the labors of love" (Chatterjee 629), even as she availed herself to the schools provided by her colonial counterparts. Chatterjee claims, "A formal education became not only acceptable but in fact a requirement." Between 1850 and 1863, the number of girls' schools in Bengal rose from 95 to 2000. By 1890, the number of female students topped 80,000 (628). But why would reformers suddenly support female education in such a resounding way? One critical reason for the repositioning of female education in the pre-nationalist political platform might be found in the state of men's education in India.
Measures taken by the British between 1815 and 1914 reveal how male education became deeply constrained and worn out--perhaps not the best place to envision a total systemic change for nation building. First, the expansion of the British administration in India anglicized the school system. Thomas Babington Macaulay's now famous "Minute on Education" argued for "Western education to replace Hindu, Sanskrit, Bengali, and Muslim schools and colleges in India in order to create a class of Indian 'English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect,'" notes C.L. Innes in his History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain (76). Second, if the British could establish a strong non-Hindu government, they could further control the geo-political and social arena. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 provided the British with another reason to suppress through Anglicization. This conflict, led by the Indian sepoys in response to the use of pork and beef fat to grease cartridges, was dismissed on the surface by the British as trivial. But, on a deeper level, it had to stir anxieties. The revolt, after all, was marked by Indians as their "first war of Independence" against the British (77). The chance that the British were shaken by this shows itself in the dismantling of the East India Company and the "appoint[ment] of a viceroy to hear the government of India." In a tag-a-long action, the British government urged the London Missionary Society to introduce "Christian education in all schools in India, arguing that the secular schools nurtured Indian nationalism and anti-British feeling. [...] Increasingly, missionary and newspaper reports represented 'Hindoo' and Muslim religious rituals and beliefs as idolatrous, sensual, and inductive of fatalism and passivity" (78).
As stated earlier, while the formula for Indian nationalism openly identified female education as a necessary ingredient, it failed to state outright how its commitment to women, in this way, was tied to the fabrication of a modern world that still supported instrumentalism and patriarchy. Women in this newly emerging system, as emblems of sexual purity, were used in an anti-imperial plot against British masters, an idea with which critics Chatterjee and Chakarborty agree. Although neither critic directly identifies such male action as promiscuous, they do discuss how pre-nationalist leaders did feel the need to have more than domestic knowledge only for themselves. Consider this idea with the assignment of women to the home, and border crossing becomes aligned with male behaviour.
Of course, men and women dressed in the spirit of the times and donned the new gender vestments. For instance, one woman writer in the 1890s, Kundamala Debi, propels the new patriarchy's philosophy in advising the educated Bengali woman: "If you have acquired real knowledge, then give no place in your heart to memsahib-like behavior. That is not becoming of a Bengali housewife. See how an educated woman can do housework thoughtfully and systematically in a way unknown to an ignorant, uneducated woman. And see how if God had not appointed us to this place in the home, how unhappy a place the world would be" (qtd. in Chatterjee 629). Another female writer, Cornelia Sorabji, who belonged to a rich Parsi family and was thus able to study in Britain in the late-nineteenth century, still echoes the philosophies of male writers like Bhudev and others. Although Sorabji states that "the Indian woman has come to think of herself only as a child-bearer, she must realize that a woman has also other uses and functions in the world." She proposes a program that would "discourage imitation of the West as far as possible in the orthodox Hindu home in dress or otherwise, and encourage the revival of old designs for embroideries, jewelry, furniture, etc" (Innes 146).
In her book The Gendered Nation: Contemporary Writings from South Asia, Neluka Silva further shows how the philosophies of nineteenth-century Bengali writers have inscribed the images of home and country upon the woman. Although, "[in] the iconography of a nation, the practice of nationalism is reserved for the male," the "cultural codes" and the "ethnic and national differences" are ascribed to the female (22). In other words, "co-opting women into the front-lines of the nationalist struggle by interpellating them as 'national actors' and foisting 'nationalist' label on them as mothers, daughters, educators, workers and even fighters is not necessarily empowering if it merely reaffirms the boundaries of culturally acceptable feminine conduct (self-sacrificing, chaste housewife) and exerts pressure on them to articulate their reference set by a nationalist discourse" (23). Silva's idea parallels Chatterjee's discussion of the bhadramahila, who was secure financially, chaste, middle class, and who did not smoke, drink, or speak freely in mixed company. As suggested earlier, men were to be involved with politics publicly. They were expected to cross-fertilize, in effect. Women were not. This fact, which developed out of the Bhadralok system, was carried through the twentieth century and moved with Indian emigrants.
