Culture: A Director Made of the Write Stuff; Gurinder Chadha Tells Mike Davies That Variety Is the Spice of Life
Byline: Mike Davies
In 1994 BBC Pebble Mill reporter Gurinder Chadha swapped her microphone for a director's chair and took a bunch of Asian women on a coach trip from Birmingham to Blackpool in Bhaji on the Beach.
Co-written with Meera Syal, the film earned critical plaudits and awards, but more importantly was also a big box-office hit.
Chadha glows with pride to recall that it took more at its opening weekend in Birmingham than Wayne's World 2, one of her own favourite movies. Yet it's taken seven years to produce a follow-up.
Not that there weren't offers, but Chadha had already fallen foul of the British film industry's preconceptions.
'It had to do with the fact that I'm Indian and a girlie,' she says. 'People had very fixed ideas about what I might be interested in. They just saw me in terms of social dramas about Indian people.'
The solution was obvious. Write her own.
It all began in Los Angeles. 'Because Bhaji got fantastic American reviews I was getting offered Hollywood scripts. But what struck me was that they didn't reflect the LA I was getting to know. If you've only experienced the city through films you have no sense of its richness and diversity. So I thought that I would take my British sense of culture and the experience of living among London and Birmingham's mixed communities and apply it to LA.'
The result is What's Cooking? Set on Thanksgiving, it interconnects four diverse families - Latino, Vietnamese, Jewish and African-American - as each confront their own family crises. As Chadha explains, the choice was very deliberate.
'I saw them as typical American families but they're not what you normally see on screen. There are very few films that have people of different races without there being a social problem between them.
'Thanksgiving is a perfect secular holiday because it's about food and family and all the things that happen in our lives compressed into one dinner. Because of the size of the country, Thanksgiving is often the only time when families actually see each other so all contact is crammed into that one weekend and all the resentments come out.
'It was also an opportunity to look at new kinds of families - single parent families, gay families, step families, cross-cultural families - and to celebrate how exciting they can be. Families are messy but inevitable and we've all got one.'
A Kenyan-born Indian Englishwoman with a Japanese-American husband, Chadha was well equipped to avoid the pitfalls of racial stereotyping.
'I grew up watching TV in England and whenever anyone Indian came on we'd call everyone in to watch. When Dr Singh arrived at EastEnders he had this huge turban but his hair was short at the back. If you come from an ethnic minority you notice these things and you're going to be particular about the way others are portrayed.'
It's all part and parcel of her fascination with cultural identity.
'My early work was about Britishness, so I was interested in looking at American-ness in the same way. I'm a great believer in different cultures. That doesn't mean I'm not pro-assimilation.
'I grew up in London but regularly went to Birmingham to visit friends. And one of the things I loved about the place was the sense of egalitarianism about people regardless of who or what they were. In America there's this sense of 'we're all American', the American way, which hides a lot of things.
'I'm interested in what people take with them when they move to another country and how each generation deals with the changes that brings, the dramatic conflicts that arise as people try to hold on to who they are. …