India Currents decided to find out what stories these films are telling, what kind of trends they are setting (and following). This is an “imagined” conversation concocted out of separate interviews with some of the people involved in making and watching the new generation of diasporan films.
Nisha Pahuja is the director of Bollywood Bound, a documentary following four Indo-Canadians back to Bombay. She also co-edited Bolo Bolo, an anthology of writing by second-generation South Asians in North America.
Raj Vasudeva is a young actor in San Francisco. He left a good corporate job to plunge into acting. He’s been in commercials, theaters, and has a couple of movies coming up as well. And fashion pageants too.
Sarita Vasa is founder and executive director of the Indo-American Cultural Center in Los Angeles and also puts on the desi arts festival Artwallah.
Sunil Thakkar pretends on his Web Site that in India he used to conduct star tours of Bollywood till the goons muscled in. But he’s really an MBA who organizes big desi parties and cruises in Houston. He’s also the producer and writer of the new film Where’s the Party Yaar?
Sunaina Maira is assistant professor of Asian American Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is co-editor of Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America and author of Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City.
And in a cameo appearance, Gurinder Chadha, director of Bend it Like Beckham and Bhaji on the Beach.
So what’s behind the boom of this endless parade of comedic takes on immigrant angst and hyphenated identities? Are these the children of Monsoon Wedding or Lagaan? The answer seems to be neither!
The Mother of Them All
Thakkar: American Desi! That was truly a landmark film in a completely untested market. There was nothing there to say something like that could even be seen. We can’t compare ourselves to Piyush Pandya (director of American Desi). We are still amateurs. But we’d like to be in their shoes.
Vasudeva: Well, it was definitely the first of its kind to open that door. And the boom was going on—there were so many software engineers coming in and everyone had a story.
Maira: But I think American Desi, and what I’ve heard of ABCD and other films, actually seem to be reproducing the clichés about the second generation. That is, the trope of cultural conflict, Indian vs. “American,” second-gen youth as unauthentically Indian.
Vasa: The NRI jokes are going to have to get much more intelligent. The basic problem is that trying to tell the story of a second generation through a film makes a film go all over the place, and lack the focus of one unique interesting plot. The key is to develop a story that is powerful such that aspects of the experience may be understood.
Maira: But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these film focus on college experiences. As I found in the research for my book (Desis in the House) that focuses on second-gen college students, going to college does become almost a rite of passage in terms of a supposed “rediscovery” and recreation of Indian American identity and an opportunity to perform one’s ethnic identity at “culture shows.”
Pahuja: Indian-Canadians somehow completely missed this college comedy genre. But I think politically Canada is so different. Unlike America’s melting pot, we are allowed to have the experience of belonging to two cultures.
Vasa: My guess would be that in Canada, there does not exist the same struggle for identity creation and affirmation. Canada is a land of immigrants where no one is being sucked into a dominant culture. The Indo-Canadians I know don’t think about their identity and Indian-ness as much as we seem to.
Maira: Well, actually Indian Canadians pioneered the genre with the very clever and biting satire, Masala! That was really the best North American film of this genre, in my view. It was funny and dark, perhaps too dark for earnest Indian Americans. There are so many other issues and ways of talking about being desi in the U.S., yet films like American Desi would suggest that our big issues are hooking up with another desi and learning garba.
ABCD vs FOB
Thakkar: I loved garba. When I came to the U.S. from India, I was going to school and I got into garba ras. I had never done it in India. I used to be this really shy boy who stammered. Here I stopped stammering started doing radio, got involved with garba groups. Then we ended up hosting all the big desi parties in Houston. But yes, we definitely had a problem with too many FOBs. Now I am an FOB but I am a businessman too. And I know that if you have too many FOBs all going hoye hoye on the dance floor and too few women, it’s not a good mix. So whenever an FOB would ask us “Hey, where’s the party, yaar?” I’d say “What party, no party.” That’s how we got the idea for our movie.
Pahuja: Take this word FOB. People in the U.S. use it freely. I go Awwghhh every time I hear it. It seems a little self-loathing to me.
Thakkar: FOB does have a bad connotation, while ABCD does not necessarily have that. I am an FOB, and for my movie I wanted to see an FOB as the hero.
Vasudeva: I came here from Delhi when I was 17. So I feel like I can relate to both sides. When I came to college I wanted to learn all about America. I stayed aloof from the Indian community for one-and-a-half years—I’d go to bars and get trashed. I think I can play both kinds of characters. In my latest film Indian Fish in American Water I am actually playing a software engineer coming from India for the first time. It’s a light romantic comedy.
Vasa: I believe the reason that many of these films are comedies is because their target audience is quite young, and so are the writers. The quality of many of the Indian American college movies is not very high currently, although I think it has offered us some sort of a beginning. At minimum, it has offered many filmmakers the opportunity to make films that in some way touch upon the Indo-American experience.
Thakkar: Music and comedy have no boundaries and the more people that can relate to it the better. Our radio show Music Masala is about that too—entertainment.
Vasudeva: I do think you can only make so many movies about ABCD vs. FOB. I think the trend will die down and then people will make more dramas and corporate thrillers.