The opening scene of Bhaji forecasts how the film will afford viewers an opportunity to witness the female Indian immigrant's struggle to adapt past ideals of womanhood in a contemporary diasporic location. Described briefly, the film begins with a pan of run down, graffiti-ridden, local meat and fruit shops sprayed in places with white swastikas. The pan ends with a shot of the exterior of a video-convenience store. Immediately, this mimetic world is deferred, however, through an internalized or dream-like and psychologically-propelled montage. In the montage, Asha, a middle-aged Indian woman wearing a sari, brushes her husband's jacket, pats her daughter's hair, and kisses her son's head as he studies, surrounded by his books. Juxtaposed against these traditional nurturing images are shots of Asha struggling through a terrain of pop-culture trash. In an intertextual reference to The Incredible Shrinking Man, this shrunken Asha instead negotiates several oversized objects as a storm of crumbled newspapers blows by her: a neon Cadbury candy sign, popcorn and Coke containers, and contemporary Hindi films translated to video like Banjaran and Ghayal, with plotlines true to the genres of romance and mystery, respectively. She wends her way through the litter, carrying a brass plate filled with items meant for a devotional to the Hindu idol in front of her. Finally, she hears the voice of the god shout, "Asha, know your place." Asha drops her plate, scattering her religious items. She clutches her head in dismay. She is then brought back to the present: back to her convenience store in the Midlands (Britain), where she sells videos. The English newspaper delivery boy brings in a stack of papers, on which the headlines are printed, "They curried my blood." Asha's family members then storm into the store and demand breakfast, which she apparently has forgotten to prepare.
This opening scene captures the anxiety that Asha feels about intercultural performance. This dream-turned-nightmare reveals the difficulty that she is having acting as a traditional bhadramahila in a world that seems to call for something different from her. For instance, she tries to retain the sanctity of the home by performing the Hindu ritual of "puja" every day before attending to the task of being a good mother and wife. As women in pre-independent India were subjected to a "new patriarchy" by keeping the "home culture" safe from "the peculiar conditions of colonial rule" or "westernization" (Chatterjee 625), so Asha, an immigrant woman in Britain, is assigned the same responsibility. But she is apparently having trouble doing so, given the obstacles presented in the dream. Besides staying true to bhadramahila notions of womanhood, other impediments certainly include the gender options provided to her by modern Indian or Bollywood films, an idea that we will turn to in brief discussion later. For now, however, it should be noted that Asha's dream is, in itself, like a movie, and she is the heroine. The setting for this film--identified in the initial exteriorization shots of the local community somewhere in the "Midlands"--is not without its irony. Asha, and many of the female characters in Syal's and Chadha's film, are caught dead in the middle of the struggle to either not change and suffer or to adapt and survive.
The use of juxtaposition in the opening scene calls attention to a moment of adaptation in process. Linda Hutcheon's explanation of Katie Kodat's "eidetic image" sheds light on how film makers get viewers to see a character's (here Asha's) experience. According to Hutcheon, the eidetic image is an "after-image that is a land of mental reviewing of an image that has passed" (172). Like a negative of the original, this image shares aspects and reveals differences. Hutcheon argues that this image is something that lays bare the "adaptive faculty" because it has "the ability to repeat without copying, to embed difference in similarity, to be at once both self and Other" (174). Syal's and Chadha's reference to Asha's enactment of the bhadramahila positioned next to a frame where Asha confounds the very referent reveals her in-process struggle with adaptation. In other words, the montage shows Asha as bhadramahila (similar to) and Asha not as bhadramahila (different from). It destabilizes the notion that picture and negative, order and disorder are locked into stasis. This scene establishes from the outset the tensions that unfold when a long-held idea begins to "evolve and mutate to fit new times and different places" (Hutcheon 176). Asha's movement into chaos, to perpetuate or denounce conventional actions, are marked by her recurrent "tension" headaches.
