That was in 1986. Much has changed in California since then. Caucasians are no longer the majority. The signs of the new majorities in California are everywhere—from the all-you-can-eat Indian buffets to the Vietnamese video stores to the polls tracking the Latino vote. As yesterday’s outsiders become today’s majorities, it seems somehow fitting that a film about Los Angeles, the most famous of Californian cities, should come from a British-Indian filmmaker who was born in East Africa and lives in London.
But when Gurinder Chadha decided to do her own Los Angeles story she opted for the Los Angeles she had never seen on screen. Her impression of Los Angeles came straight out of Hollywood, from movies like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or the television series Thirty Something. That was nothing like the Los Angeles she encountered when she went there. She recalls: “For example, we in England had no idea of the huge Latino presence in California, that over 50 percent of the city is Spanish speaking. I was just shocked that there were bilingual billboards everywhere. I was like ‘what the hell’s going on?’ Am I in a different country?” As one of her stars, Alfre Woodard commented, “Our film is a film about real people that live in a real place called Los Angeles, rather than a film with actors in a Hollywood movie.”
For Chadha, “What’s Cooking” is in some ways similar to her 1994 hit, Bhaji on the Beach. Unlike Bhaji, “What’s Cooking” has no South Asian characters. But Chadha stresses, “In my view they are all Indians. The Vietnamese family could easily be Indian, as could the Latino family or any of the others.” But the connections are deeper. In Bhaji, which followed a group of Indian women on a day trip to the British seaside town of Blackpool, “the idea was to show these Indian women with strong English accents against an English landscape.” That was Chadha’s way of challenging notions of British-ness that were all about the Queen and cups of tea. But she was amazed at how much audiences in America, not the most outward looking of countries, seemed to enjoy this film about Indian women in Britain. It set her thinking about looking at America. And what better way to explore the notion of American-ness than through the most American of holidays—Thanksgiving, set in the most gilded of cities—Los Angeles?
“What’s Cooking,” which looks at four Los Angeles families coming together over Thanksgiving, was a challenge from the start. Not too many films work as an ensemble. Certainly not as multiethnic ensembles. If at all multiethnic casting shows up in Hollywood films it’s mostly in buddy-buddy cop films—perhaps a Danny Glover with a Mel Gibson or a Jackie Chan with Danny Aiello. Or an exploration of racial conflict. In “What’s Cooking,” Chadha treats the races of the four main families as a given—just part of the new reality of Los Angeles. The four main families in the film are Vietnamese, African-American, Jewish, and Latino. Chadha pretty much chose the communities by their numbers and visibility in Los Angeles. The script came together on a drive down to Los Angeles from San Francisco with her Japanese-American husband Paul Mayeda. But its journey to the big screen took a little longer.
Chadha and Mayeda showed the script to Marcus Hu of Strand Films who really liked it and suggested they take it to Sundance. That was how Chadha became the first British director ever to end up at the Sundance screenwriters’ lab. There they had several sessions with other professional writers and tutors whose one-on-one sessions helped them to refine the script. It was not an easy script with 41 speaking roles and intertwining story lines. And there were a few tutors whose feedback Chadha says diplomatically, “we didn’t find useful because we felt that they didn’t get what we were trying to do. Sometimes there was an idea—like why not take the people out of Los Angeles and set it in the Midwest—Minnesota or something like that. Wouldn’t that be something different—Vietnamese people against a snowy landscape? Wouldn’t that be interesting? Obviously the point of our piece was to normalize Los Angeles and acknowledge where these people live. Which is their America as much as the next person’s. The guy who gave us the feedback saw them as different from himself. There was nothing overtly racist—it was just interesting the way people reacted to it.”
One of the people who saw it though was a Hollywood veteran, Frank Pierson who had worked on classics like Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon. He initially thought it was an impossible script to realize on screen but changed his mind after seeing how Chadha handled multiple story lines in Bhaji. He said he realized what “What’s Cooking” really was: Thornton Wilder’s classicOur Town just set in 21st century America. But it was still a script that few in Hollywood would take a chance on.
Eventually Chadha met an elderly Jewish man who had worked for many years with Mel Brooks and he loved the film because it reminded him of the kind of great family movies that no one ever made any more. He figured out a scheme to get the film financed privately. The benefits were obvious. As Chadha says, “I was extremely lucky that for my first film in America as a British director, I had complete editorial control.” It has certainly paid off—”What’s Cooking” was chosen to open the prestigious Sundance film festival. Thanks no doubt to the strong cast the story line attracted—Joan Chen (Xiu Xiu Girl, The Last Emperor), Julianna Margulies (ER), Kyra Sedgwick (Singles, Something to Talk About), Mercedes Ruehl (Married to the Mob, Fisher King) and Alfre Woodard (Down in the Delta, Love and Basketball).