Maira: I was actually interviewed by an Indian journalist from the Times of Indiarecently, and she seemed quite offended by the portrait of Indians as these caricatures in “NRI films” and rightly so. But at the same time, it was interesting that they often consume the stereotypes of the second-generation at face value. What was most interesting about our exchange was the insight, for this reporter, that all “ABCDs” don’t “hate” India!
Pahuja: As a teenager I didn’t want to have anything to do with anything Indian that made you stick out. Then someone brought me a tape of 1942: A Love Story. It made me think of how important they are culturally for NRIs. Bollywood is our cultural touchstone. I wanted to make a film about the impact of Bollywood on Indians in Canada. It was a way to escape racism. And made us really proud to be South Asian—to look like Rekha or take on a village full of bad guys like Amitabh Bachchan. Then I thought of following people who go back enamored of Bollywood—a reverse migration.
Vasudeva: I went to this fashion pageant here. Two days before the show I found out Subhas Ghai would be there. I changed my monologue to one from one of his films. Then I made sure to tell the organizers that he had to be there when I gave that mon logue. After the contest he invited four or five people to lunch and I got invited too. Nothing more came of that yet. But now I am going to India to take part in the Grasim Mr. India contest.
Pahuja: Neeru, the young the girl I follow from Surrey—she was green. Her sense of what Indian is going to be like and what she finds is comical and sad. On the other hand there was Ruby Bhatia who made it on MTV. She was a long-haired geeky kid from the suburbs who was more Indian and conservative than anyone in Bombay.
Vasudeva: I went to India to take some acting classes in 2000. The school I went to was popular because Hrithik Roshan had gone there. We were taught how to cry instantly, voice modulation, Hindi diction. We even had Art of Living classes in breathing exercises. But the style of acting is much more emotional there.
Pahuja: I went to Bombay after 20 years and was surprised at how hip it is. But it’s a painful experience to know that. I think you grow up always looking for something elusive. And you feel if it’s not here (in India), I won’t find it. That’s the point of my film. The kids go back thinking I am going where people look like me. But there people say they are not Indian enough.
Vasudeva: I would love to do movies in the U.S. and Bollywood and just shuttle in between them. But I want all kinds of roles. I am actually doing a Kannada film now. I don’t speak Kannada—I am learning. And in this science fiction movie called Hunting for Kestrel my name is Drake and I am not an Indian at all.
Thakkar: People think of Indians as cabdrivers and doctors. Well WTPY shows we are about more than that. We love to party too. Also, the America that people like Hari are coming into is not white America, not mainstream America but Indian America. I get gas from an Indian gas station. Then I can get my dosa, then groceries from an Indian store and then some sugarcane juice or a paan. That’s Houston for you. Raju panwalla in the movie really exists.
Vasa: However, I hope it is becoming clear that the film must be infused with a rich plot and full characters, and ultimately tell a story that is universal. But if films like The Guru and Bend it Like Beckham make up this next wave of filmmaking, I think we are in good shape.
Peril and Payoff
Chadha: The biggest problem is simplifying the experience and not being honest. You have to be honest about the experiences. And then people will relate. I was about to do a phoner for an Asian station and was on hold there. And this young boy, a technician named Sukhbir, just said, “By the way your film is fantastic. I am really proud of you.” That was my most touching moment that he could say that to me. That made it authentic and worth it.
Bhaji on the Beach, Bollywood Bound, Where’s the Party Yaar? are all screening as part of the South Asian focus at the 21st San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival from March 6-16, 2003. Other films include Mother India, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and Mango Souffle.
Bending the Rules with Gurinder Chadha
Gurinder Chadha cannot even go to the bathroom in peace these days. She remembers being on a British Airways flight last year and walking down to the bathroom. “It was freaky—all around me people were smiling at the screen,” says Chadha laughing. Bend it Like Beckham, her international hit, was playing on the plane.
It’s the feel-good comedy that everyone seems to love. The Brits love it. The Indians are bowled over by it. Aishwarya Rai likes it so much she’s is Chadha’s new film. Tony Blair liked it enough to send a bottle of claret. David Beckham and Posh Spice dig it. Even David Dhawan, of the Govinda comedies fame, says he wants to make a love story set in Southall after seeing it.
But even as she basks in the afterglow, Gurinder Chadha is wistful. “I wish my dad were here to see it,” she says. “He died in 1999. One of the special things about this whole campaign was, it’s about all of us. It’s about all of us making it.”
If there is a clue to Bend It Like Beckham’s success, it’s in Chadha’s use of the word “us” as opposed to “me.” When she made Bhaji on the Beach, her indie festival hit from 1993, she consistently referred to the film as “apna film” or “our film.” This keen sense of “us” means even as she laughs at the crazy maddening foibles of immigrant culture, there is no malice there.
And there are plenty of foibles and issues tucked in between the feisty mausi brigade making samosas and the girls sneaking out with their boyfriends before marriage. Interracial relations, racism, gay, even a sly jab at straightforward prejudice like the pecking order of who you could date—gora, black, Muslim. But it’s all dealt with humor instead of an ideological sledgehammer.