The eidetic image is complemented by Homi Bhabha's notion of the "transparent" text. In his ground-breaking "Signs Taken as Wonders," Bhabha speaks of how photographs are always necessarily dependent upon their negatives. Pictures have provisions, and "pro" indicates "elision of sight, delegation, substitution" (Sanders 32). But negatives "process into visibility" that which the photo may not openly reveal. According to Bhabha, the colonial project constantly works to disavow transparency in texts (whether those texts be single novels or larger cultural narratives), while counter-narratives process the negative so that it is seen. The opening scene in Bhaji uses the dream mechanism to explore the tension of visible and invisible, especially as both pertain to adapting gender expectation in contemporary diasporic locales.
Lata Mani, in her discussion of sati and its evolution into ascetic widowhood, explains that masculinist ideologies in India were repeatedly played out upon the female body. While Asha's headaches are signs of distress over such facts, her challenge to be respectable reaches an apex mid-film when she is sexually awakened. Irene Gedalof notes that the female body is associated with "community origins," and "women are positioned as 'place,' as the pure space of 'home,' in which tradition is preserved from outside contamination" (95). So when women become citizens of "elsewhere"--in this case opening themselves up to possible sexual expression, and do so in the colonizer's country with a representative colonial subject, "the mobile model of citizenship is challenged" (96). For several scenes, Asha's physical awakening is advocated as a site of potential change. Again, a brief summary helps provide background knowledge.
While in Blackpool, Asha dips her toes in the ocean waves. Ambrose Waddington, an older English gentleman, approaches her. At a culminating moment, she loses a shoe, and Waddington invites her to visit his friend's shoe store. Asha does and emerges with a new pair. She continues to walk with Waddington, and they wander into a park. Here, she falls into a reverie. In the first of her daydreams about Waddington, she is costumed in a beautiful sari and Waddington is garbed as an Indian prince. Both delight in each other in the Crystal Palace, Kensington, a symbol of High Victorianism and colonialism. The scene then shifts to an outside garden where a gentle rain falls upon them, finally washing the makeup from her lover's face, exposing him as an English man. Music from a Bollywood (Hindi) film plays in the background.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838-1894), and Saratchandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) wrote novels about widows engaged in romantic love, but the love was "theorized as a spiritual struggle to free desire from any suggestion of physicality and reason was pressed into service on the side of the spiritual." For all the early modern Bengali writers, it was the woman's body that remained a threat to her "domain of interiority" (Chakarbarty 136). The sexualized potential of the body lent a hand to this construction. Eventually, the bhadramahila's respect as pure and spiritual symbol was reconditioned to include extended family, as Chakarbarty illustrates:" [it was about the) respectability of the extended family--and not just the loving couple--that was at issue" (141).
Although the scenes with Waddington described above are comical, they gesture toward serious sub-texts. Asha's interaction with Waddington potentially threatens not only her own reputation, but her family's. Her subversive behaviour is clear. She has moved away from the inside into the world of the colonizer. Here, she seems to become a partner or an equal with her companion. In this way, she becomes a threat to Indian tradition as outlined by Bengali writers. She acts like a memsahib or Englishwoman, as seen in the quotation by Debi earlier. In this scene, Asha moves directly away from accepting her role as a ghihalakshmi (woman like the goddess Lakshmi) or the ideal housewife.
Asha's performance also signifies how Bhaji operates as Bhabha's "transparent" text. The Indian lover as Englishman reveals how "Indianess" as a construct is itself complex. While Asha's body is harnessed and re-organized by abstract pre-nationalist notions of femininity, male gender performance is too. In particular, English colonial discourse continues to do the harnessing. This idea is best understood when the setting of Asha's daydream is taken into consideration. Both the Crystal Palace and the English garden serve as canvasses for linking Asha's anxieties openly with colonial history. While the former is more openly a symbol of colonialism, the latter is certainly no pre-lapsarian space. In fact, historically it always harnesses and re-organizes wild, uncultivated space while looking to appear natural. Syal's and Chadha's work, however, makes the scenes in the Crystal Palace and the English garden openly theatrical. They call attention to how ideas are invented and how stories may propel such ideas to mythic status. In these scenes, Asha's experience of being a "national actor" of her home country is exposed. This exposure enables Asha an opportunity to see herself in adaptive mode, "reaffirming the boundaries of culturally acceptable feminine conduct" (Silva 23). She does not have to be the chaste wife as it was established a century ago. Moreover, since the ideal of the ghihalakshmi was itself propagated to a new nation (pre-and post-independent India), the performative aspects of this scene suggest that once again it will need to find a new form in a new place.
