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As World Cup fever grips the world, Gurinder Chadha’s film Bend It Like Beckham, about a soccer playing Indian girl in England, grips the collective imagination of its audiences. And like her heroine, Chadha herself has bent some rules of her own, and pushed some envelopes, as she tells Andrew L. Urban, on her Sydney visit.

Gurinder Chadha arrived in Australia to promote her film Bend It Like Beckham in the midst of the 2002 World Cup series – and promptly went to bed in her hotel to watch some of the games, getting over travel fatigue. By the time we meet in the café of her central Sydney hotel, she is full of vim, eager to meet Australians and soak up the Down Under social ambiance.

As we walk to our table, we come across a trio from the film industry having a meeting (complete with laptops by the cappuccinos), including visiting English producer Nik Powell and Australian film sales agent, Gary Hamilton. There is much shaking of hands and tentative plans to set a meeting with Chadha before she flies out of town.

"a hot filmmaker" 

Chadha, after all, is something of a hot filmmaker, having won numerous awards for her previous films, like Bhaji on the Beach and What’s Cooking – and now making an even greater commercial splash with Bend It Like Beckham, the A$10 million comedy that in two months has grossed A$30 million in the UK alone.

It’s going exactly according to plan: “My previous two films were well received but had limited releases. I set out to make the most widely appealing film I could, and this was 1998, when the fever of the previous World Cup was sweeping England. I thought it’d be great to take the national fervour and put an Indian girl in the middle of it, marrying that passion with the Indian passion for marriage.” It’s taken four years to write, finance and produce.

Chadha had great difficulty raising the finance for it. “They’d say ‘Soccer? Girl soccer? Indian girl soccer? – no way!’” So Chadha had an impassioned conversation with John Woodward, the head of the Film Council, pointing out that the Council invites her to lecture and talks about opportunities and diversity, yet after all her previous success, it had been seven years since she made a film. And she was still the only Asian woman in England making films. She suggested, in her firm but polite way, that they might like to put their money where their mouth is. It was the Council’s million pound investment that triggered the rest of the finance.

Following its Australian release, the film opens in India – both in the original English and also dubbed into Hindi “for the Bollywood market”. Then comes Europe and finally USA.

Wearing a grass green T-shirt with the word Sport emblazoned across it, Chadha looks like anything but a film producer – or even a football fan. (She isn’t, but she loves the geopolitcal aspects of the World Cup.) She looks like a young Indian mum. Which she isn’t. Indian yes, but born in Kenya and raised in England, Chadha had a serious talk with her father at one stage explaining why she wasn’t getting married, even though she had reached 30. 

“That would normally be a tragedy for an Indian family,” she explains. “But I explained to my dad, what if I got a call from New York to make a film? How would the family feel if I took off and left everyone….? That would be worse. Luckily my father understood that . . .that I had prioritised my work.” 

So it is in a way that Bend It Like Beckham (her third feature) is partly autobiographical and a tribute to her parents. The title, she remarks, is a great metaphor for how the film’s central characters bend the rules to reach their goal.

The film is about 18 year old Jess (Parminder Nagra) who is football mad (her hero is David Beckham), but her Indian parents (Anupam Kher) and (Shaheen Khan) want her to find a nice Indian boy and settle down, like her sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi), who is about to be married. Jess starts to play in the local girls football team with Jules (Keira Knightley) whose father Mike (Frank Harper) is supportive, but mother Paula (Juliet Stevenson) is more interested in buying pretty underwear for her. The girls are both rather interested in Joe their football coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who has his own problems.

"redefining boundaries of cultures and gender"

Chadha’s personal experience with her father is reflected in the film, although Jess is not a filmmaker but a footballer. But it’s femininity that is perhaps the nuclear centre of the film. “Yes, and it’s a very 21st century, post girl power concept. Being 17 or 18 today is very different to when I was 18. Today, girls can do whatever they choose. But the mothers of the two girls, Jess and Jules, still have a dated, if very different ideas about femininity.”

Chadha agrees that the film is about redefining boundaries of cultures and gender, she sees it as a “beautiful dance” among the two generations of families, where both generations know what the other wants and try to please the other, but at the same time, break new ground. 

This is familiar territory for Chadha, who began as a news reporter for the BBC and went on to make award winning documentaries prior to her feature debut with Bhaji on the Beach. 

“I broke new ground and pushed the envelope continually and wasn’t chastised – I was even encouraged.” 

Perhaps because of that, Chadha has little of the anger that drives some filmmakers who tackle social issues. She gets terribly upset by injustices and yet it’s tinged with sadness. Yet, she says, “as a filmmaker I do want to change people’s thinking. So the stories I see and want to tell all share my vision of the world. There’s a lot right and a lot wrong with the world, and I want to take audiences to places they’re not familiar. But I want them to come out of my films recognising not the differences, but the similarities between us all.”
She says the root of her motivation has always been racism – “but it’s in its very basic form of intolerance. . . of all kinds. And that’s also why there is always an element of sexuality in my films – I want people to acknowledge and value differences, not see them as something to fear.”

So it was something of a highlight for Chadha when she was invited to present the film at a huge suburban multiplex in Manchester. “It was playing on two screens and both were sold out, so I thought there must be a huge Asian community there. But I walked in to be greeted by a mass of white, working class faces. I just couldn’t get my head around it! Then of course they were amazed at seeing a film director – especially one who doesn’t look anything like their idea of one! There were old couples sucking boiled sweets and kids with Beckham T shirts, all very down to earth and out to have a good time. That was quite a moving experience, meeting some of them afterwards, and the young mums saying how important the film was to them, what an eye opener…”

One could be forgiven for thinking Chadha is a romantic, at least as far as humanity goes. She firmly believes that all people, individually, have a humanity that makes them stop and help anyone in trouble. “I genuinely believe that, inside, most people are not racist. They’re protective of their own way of life.”

"British in sensibilities"

Although she has not suffered from racism in her own life, her parents had; in fact, the story about Jess’ dad being shunned at cricket comes straight from her family archives. So she sees herself as British in sensibilities, “but not as a Pom.” She was quite taken aback when 2BL’s Richard Glover kept referring to her as a Pom, no doubt encouraged by Chadha’s standard English accent. “I am a British Indian,” she says with a grin, “which is very different to Indians anywhere else….”

Published July 4, 2002

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Gurinder Chadha


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