While the opening night was all glitz and glamour filled with industry people, “What’s Cooking” screened a few nights later at Ogden in Utah. That, to Chadha, was the acid test of the viability of the film. Chadha recalls, “the crowd was a largely white Mormon crowd along with a few Chinese people from the local Chinese restaurant and there was me. Here I was thinking I was being slightly subversive in terms of America. But it was amazing to see how the crowd just ate it up. What was truly amazing was how they saw themselves in the families. They didn’t say ‘Oh there’s a black family or a Latino family.’ Instead it was ‘Alfre’s having a hard time with her mother-in-law, isn’t she? I know how she feels.’ And they were all really interested in the cooking going on—they were like ‘next year I’ll try that stuffing. That looks really good.’ So they kind of just bought the film as a regular piece of Americana.”
It will be more interesting to see how the different communities portrayed in the film buy the film as well. When Chadha made Bhaji she described it as “apna film, our film.” Almost all her previous film work, including several acclaimed documentaries, were strongly rooted in the community she came from. That gave her a heightened sense of responsibility about how to portray the community realistically, yet respectfully, so that she could show both the dirt and the good stuff. In a sense, it is also easier to do it from within one’s own community, where you have a little more license to laugh at yourself. But what would African-Americans or Vietnamese Americans make of the depictions of their communities in the hands of a British-Indian filmmaker and her Japanese-American husband? Especially when the families shown in the film are dealing with what the Park City 2000 review called “a checklist of important social problems.”
Would the Jewish viewer be annoyed that it was the Jewish family that has to deal with a lesbian daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) bringing her girlfriend (Julianna Margulies) home? Would the African-American audience be turned off by having the philandering husband dumped on its plate? Chadha stresses, “I think the stories could have happened in any family. I think any race under the sun could have a lesbian daughter. I think any race could have an unfaithful husband. The idea of kids getting into bad peer groups happens in any community.” But she goes on to add that certainly the exploration of Latino machismo made it interesting to set the story of the single mother (Mercedes Ruehl) making romantic choices in her life after her children had all grown up in the Avila household. And the tension between the parents and the children was particularly telling in the Vietnamese family because “they are the newest community. So they are dealing culturally more with the kids being lost to the parents. But that could have been true of the Jewish community 150 years ago and still is in certain areas.”
Chadha feels that being an outsider growing up in Britain actually gave her more insight into the lives of the immigrants that make up “What’s Cooking.” She comments, “I can completely relate to young Latinos born in Los Angeles whose parents come from somewhere else. I can completely relate to what their concerns might be, what their desires might be, how they want to express their identities.” The immigrant is truly the citizen of the 21st century. “Global is such a hackneyed word,” she says, “but the world is now made up of cities which have second-, third-, fifth-generation people from all over the globe. And I find that culturally a very exciting canvas to work from. When I got to another country I am always interested in seeing the immigrants in that country, why they are there and what their shops are like, and culturally how they are expressing themselves. That’s why we on purpose cut between the four different ways they might be preparing yams. Or four different ways they might be doing their potatoes.”
As she went about mapping this new America, heavily infused with the salty tang of soy sauce and the smoky hotness of chipotle chilies, Chadha was struck by “a certain sadness with people within Los Angeles. For e.g., when actors first came in and read the script, Alfre (Woodard) I remember said ‘This is just like my block. The guy over there is from Japan and over here is an African guy and over here is a Korean and it’s such a mixed block, yet no one talks to each other and no one connects.’ People say that in Los Angeles no one knows who their neighbors are and I felt there was a bit of a sadness that there wasn’t a community within LA.”
The reasons for that are many—some feel that immigrant families in their efforts to preserve their culture often turn insular. Chadha also points to the way Los Angeles is designed, the lack of a public transport system and the history of the city that determined where different communities settled or were allowed to settle in. She recalls, “The first time I was in Los Angeles I was there for almost a month and I said ‘My god I have been here a month and I have not spoken to one black person.’ To me, coming from London, that was such a weird thing.” Especially because in Britain, black had been the all-purpose identity that was an umbrella political term that covered all people who were not white.
Gurinder points out that as immigrant populations have grown, and politics have evolved and split, people have become more attached to their hyphenated identities rather than an all-purpose black one—”We are British-Asian, British-Indian, British-Pakistani, even British-Azad-Kashmiri.” While she feels it is important that these issues of ethnicity and national identity are getting an airing she admits she, “still can’t get the term black out of my vocabulary and I still use that all over.”
Old habits die hard. As do traditions—like turkey at Thanksgiving. One of the funniest scenes in the film has the Vietnamese family doggedly attacking the turkey, more out of a sense of tradition and duty than anything else, trying to disguise its blandness with sauces and spices. Chadha recalls that growing up in Britain they would cook half their Christmas turkey the traditional (read bland) way and the other half with chilies and spices! If the mixture of spices in “What’s Cooking” works right, Gurinder actually hopes it will work up some funding interest for another project—the film version of Chitra Divakaruni’s Mistress of Spices. “I am committed to getting that done and would love that to be my next American film,” she declares. The problem is basically financing. Financing is often dependent on the star power of the lead and actresses like Tabu (whom she would love for the lead) are not stars in Hollywood terms. Pointing to the ever-growing tribes of desi millionaires in the Valley she chuckles “So if you know any rich Silicon valley types let them know—we can even put them in that feature film.”
Sandip Roy Chowdhury’s works have appeared in A Magazine, Pacific Reader, and Jinn (Pacific News Service). He is an occasional commentator on the New California Media TV show.