Importantly, the daydream scenes reference Bollywood. Robert Marquand explains that Bollywood's attraction lies in "its shading out of reality." The particular type of "shading" important to this argument and apparent in Bollywood films has to do with the genre's general unwillingness to contest traditional Hindu values. For instance, Marquand explains that, while Bollywood films have willingly adapted their plotlines to reflect the migration of Indian communities by telling stories of more or less westernized protagonists, these narratives decisively do not leave Hindu values behind. Although the young, upwardly mobile Indian in India and abroad wants his/her protagonist to sound like Leonardo Di Caprio, he still craves a message supporting traditional Hindu family values. Some of such values include the girl remaining a virgin until marriage, the woman being a self-sacrificing heroine, the man giving up his wealth for his family, the wicked younger brother giving up his life after realizing how corrupt he is, and so on.
The return to Hindu values traced in many Bollywood films is what Asha also struggles with as she is bombarded by ideas of "duty," "sacrifice," and "honour." When Waddington takes her to an old theatre in Blackpool and tells her how the beauty of England's past is lost in the commerciality of the day, and how she has been able to retain her culture even though she is not in her own country, Asha suddenly remem- bers that she has to get back to "her group." She has been acting as a threat to traditional codes of womanhood and to her own identity. This problem is repeated when Asha cannot introduce Waddington to Ranjit, Ginder's husband. At this juncture Asha abruptly says goodbye, declaring, "I have to do my duty." Her Indian nationality has to be "preserved from outside contamination" (Gedalof 95).
Asha is only one example of how Syal and Chadha deal with the Indian immigrant women's struggle to adapt to a new environment. Ginder is another example of a character grappling with conventional expectations. As stated earlier, Ginder and her son seek refuge from an abusive husband, Ranjit, in a women's shelter. Early in Bhaji, Ginder's mother-in-law asserts about Ginder that "she'll come back," suggesting that Ginder's actions are challenges to acceptable gender codes. This commentary assumes acceptance of a tradition where the female body is expected to experience pain as it complies with masculinist assumptions, as pointed out by Mani. After all, Ginder's mother-in-law is Ginder's husband's mother; and Ranjit has been hitting Ginder because he perceives her as questioning his house rule. But for Ginder to survive means travelling elsewhere and acting differently. Ranjit's mother, however, can only explain such sedition in terms of race. As Ranjit's family argues at the breakfast table about Ginder's disappearance, his mother complains that because of the approaching divorce she "can't go to temple anymore" and that Ginder "was too dark. You can't trust the dark ones."
Additionally, when Hashida, another character on the Illuminations Outing, visits her boyfriend, Oliver, to tell him of her pregnancy, their dialogue takes place under a poster saying "Fear of a Black Planet." As their argument over her commitment to their relationship reaches its apex, Oliver shouts, "I've been the invisible man for the last year." And as Hashida storms out the door following their argument, she passes the prominent poster "Malcolm X No compromise! No sell out!" Read in tandem, these local intertextual references stress Oliver's awareness of racism and expose how those like Ginder's in-laws, Hashida's parents, and, to a certain extent, Hashida herself, fear tainting "Indian" purity. Girls like Hashida, who are in fact attempting to adapt, are sneered at by a modern bhamadrahila, Pushpa, who, in a moment of frustration in Blackpool, claims, "These modern girls can't adapt." Paradoxically, Pushpa uses the word "adapt" to describe what she sees as the younger female generation's failures to stay true to an old system. Her response is clouded by her refusal to consider that her assumptions about a woman's behaviour may be based upon some idea or story that must change with temporal and spatial progression. What Pushpa fails to note is that Hashida struggles with the paradox of the contemporary bhama-dramtla. Srimati Basu highlights the tensions of trying to live such an experience when she calls attention to how today's bhadramahila must accept passivity and purity while dealing with the options of cohabitation, divorce, and transsexuality, themes that are often illustrated in feminist magazines.