Even in her upcoming version of Pride and Prejudice with Aishwarya Rai she stresses she wants a “cheeky crossover film” not “a parody of Bollywood.” Though she quips, “It’s scary how Mrs Bennet from 1780 can just turn into Mrs Bakshi in 2003 with no changes needed at all!” Whether it’s the overprotective mother, the rebellious daughter, or the lay-down-the-law-dad—everybody gets treated with affection. It’s all family after all.
Literally. In the big wedding scene in Bend It Like Beckham, its Gurinder’s extended family that puts on its best “going-to-wedding” outfits and stepped in as extras. “The plus is they are cheap and willing,” chuckles Chadha. “The minus is once your mother or aunty shrieks out your nickname across the studio floor, respect from your crew goes out the window.” But she would not have traded it for anything. For the crew it was an opportunity to see the heart of the film, to see it mirrored in real life.
Bend It Like Beckham was in more ways than one Chadha’s homecoming film. After Bhaji she tried her hand at several scripts, including an ill-fated Bollywood venture with the brothers Deol. Then she and her Japanese-American husband Paul Mayeda Berges tried to stir the American melting pot inWhat’s Cooking, which was set in Los Angeles. But the film with its Asian-American, Latino, Jewish, lesbian, African-American cast came up against the American notion of multiculturalism. “American society has an in-built sense of diversity because its foundation is built on people from many different countries coming in,” says Chadha. This also means that the definition of what it means to be American is still nebulous. Society gets fractured into niches. While critics like Roger Ebert were gung-ho about What’s Cooking, Chadha says “on the marketing side, the publicity people didn’t have enough faith in the American viewing public’s ability to enjoy films that aren’t necessarily about themselves.”
Beckham tries to show that it could be done. “I set out to make a commercial film that would play multiplexes and appeal to audiences throughout Britain,” says Chadha. She wanted to prove that a film about a British Indian girl who just wants to play football while her mother is trying to teach her womanly things like how to make “round round chapatis” and a proper “aloo gobi” is also British. What she had no idea was how British it was going to be. In an industry increasingly squeezed out by the U.S., a family comedy by a British-Kenyan-Punjabi filmmaker opened at the prestigious Odeon Leicester Square theater which had been all but given up to Bond films and Hollywood blockbusters. “What was even more special was my mom was on the poster that towered over the square,” says Chadha. The film was heralded as a British comedy. “It’s no longer a race thing, its about identity now,” says Chadha.
When she made her first feature, it was this notion of Britishness that she was trying to knock out of its tea-cucumber sandwiches and Miss Marple mindset. Letting a gaggle of Indian women and their children loose in Blackpool was a small revolutionary act. It also meant that the movie which was developed by Channel 4 only open on five screens. Beckham was hard to finance but not for its Asian content. “Football movies don’t work and girls playing football is a big no-no,” explains Chadha. But when it finally got made, the studio released 470 prints!
Chadha thinks in the few years between Bhaji and Beckham, Britain itself has undergone its own identity change. Musicians and writers and artists like Talvin Singh, Anish Kapoor, Nitin Sahwney and Hari Kunzru have all become very much part of the fabric of British society, what she calls a “living breathing sense of multiculturalism. We don’t use that word anymore. It just is.”
Of course some things will take longer to change. Parminder Nagra who plays the ebullient Jess in Beckham worries that she might end up following the footsteps of another landmark movie—My Beautiful Laundrette. Though both attracted critical notice, Daniel Day Lewis went on to fame and fortune while Gordon Warnecke disappeared into television movies. Chadha concedes that barrier is hard to break. Nagra’s co-star Keira Knightley is supposed to be now in a Disney movie and co-starring with Johnny Depp. “But there are lot more roles available for someone like Parminder now, unlike at that time for Gordon,” she says. “Now you can have someone like Parminder in King Lear.”
But Beckham was not made to give young Asian actors a role. They just fit the story. If it has an agenda, says Chadha, it’s “balance the English passion of football with the Indian passion for marriage and play them against each other.” And in tomboy Jess and her passion for “football shootball” she wanted to capture what it means to be a young girl in Britain today and how hard it is to assert herself.
Chadha knows that feeling well. She remembers how she used to refuse to do the nice Indian girl thing. She went to her cousin’s wedding in a three-piece suit with a pink chunri. And even when she got back in touch with her Indian roots she gave them the “I’m British But” treatment—Indian clothes with Doc Martens shoes and Union Jack socks. Her sister got into a huge fight because she wanted to move out of home to go to the University of London. The compromise was she could stay there during the week but had to come home on the weekends. When it was Chadha’s turn she opted to go as far as she could, to Norwich. Her concession was to promise to come home every second weekend. She thinks she got away with it because she had an ally in her father who liked the fact that she was outspoken.
But the trick, says Gurinder, is how to get what you want. “I got everything I wanted through ducking, diving, and twisting,” she admits. It’s about honoring both sides and trying to find the middle path. That’s what makes Jess’s dilemma so real and so poignant because she feels both sides. “It’s not about breaking rules says Chadha. It’s just about bending them.” Like Beckham.