It was inevitable, I suppose, that India's frenzied level of movie-making would begin to follow Indian immigration to the U.S. and the U.K. Here, we had Mira Nair's fine Mississippi Masala, which blended a typically Hollywood love story with sharp observations on multi-racial life, American-style. The current British film, Bhaji on the Beach, is so thematically similar to Mississippi Masala that it appears writer/director Gurinder Chadha either studied the earlier film, or the complexities facing Indians in the U.S. and Britain are pretty much the same.
In both Mississippi Masala and Bhaji on the Beach, youngish Indian women offend their highly traditional families by taking up with the racial and cultural other. In fact, both films have it that the young women transgress by falling in love not only outside the Indian circle, but with black men.
The earlier film had a fairly traditional girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-gets-boy arc. Bhaji on the Beach becomes completely its own thing by casting a wider net. Chadha is more insistent on looking at Indian immigrant society as a whole. The story of Hashida (Sarita Khajuria), the Indian half of the star-crossed lovers, is on a parallel track with that of a woman named Ginder, who takes her son and flees her abusive Indian husband. So the film faces both ways, outward from the immigrant society toward Britain, and inward, to where Indian men and women are still trying to live by the old rules.
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The film's story unfolds during the course of one day, when a group of Indian women board a tour bus for a day at the beach. In the cheerful words of Simi (Lalita Ahmed), a young feminist who has taken it upon herself to bring together all generations of women, "You've struggled under the double yoke of racism and sexism." When the older women look at each other with as much wonder and confustion as if they'd just heard a talking dog, Simi adds, "Have a female fun time."
The characters here might be confused, but director Chadha isn't. She shows a light touch in giving each character her or his moment in front of the camera. And just when you think she's going to paint white England as a sewer of racism, she even brings in some British lads who are as sweet and confused as anyone else. And when Indian men begin to look entirely beyond the pale, a nice guy turns up. This tendency to qualify criticism feels partly like welcome honesty, and partly like a too-conscious effort to get everybody's story right, at least a little.
In a film that has as many storylines as Bhaji on the Beach, you rightly expect some to be resolved more convincingly than others. This isn't Nashville, after all. The consistency comes in Chadha's patience with, and love for, her characters. But the real treat comes in her presentation of Blackpool, the working- class beach resort to which the group repairs. The town looks gloriously seedy and altogether magical in its mix of anachronistic amusements and male striptease bars. Chadha gives us a hopeful and bracing vision of this brave new England. You can book me for Blackpool anytime.
-- David Theis