Of course, subjects and environments do not change quickly. When either proves itself ripe for more rapid change, the pre-existing gulf suddenly seems less separate. Bhaji allows viewers to understand that the time is ripe for accelerated change. The film provides hopeful examples that some future watershed moment can occur. The Illuminations Outing becomes the place where rapid change is able to be witnessed. This is indicated not just in the play on "illumination," a sudden breakthrough or understanding that reveals itself through some layer or veil, but in the physical symbol of the bridge. In an early scene, the Saheli tour bus crosses a literal bridge as it moves toward Blackpool--a symbolic divide between here and there, and impossible and possible. This bridge, representative of the women's "outing," acts as a signifier that boundaries and enclosures will be questioned and that there will be a move from closed to open, from boundaries to boundlessness and possibility.
The advent to change, to the watershed moment that viewers experience, constitutes a willingness to migrate, or to become an outsider. Even as the diasporic community is a liminal space of possibility, according to Bhabha, it is still tethered to patriarchal assumptions. So an outing away from this home community acts as a sort of hyper-liminal place necessary for the women's articulation of knowledge. In Bhaji, the experience of moving outside of one's quotidian place is characterized by the women's literal and symbolic experiences as tourists--to the real attraction, Blackpool and the Illuminations outing, and to the symbolic one represented in their own lives. When Waddington asks Asha, "Ever been on a stage before?" Asha responds, "No. It's so beautiful." Here his nostalgia acts as a tool for exposing Asha's inability to recognize that her whole life has been a social act and she the performer. However, while she is in Blackpool with this man as a tourist, she begins to consciously realize her participation in life theatre, so to speak. She realizes the possibilities for an economy of adaptation and a future life that might be liberated from subjugation. It is this latter realization that allows her to turn the tables on Ranjit, Ginder's estranged husband, commanding him to "put that boy down now. Do you want him to grow up like you?" At this point in the film, Asha's name, which means "hope," becomes symbolic of the possibilities for every Indian immigrant woman in the film attempting to adapt to life in late-twentieth-century England.
Because the bhadramahila's work was historically created to support the modern Indian nation (and a capitalist system), it is no surprise that a challenge to that work occurs in Blackpool during the Illuminations festival. Illuminations is as much a tradition for those living in England as the bhadramahila is to many of the Indian characters and their families in the film. Blackpool's Illuminations saw its inception in 1879 around the same historical marker that women's roles in pre-independence India were being shaped. However, it is much more openly tied to an economy of exchange and profit and the work done there in the name of tourism than are the women's inherited traditions. Until they enter Blackpool, that is.
On their trip, the women must be reminded of how their daily work is erased or at least devalued. For example, the tour guide Simi pulls over for a brief rest at the "service" plaza. Up to this point in the film, the women have been characterized in relation to their expected service (and disruption of that service) to the men in their lives. And the males have generally naturalized women's work in the process, not directly noting how their labour helps to ease the toil in male life. The sign at the entrance of the service plaza reads, "Welcome Break," ironic given that it is on this trip when they are constantly reminded of their work, bodies, and the restrictions placed on them by both family and others. Specifically, the recovery of the role of the female body, and its relationship to male power--that is, to mean something more than abstracted purity--seems critical in the adaptation process. Instances include the following: Hashida struggles to be respectable while still staying pregnant; one teenage cousin experiences a sexual awakening with a young carnival vendor from Blackpool; Asha provides Ginder with some pampering by paying for her makeover; and Pushpa dances with a male stripper. The return of the possibilities of female sexuality exposes the static nature of past codes of conduct.
Since the bhadramahila's work is to handle spiritual and familial concerns within the home, taking a vacation from work might be understood as potentially subversive to those expecting continued conventional service. We have noted that the woman's body is akin to the "inside" of one's culture as presented by Bengali writers during the nascent nationalist movement in India. We have also stated that the nationalist agenda subjected bourgeois women to retain the spiritual side of Indian society against Western counterparts. This idea of the retention of the home culture resonates in the theories and politics of immigration, as noted in the conflict that women, like Asha and others, had to face throughout Bhaji. The times were ripe for change in the nineteenth century regarding women's roles because of nationalistic impulses. Bhaji demonstrates how those times, once again and for differing reasons, may be subject to change. Such change, of course, impacts females and males. In Bhaji the experiences of immigrant Indian males parallel the struggles of the women, if for different reasons.
