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Bend it like Chadha

Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha’s latest Blinded by the light is a hybrid musical with a different touch

She came into the limelight with her 2002 drama Bend it like Beckham. The film featured a young Indian-British woman, Jess, who tried to realise her football dreams while trying to be the dutiful daughter of traditional Indian parents. It portrayed multi-culturalism perfectly. From then onwards, filmmaker Gurinder Chadha earned recognition for her ‘NRI movies.’ Her forthcoming film Blinded by the Light is a sequel to this football drama, but its subject is entirely different, says Chadha.

Blinded by the Light is based on the memoir Greetings from Bury Park by journalist and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor. It chronicles his experiences as a British Muslim boy growing up in the 1980s in small town working class England. It reflects the widespread unemployment and racism of the time, but also the hopes and dreams of youngsters.

Like many youngsters his age, Manzoor idolised rockstars, especially Bruce Springsteen whose music he played all the time.

Gurinder loved the book and shared the same obsession with Springsteen’s music. She decided to make a film based on the book but could it be done without Springsteen?

Manzoor had interviewed Springsteen as a journalist several times. He and Gurinder managed to meet the rockstar at a public event and told the singer that they wanted to make a film using his music. He had read and liked Manzoor’s book and quickly okayed the idea. “He loved the message — how music can transcend class, race, any kind of background,” says the filmmaker.

The film graphically depicts the racism most migrants have experienced. In one scene, the slogan ‘Pakis Out’ and a swastika are sprayed all over a neighbourhood wall as a warning. Other instances of racial bias and tensions are evident, but Gurinder says that things in Britain are changing. She hopes that just as Bend It Like Beckham had an impact on the way that people viewed the British Sikh community, Blinded by theLight will have a similar impact for British Pakistanis.

The film can be described as a hybrid musical and features multiple instances of the characters singing along to Springsteen hits on their Walkmans. The music is woven into the fabric of the film. The actor Rob Brydon does a cameo role as Springsteen. The protagonist of the film is played by the newcomer Vivek Kalra.

Gurinder’s previous films have equally unusual subjects.

Chadha’s immediate family was of Kenyan Asian origin. She was born in Nairobi, Kenya, then a British colony. Her family moved to South Hall, West London when she was just two years old. Gurinder attended Clifton Primary School. Growing up, she remembers that her father faced much prejudice because of his appearance as a Sikh who wears a turban and sports a beard.

As a child growing up in London, she noticed her grandparents reacting in horror to any kind of violence shown on television. The grandmother’s trauma was because she had fled to India from her home in Jhelum, now in Pakistan, to escape certain death.

Years later, as a BBC reporter, Gurinder managed to visit her ancestral home in Jhelum. She was overwhelmed by the love and affection showered on her by Muslim families. These experiences led her to make Partition 1947. The film comes with a unique perspective of a British-Indian director who is able to view that cataclysmic event from both sides of the great sub-continental divide.

She originally planned to base her film on Freedom at Midnight, the international best-selling novel by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. But a chance encounter with Prince Charles at a charity event in London changed her plans.

When she told him about her film’s focus on his granduncle the Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, Charles suggested that she read The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of the Partition by Narendra Singh Sunila, an Indian diplomat.

She picked up a copy and the account that she read made her refashion her film. The epic drama blames Britain’s wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill for conspiring to divide British India into two, in order to ensure that Britain retains a bit of its influence in that part of the world.

In Britain, the film was titled Viceroy House. It was received with great interest but later British critics slammed her and attacked her for distorting history. More objective critics such as the New York Times have appreciated her film and her viewpoint.

Gurinder has been a film-director and screenwriter since 1990, but it was the global success of Bend It Like Beckham which got her recognition as a British-Asian woman director of substance. It drew on her personal experience of being Indian and English at the same time, and how she dealt with her dual identity. Gurinder belongs to a traditional Punjabi family but refused to wear traditional dress, cook or do household work.

Many Britons acknowledge Gurinder Chadha’s singular contribution to fostering inter-racial understanding in an increasingly multi-cultural country. They hope for more such contemporary cinema from the quirky, creative director of films such as Bhaji on the Beach, Bride and Prejudice, Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging and It’s a Wonderful Afterlife.