The Bhadramahila and Adaptation in Meera Syal's and Gurinder Chadha's Bhaji on the Beach
Dimarco, Danette, Peacock, J. Sunita, Mosaic (Winnipeg)
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. …