Male subjectivity is envisioned as a sort of fracturing or splintering, a result of female illumination. Male struggle in Bhaji is characterized by limited options: wife batterer and misogynist or nurturer and potential feminist. Ranjit and his brother use physical violence to gather information about Ginder's whereabouts. Hashida's boyfriend Oliver follows Hashida to Blackpool to demonstrate his care and concern, while Ranjit's quiet and attentive brother resists Ranjit's search for Ginder, even attempting at one point to hide the fact from Ranjit that he has seen Ginder. Except for Hashida's boyfriend, who is of African descent and not Indian, the depictions of male characters indicate lesser possibilities for change as they refuse to be open and adapt to women's concerns within England. Interestingly, by selecting Hashida's boyfriend as the one who can adapt, Syal and Chadha comment on the potential loss of power that Indian men will experience should they, too, refuse the changes that necessarily must occur with migration.
Even while Ranjit knows that he should change, evident in his plea to Ginder, "You can help me change," his simultaneous resistance to it overrides his desire. This resistance is, perhaps, best exemplified in a culminating scene where Ranjit confronts Ginder about leaving him, an event that transpires in Blackpool in front of Ranjit's brother and the several women taking part in the Illuminations outing. In this scene, Ranjit's behaviour indicates an overtly patriarchal and violent approach to quelling change when, in his anger with the women's solidarity in protecting Ginder, he pushes Asha to the ground. Asha, in turn, slaps Ranjit several times in the face, asserting herself in a way not traditional with her expected gender role. A further resistance to change is then evident when Ranjit's violent brother yells at Ranjit, who has dropped in weakness and pain to the ground, "Come on man, get the fuck up." He then proceeds to call the women "bitches," and threatens them with "just you wait till we get back, seaside trip my ass."
Bhaji on the Beach highlights the stress involved when contemporary Indian females try to adapt to the expression of traditional cultural stories like that of the bhadramahila in the contemporary diaspora. The film, however, does not stand alone in investigating this topic. In fact, Bhaji operates in a genealogy of texts that confirm how important, indeed, the respectable woman story is to migrant populations. Literary authors who have investigated the intertextuality of the theme include, but are not limited to, Jhumpa Lahiri, Monica Ali, Kavita Daswani, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Indira Ganesan, Sunetra Gupta, and Bharati Mukherjee. Atima Srivastava's novel Transmission, printed around the release of Bhaji, reveals the tension of respectability as it necessarily confronts the AIDS epidemic in England in the 1980s. The main character in Srivastava's work, like those in Bhaji, cleanses herself from oppressive, patriarchal structures continued in the host country. At the conclusion of Bhaji on the Beach, Asha and Pushpa--the women of the traditional generation--make a concerted effort to adapt, and become role models for the younger generation. Pushpa, for instance, takes a seat next to Asha's friend from Bombay--who has, throughout the film, represented the metropolitan and even "deviant" women from India. Asha, meanwhile, crosses the aisle and sits with Ginder. Such subtle signs are symbolic of the fact that adaptation need not always be manifested in revolutionary or negative ways. Adaptation can and does occur in the commonest of places, like a Blackpool evening where the electric illuminations light up the sky.
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DANETTE DiMARCO is Professor of English at Slippery Rock University and teaches nineteenth-century British and World Literatures. She has published in Papers on Language and Literature, Sagetrieb: A journal in the 'Tradition of Pound, Eliot, and H.D., Teaching English in the Two-Year College and essays in books by Christopher-Gordon, Heineman, and MIT Presses.
J. SUNITA PEACOCK is Associate Professor of English at Slippery Rock University and teaches World, Eastern, and twentieth-century British literatures. Her publications include essays in Commonwealth Novel in English, Pakistani Women's Journal, international journal of the Humanities, South Asian Review, and in the anthology Violence and the Body: Race, Gender and the State.
Bhaji on the Beach critiques the bhadramahila or "respectable woman" construct that took root in nineteenth-century pre-independence, colonial Bengal and that still impacts Indian females living abroad. This essay examines bhadramahila discourse through intertextual and postcolonial lenses and reveals modern disconnects with the historical construct.…