What a treat on MUBI to re-visit Bhaji on the Beach! As well as being one of the best Blackpool-set films, it’s also the breakthrough film for three of the most important British filmmakers. First the film is remembered as Gurinder Chadha’s first feature after her successful short film I’m British But . . . (UK 1990). The writer of the screenplay for Bhaji on the Beach is Meera Syal. She was already an established actor and had written for TV but this was her first film script. Nadine Marsh-Edwards was one of the founder members of Sankofa, the Black-British Film and Video Collective in 1983 and she developed as an effective producer for other Black filmmakers including the first two films of fellow Sankofa member Isaac Julien. Bhaji on the Beach was her first commercial venture.
Together the three women created one of the first films to show second-generation South Asian women in the UK exploring their diasporic identity in a popular film that was successful in cinemas and in broadcasts by Channel 4, one of its principal funders. Chadha and Syal have become key figures because of their ability to make important statements through popular entertainments on film and television. Marsh-Edwards has been more identified with art and experimental work attempting to create a Black British aesthetic. Both art and entertainment are important and especially so for these filmmakers dealing with the challenges of exploring what it means to be South Asian and British, African-Caribbean and British.
Bhaji on the Beach is a very British comedy drama that attracted attention from international scholars as well as film critics and audiences. It does therefore require a little explanation of the conventions of British comedy and the specific meanings of elements of the mise en scène. The idea behind the film is to take a group of Punjabi women from Birmingham on a day trip to Blackpool in the Autumn to see the famous Illuminations. The women range in age from a pair of teenagers to women in their 60s. The older women will have left India (or Pakistan) as children or young adults, but the younger ones have been born in the UK. One of the small group in the mini-bus is a visitor from Mumbai. The trip is organised by Simi (Shaheen Khan) from a South Asian Women’s Centre and it soon evident that her feminist ideas will meet resistance from the older women Pushpa (Zohra Seghal) and Asha (Lita Ahmed). The two teenage girls are out for fun with boys, but the main dramatic storylines deal with Hashida (Sarita Khajuria) and Ginder (Kim Vithana). Hashida is a high-flying student aiming to go to medical school but she has had a year-long relationship with Oliver (Mo Sesay), an African-Caribbean art student – and she’s just discovered she is pregnant. Ginder is married and has a small son but she has left her abusive husband Ranjit (Jimmi Harkishin). The Punjabi community is close-knit and it is difficult to keep secrets for long so Hashida’s secret will soon be out and Ginder can expect to get ‘advice’ from the older women.
I’ve seen several reviews and scholarly papers which call this film a ‘road movie’. I think this is slightly misleading. Road trips mean meeting different people along the way on a long journey. Birmingham to Blackpool is not a long trip. In its heyday, which lasted from the early 20th century until the 1970s, Blackpool was the most popular holiday resort in Western Europe. Entire factories and mills in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands would close for a day, or a week and workers would head to Blackpool. The most famous Blackpool story is Hindle Wakes, the 1912 play by Stanley Houghton which has been filmed four times in 1918, 1927, 1931 and 1952 (and at least twice as a TV play). ‘Wakes Week’ is a Lancashire tradition in which all the cotton mills in a town would shut down for a week. The mill girls would flock to Blackpool and have ‘adventures’. In that sense Bhaji on the Beach is a conventional Blackpool story. Instead of mill girls there are South Asian women but their adventures are not dissimilar and they involve conflicts between tradition and modernity. Blackpool’s town motto is ‘Progress’ and the town has always tried to be at the cutting edge, though that has proved difficult during its decline in the 2000s – but now things are looking up. The innovation for 1993 is males strippers at a women only event in a club by Central Promenade. Gurinder Chadha has said that she drew on her memories of seaside holidays in the UK as a child in the 1960s. She also makes the the Indian connection explicit when the woman from Mumbai first steps onto ‘the Golden Mile’ on Central Promenade and exclaims ‘Bombay!’. As a native of Blackpool and a traveller to India, for me the connection is obvious – bright lights, street food, games, oddities, tent shows, circus etc. The latest film to put South Asians onscreen in Blackpool was Eaten By Lions (UK 2018), an enjoyable social comedy which in some ways updates aspects of Bhaji on the Beach. (Eaten By Lions is still on BBCiPlayer at the time of writing.)
There has been significant scholarly work on Bhaji on the Beach. The main line of theoretical work is to discuss the Blackpool setting as a ‘diaspora space’ – a space in which identities can be tested and especially the opposition of tradition and modernity. This work is neatly summarised in Ana Cristina Mendes’ 2010 paper ‘Triangulating Birmingham, Blackpool, Bombay: Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach’, which also lists the key texts exploring the film and its conjunctural moment. I have no argument with this analysis (apart from the terminology used which limits accessibility I think). However, I think that it tends to focus on the ideas rather than on the film itself. My own interest is precisely on that link between Blackpool and Bombay and the way that the South Asian women in Bhaji are not that far removed from Stanley Houghton’s mill girls who used their Blackpool experiences to try out other ideas about life and to challenge themselves in terms of social class and generational attitudes, something which British social comedy at its best has always tried to do. Chadha selects one character, Asha, and gives her the most visual challenge (i.e. how it is expressed on screen). Asha is an educated woman who in her diasporic life has become a shopkeeper in Birmingham. She perhaps feels that she has wasted her talents and she appears to be haunted by fantasies in which she is confronted by the God Vishnu who appears in various settings. One of these is Blackpool’s Grand Theatre, one of the great Frank Matcham theatres from 1894 and a monument to Imperial Britain. Asha meets an old actor (Peter Cellier) who clearly still has contacts locally. He takes Asha onto the stage at the Grand and as he tries to impress her, she sees Vishnu again. In another sequence he takes her to a park (it should be Stanley Park, but it was probably shot in London) where they play out a scene from a Hindi Cinema romance. In Chadha’s imaginative presentation, Asha is presented with reminders of the India she has left, its colonial legacy and how it relates to her present diasporic environment.
The men in the film are lesser figures but the two central dramatic storylines see Ranjit and his two brothers rushing to Blackpool to find Ginder and Oliver taking his motorbike to find Hashida. As well as Asha meeting her actor, the women are menaced by racist thugs at a service station but are more entertained by the male strippers and the teenagers do find their young men. The film is funny and involves the audiences in real questions about identity. The ending of the trip is left open rather than what we used to call ‘recuperating the prevailing ideology’. In many ways Bhaji on the Beach is about a precise moment in the early 1990s. Chadha and Syal have moved on and so have their audiences, both Asian and Black British. With the TV Series Goodness, Gracious Me (1998), Meera Syal changed perceptions of diasporic communities profoundly for many audiences in the UK. Gurinder Chadha has also attained widespread recognition for her comedies exploring identities for young women and especially for Bend it Like Beckham (UK 2002). Of the actors in Bhaji, Jimmi Harkishin has been a regular in the biggest TV soap Coronation Street, but it is a little sad that most of the women in the cast have tended to work only in occasional UK TV series. It is worth noting that the star of Bend It Like Beckham, Parminder Nagra, followed her big success with a career in American TV.