Kids Corner


Gurinder Chadha & The Desi Rascals:
Watch It Because It Is Entertaining, Not Because It’s Ethnic





Sikh-Briton film-maker Gurinder Kaur Chadha is not prone to false modesty. She is more prone to majestic statements.

She throws them down, these lines, with the pleasure and mischief of a child who holds a hand of winning cards. For example:

“With Bend It Like Beckham, I actually changed race relations in this country.”

Or: ‘‘There are very few people who are Asian, who have the kind of global reach that I have, not just with Asians but with non-Asians. I’ve worked hard for what my name represents, my brand, not just in Britain but around the world.”

Sincerity slows her speech. It means you take a moment to listen, consider the words, however lofty they sound.

Within the world of film and television, the statements may be difficult to dispute. Gurinder’s output has been incredibly far-reaching, in terms of putting South Asian characters on the big and small screens of the western world.

‘Bend It Like Beckham’ took $32.5 million at the US box office, and launched the careers of Keira Knightley and Parminder Kaur Nagra. Gurinder, who wanted to tell the story of a football-mad Sikh girl in the suburbs of London, put the footballer’s name in the title in the hope that it would reach a wider audience. It did – transforming the fortunes of homegrown British Asian film, and fulfilling Gurinder’s desire to enter mainstream British culture.

Now, with her new project ‘Desi Rascals‘, a collaboration with producer Tony Wood (The Only Way is Essex, Hollyoaks), she is looking to enter the arteries of British reality television with her own particular brand of cheerful multiculturalism.

In person, Gurinder is very agreeable, but not as soft or dappy as her films would have you believe. She has a definite political agenda that is visible throughout her work, from her very first feature film, ‘Bhaji on the Beach‘, in 1993, to her 2006 short ‘Paris, je t’aime‘.

Gurinder wants to accentuate our similarities as human beings, across racial boundaries, rather than highlight our differences. And she is clear that she likes a happy ending.

“What’s amazing about ‘Desi Rascals’ is that once you get over the all-Asian cast, what it seems to be mainly about is what everyone else is concerned about. Young people. Getting off with each other. Being embarrassed by your parents. Being hurt by romance. You’ll watch it because it is entertaining, because it is moving, not because it is Asian.”

She is pleased that ‘Desi Rascals’ is going out in the runup to the election.

“Because when people bandy around a word like ‘immigrant’ and use it pejoratively, what this show does is actually take away that crude definition to show people with hearts and minds. It’s about people saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got mates like that.’’’

In one scene, Prakash, who is about to get married, is shown joking with his brother Sunjay that he needs to formulate the “right expression” for the moment when he “sees his new wife for the first time”. Even though he has been going out with his fiancee Shreena for quite some time, traditions require a pretence that he has never seen her before when he takes his vows.

“I was going to go for the old wink when the veil comes up,” he says to Sunjay. “It’s a classic, the old wink. What do you think?”

“Nah,” says Sunjay. “That’s cheesy. You want to go for a surprised look, like this.”

This kind of casual, self-referential irony and humour is a common thread in the show. Gurinder herself refers to one couple as being straight out of a soap opera.

“One of the families that is interesting,” she says, “is the Shah family, Manoj and Celia. He is a Gujarati guy who married an English girl. He comes over as very EastEnders, she is Coronation Street. It’s this weird experience when you see them – like, ‘What am I watching?’ They’ve got two beautiful daughters who are mixed race. Very London, very west London, in fact, and their dad really wants them to marry Indian men. Their mother is like: ‘You’re having a laugh.’ And so it’s a very open exchange about race, and we don’t shy away from that.”

Is it possible, or desirable, though, to “forget” that it is a cast of Asians? Although it features mixed marriages, there are also culturally specific elements, such as the fact that Shreena will live with her husband’s parents after marriage in a joint family setup.

Gurinder sees this as part of an easy embrace of multiple identities.

“Third-generation Indians love maintaining their cultural traditions,” she says, “but they can also go down the pub, shop till they drop, do whatever anyone else does.”

She believes this is not a version of British Asian reality that we see enough on screen.

