When describing her work, director Gurinder Chadha says, “I tell stories about people audiences might think they have nothing in common with…then they emotionally connect with them and find they’re not different at all.” Chadha is one the most successful directors in Britain, thanks in large part to the global success of her film Bend It Like Beckham.
Chadha was born in 1960, in Nairobi, Kenya when the country was a British colony, and her family moved to England when she was two. Her family is Sikh Indian, and they dealt with prejudice in West London because of their heritage. Chadha says she struggled with a dual identity as both an English woman and an Indian woman, refusing to wear Indian clothing or cook for the family.
While her teachers suggested she take secretarial courses, Chadha went on to the University of East Anglia and the London College of Printing, graduating in the mid 80’s. She said, “when teachers said to me: ‘you should do a secretarial course” I was like: ‘You’re bloody nuts. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not going to do that. You’ve got me wrong…experiences like that, and seeing my parents struggle, made me think: ‘you don’t believe I can do that, so I’m going to prove you wrong.”
Chadha told The Guardian that she started her career in the media, “to make people who look like me come out of the margins and be centre stage. And in doing that, make a place for ourselves in the society that we live in, rather than always feeling second best or on the margins, like my parents might have felt.” She has also said that she was inspired by the 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette, “what [it] told me was that there was the possibility of telling our stories on the big screen.”
After graduation, Chadha began working as a radio reporter before joining the BBC. She directed documentaries for the BBC, the British Film Institute, and Channel Four including “I’m British But…” which featured young British Asians.
In 1990, Chadha branched out into fiction, creating the company Umbi Films and directing the short film Nice Arrangement. She brings her experience as a British woman of Indian descent to her work, like her first feature Bhaji on the Beach in 1993, the first feature made by a British Asian woman.
The film tells the stories of a multi-generational group of British Punjabi women on a day trip to a beach in Blackpool. It features many facets of the British Asian culture, and takes on a story of racism, prejudice, domestic abuse, immigration, and gender. It was nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Film.
Chadha then directed a two-part drama for the BBC called Rich Deceiver, following it with What’s Cooking? The script, which she co-wrote with her husband Paul Berges, was the first British script invited to the Sundance Institute’s Writer’s Lab, and was the opening night film at Sundance in 2000. She also won the Best British Director award from the London Film Critic’s Circle.
In 2002, Chadha’s work became even more well known when she released the film Bend It Like Beckham, starring Parminder Nagra and Kiera Knightly, which she directed and co-wrote. The film tells the story of Jesminder, a British Indian girl who has a love of football (or soccer), and is talented enough to be chosen for the local women’s team. But her parents are traditional Punjabi Sikhs, and they want other things for their daughter. Jess struggles to navigate the two worlds and what place she wants to take in them. She’s recruited to the team by Jules, a girl driven to play professional soccer in America, despite mixed reactions from her family.
The film blends the cultures, traditions, and struggles of the two women to create a strong and relatable story. In his review, Kenneth Turan said it has, “an impeccable sense of milieu that is the result of knowing the culture intimately enough to poke fun at it while understanding it’s underlying integrity.” It’s a story that is clearly inspired and informed by Chadha’s life, complete with Jess’ reluctance to learn to cook properly. But the film also doesn’t disrespect or disparage Jess’ family or their beliefs, however misguided they may feel to Jess.
Bend It Like Beckham was a hit, and became the highest grossing British-Financed, British-distributed film in the country’s history. It grossed $32 and a half million in the United States, and topped charts in Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, and South Africa. It won an ESPY Award for Best Sports Movie, and a British Comedy Award for best comedy film. It was nominated for a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and a Writer’s Guild of America award.
Not slowing down, Chadha then made a Bollywood inspired Jane Austen adaptation, Bride and Prejudice in 2004 starring Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, and Naveen Andrews. Chadha again partnered with Berges for the screenplay. The film was the first to open at the top of the box office in both the UK and India on the same day.
She directed a short film as part of the anthology project Paris, je t’aime in 2006, in 2008 she adapted the best-selling book Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging and in 2010 she directed It’s a Wonderful Afterlife. Chadha said she was inspired to make It’s A Wonderful Afterlife while watching a clip show on TV of great family films that showed the wedding scene from Bend It Like Beckham. She remembered how much she loved shooting that scene and started trying to think of ways to incorporate another wedding into a film without repeating herself. Thinking back to the film Carrie, which she says was the first horror film she ever saw, she thought of creating a wedding version of the prom scene, and she and Berges started writing. Chadha has said that “writing film scripts is the hardest thing in the world,” and this script took two and a half years to complete.
She has also adapted Bend It Like Beckham as a musical, which had a West End premiere in 2015 and ran until 2016. Chadha co-wrote the musical’s book, and directed it.
In 2015, Chadha also produced a reality TV series called Desi Rascals, which featured British Asians in West London. The show ran on Sky 1 for two seasons. Chadha said that the show was important because it demonstrates how the grandchildren of immigrants can embrace their multiple identities. “They have no issues with being bicultural. My generation had to fight for that space. We had to say: ‘We are British and we are Indian, and this is how we do it.’…But the third generation now, they don’t sit there brow-beating, because of all the work we’ve done for them. They can sort of laugh at a bhangra track, and at the same time dance to Pharrell Williams.”
The Guardian points out that across her filmography, “Chadha wants to accentuate our similarities as human beings, across racial boundaries, rather than highlight our differences. And she is clear that she likes a happy ending.” She was honored with the Order of the British Empire in 2006.
Chadha’s latest project is Viceroy’s House, starring Gillian Anderson and Hugh Bonneville, which will be released in 2017. A historical drama, it takes place in 1947, when the British Indian Empire was partitioned into India and Pakistan. Anderson and Bonneville play Lord and Lady Mountbatten, and Chadha says that the film is sharing a “new story” of what led to the Partition, and that it is a “very personal movie.” Chadha assisted with the story, and the script was written by Berges and Moira Buffini.
The successful writer/director has many projects in development, and there are many rumors about what she might tackle next. But no matter what, she will continue to represent her culture and her history in her projects, saying “my job is to make sure we are visible, we are out there in our three-dimensional ways, we are part and parcel of the world, and we go with the world.”
Written by Mary Ratliff