Born in Kenya, displaced through migration, raised in Southall, London, Gurinder Chadha (OBE) has gone on to make seminal comedic films that at their heart are about hard looks at a culture in transition. Films like; ‘Bhaji On The Beach’, ‘Bride and Prejudice’, ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, and ‘Viceroy’s House’.
Relentlessly seeking out optimism, taking delight in bursting through racial stereotyping, her work is radical, with serious purpose and seriously funny!
“I didn’t want to be seen as this nice little girl doing Indian classical dance and all that shit… I always wanted to be more than what was expected of me as an Indian girl.”
Early Years & Childhood
Following the partition of India in 1947, her grandfather and family went to Kenya. Her parents were born in Kenya and Gurinder was born in Nairobi, Kenya, at the time a British Colony. When she was two, her family moved to Southall, West London. Her father faced much prejudice because of his appearance as a Sikh Indian; wearing a turban and having a beard.
In her early years, she wasn’t interested in being anything other than regular, i.e. not too Indian. Even at that early age, she could tell that being Indian made life difficult. Before her father bought the shop and became a shopkeeper, he was a postman and a gasman and when he tried to get a job at Barclay’s Bank he was told; “Sorry, we’d never hire someone with a turban.”
Many of her future films would draw on her personal experience of being Indian and English at the same time, and how she dealt with the duality of her identity.
“She used to dress me as a boy as she really wanted me to me a boy. But then she said I was worth more to her than 7 sons.”
At 18, Gurinder won a place to read Development Studies at university where she partied, cut her hair and permed it. She told her mother she had to because of her split ends. Her mother went mad, saying “everyone in India has long hair – they don’t have split ends”. Then Gurinder put pink bits in it.
Gurinder’s career began with the 1993 hit ‘Bhaji on the Beach’ which became an instant classic. It won numerous awards including a BAFTA Nomination for ‘Best British Film of 1994’ and the Evening Standard British Film Award for ‘Best Newcomer to British Cinema’. It was the first full-length feature film made by a British Asian woman.
Her mainstream credibility was cemented with the mega-hit ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, which began to showcase the uniquely British Asian experience. This was the highest grossing British-financed, British-distributed film, ever in the UK box-office (prior to the success of Slumdog Millionaire). The film was a critical and commercial success internationally, topping the box-office charts in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and South Africa, and winning audience favourite film awards at the Locarno, Sydney and Toronto film festivals.
“Bend it Like Beckham is a tribute to [my father]: His capacity to be funny, I mean, hysterically funny, in tragic situations. He was a great philosopher.”
This was built upon in ‘Bride and Prejudice’ which opened the door for many people to Bollywood.
In 2017 Gurinder made ‘Viceroy’s House’, which chronicles the partition of India, in which she abandoned light comedy to address the biggest and most decisive moment in Britain’s relationship with India.
The film appeared at a time of mass migration which, for Gurinder, gave the film extra impetus. In her own words:
“When we were shooting one of the refugee scenes I had 1,000 extras in a fort in Rajastan. That morning was the day the little Syrian boy’s body had been found washed up on a beach. We were at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. Every day we’d see that on the news and on our phones but then go out and shoot refugees in the film. We live at a time where people are trying to divide us instead of looking at real issues of unemployment and economic stability for ordinary working people. I think that what the film really does is provide a timely reminder of what can happen when you start scapegoating different groups and how quickly that can escalate into terrible violence and death. It can just happen overnight. And that’s what happened in 1947.”