‘Desi Rascals’ is going to be broadcast on ‘Sky Living‘, a subscriber-only channel. Gurinder explains that one of the reasons Sky was so interested in the project was the hope that it would pull viewers over from the Asian-only channels.

But how about the terrestrial channels? She is coy when discussing the ins and outs of the commissioning rounds.

“I can’t see it on the BBC,” she says. “Maybe because it isn’t … educational enough for them. ITV were interested in it, we were talking to them.”

For Gurinder, the main aim is to show the lived reality of contemporary British Asians.

“They have no issues with being bicultural. My generation had to fight for that space. We had to say: ‘We are British and we are Indian, and this is how we do it.’ We would go to school where they would say: ‘She’s having an identity crisis, she shouldn’t be allowed to speak Indian languages at home, because otherwise, children, they get confused.’”

She shakes her head in amused despair.

“Science has proved that totally wrong, because the fact is, the more languages you speak as a child, the brainier you are in every other subject. But the third generation now, they don’t sit there brow-beating, because of all the work we’ve done for them. They can sort of laugh at a bhangra track, and at the same time dance to Pharrell Williams.”

Gurinder’s parents were shopkeepers, Sikh immigrants from Kenya.

“I grew up in a shop at the time when the National Front was at its height. And I remember that horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever there were National Front people fighting, the feeling that they might attack my parents at any time, and shoot them or abuse them, which did happen to people.”

Did this make her feel marginalised?

“Well, that’s the reason I got into the media in the first place,” she says. “To make people who look like me come out of the margins and be centre stage. And in doing that, make a place for ourselves in the society that we live in, rather than always feeling second best or on the margins, like my parents might have felt.”

You get a sense that it is only by becoming an indisputable part of the establishment that Gurinder Chadha, OBE will feel that this battle has been won.

“My dad used to say in Punjabi: ‘Jithe zindagi vi jaandi, assi vi jaandey,’ – ‘How the world turns, we turn with it. Where it goes, we go’.

“We’re part of the rest of the world. And that is how I think,” she says. “My job is to make sure we are visible, we are out there in our three-dimensional ways, we are part and parcel of the world, and we go with the world.”

Gurinder remembers an early screening of ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ in the US. A critic wrote that the film was not representative of British Asian experience.

“He said that ‘My Son the Fanatic’ by Hanif [Kureishi] was representative of the British Asian experience. I’ll never forget it.”

Kureishi, also concerned with definitions of difference, is widely considered to have inspired a generation of British writers, Asian and otherwise. Unlike Gurinder, he is known for being adversarial and provocative in his work.

“Hanif is an amazing writer,” she says, “but he is mixed race. So his relationship to his ‘Asian-ness’ is different from mine. Perhaps that’s why, like Ayub Khan-Din [the writer of ‘East is East‘], he goes back to his childhood, whereas for me it is a living, breathing thing.”

It has been more than 20 years since Gurinder made her first feature. Since then she has made the films ‘Bride and Prejudice’ (2004), ‘Angus‘, ‘Thongs and Perfect Snogging’ (2008) and ‘It’s a Wonderful Afterlife’ (2010).

Her next project is the ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ musical, coming to the West End in London this summer, 13 years after the film’s release.

“I think it is a very opportune time to look at what we achieved with that film in terms of ‘Britishness’ in 2002. To look at that now, in 2015, is interesting, with an election that is going to be incredibly divisive with the whole Ukip element.”

There is something strong about Gurinder that is resolutely British. Her optimism is catching, even though it is, of course, just part of the story. The first episode of ‘Desi Rascals’ is a touching show of harmonious joshing, where disputes are dealt with in good humour. It will be interesting to see how it sustains itself over a whole series, and whether it will need the conflict that is the mainstay of most reality television.

Either way, Gurinder’s attempt to make love not war seems genuine.

“I love this country,” she says, looking out of the window with a smile. “I love this city. London!”

[Courtesy: The Guardian. Edited for]
March 24, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Roopinder Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), March 26, 2015, 9:24 PM. readers and former residents of Southall, UK, may wish to view the documentary, "Young Rebels" about the Southall Youth Movement.

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Watch It Because It Is Entertaining, Not Because It’s Ethnic"

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