Girls Just Wanna Play Soccer

Gurinder Chadha is drinking tea. She's the liveliest tea drinker I've ever seen. Full of energy and ideas, she's not about to sit on a sofa in a nice hotel for an entire interview. She gets up to open a window, to check on her phone. She leans forward, then sits back. She answers the hotel phone, after wondering out loud if she should, and speaks briefly with her husband and writing partner, Paul Mayeda Berges. They're doing notes on their new movie, she explains, smiling broadly, a musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice she describes as "Bollywood meets Fiddler on the Roof."

It's safe to say that Gurinder Chadha loves her work. Born in Kenya, she began her career as a news reporter with BBC Radio, and directed short documentaries for the BBC. In 1990, she established her own production company, Umbi Films, and made her first feature, Bhaji on the Beach, in 1993. She directed What's Cooking in 2000, about four Los Angeles families on Thanksgiving, and now, her latest project, Bend It Like Beckham, about Jess (Parminder Nagra), and Jules (Keira Knightley), young footballers aspiring to play professionally. The film was one Britain's highest grossing films in 2002.

I'm glad to see a movie that doesn't condescend to its young girl characters, send them to the prom or make them want to take off their glasses for a boy.

That was one of the things that I wanted to do with the movie, was create a movie with images of girls who were all sorts -- tall, fat, thin, small, or whatever, but all looking really powerful and confident and happy with what they were doing and therefore happy with their bodies. There was this moment when we were cutting one of the sequences where the girls were all jumping over steel barriers, and the editor was trying to do it on the beat. He said, if we do it this one way, we get Jules, but we also get this really fat girl, and her stomach goes up and down and so do her breasts, and he was worried that wouldn't look "nice" on the big screen. I said, "Are you kidding? That's the best shot!" Probably no one will notice it, but someone might somewhere, so I made active choices to put in shots like that, because they are absent from the screen, usually.

It is the ultimate kind of girl power movie, because it doesn't belittle the girls' experience. As much as I love Clueless, it's a little plasticky, even as it is about being plasticky, and it is a mainstream Hollywood movie. Given those constraints, it did pretty well. What I wanted to do was create a story about teens, but a teen movie with balls, so to speak. I wanted to make something that really looks at what you go through at that age. And it's all so complicated, dealing with boys, your girlfriends, your parents, trying to be your own person. And she's Indian, so you have all the Indian cultural stuff, and race, since she's in London.

I wanted to show that you're dealing with a lot of things at that age. But at the same time, I wanted the film to feel like a rush, because that's what you're doing then, you're rushing to stand still, because your life is kind of going in directions that you can't anticipate. And the soccer plays into that, where Jess does look amazing. And, I wanted to bring in the parents, so you could understand their points of view as well. Usually in teen movies, the parents are portrayed as silly or absent. So, from a teen movie it kind of became a family movie.

The movie makes clear that there's a generational difference in understandings of race and communities. Where the parents are somewhat fearful and divided, the girls negotiate between communities.

Absolutely. What I wanted to show with the film is give you the nuts and bolts of integration. That's what it's about, that process of being second generation or third generation Indian, very specifically in London. And no one really has done that, show how you do balance, not only culture, but also gender and sexuality. By focusing on these two characters, you get a strong picture on the constraints but also the processes that allow them to be who they are.

It's very close to my story. And I was plagued all through school with people saying, "Oh, you must be in an identity crisis," or, "There's a big culture clash going on," which just made me bristle, because we just didn't feel that. Adults don't know that, because you don't really talk about boyfriends and makeup with your mom! You know who to talk to about what, and it's a process of negotiating your different experiences and expectations of you. Though I made the film for a British audience, I think it's done so well around the world because a lot of the world lives like that too. That's the predominant experience these days. Most cities have populations who have moved from one place to another and another. And most cities don't have the kind of space that America has. Most cities have people much more on top of each other, so you have to kind of take each other's agendas on board. So you end up being a tight-knit community. And what I wanted to show was that the diasporic culture, of second and third generations, is increasingly a predominant culture.

And you see this as a specifically urban phenomenon?

I do, and the media that emerge from urban environments influence other media. And so, there was a time in England when we would watch television, and see an Indian person and get excited. Remember that song, "Kung Fu Fighting" came out, and an Indian guy produced that song, called Biddu. I remember thinking that was so cool, the first Indian on a pop show. But now, when I go back, almost every show on the telly is full of Indians and black people. And they're in the industry, in positions of power, increasingly. And the fact that this film did so well in Britain, as a British movie, not as an Indian movie, surprised even me. Even the tabloids picked it up, called it a "great British comedy!" And no one said culture clash. And why has it taken the Sun and the Mirror to get over the race barrier, more than the highbrow papers? Those papers were more concerned with it being about an Indian girl in Britain today, that kind of qualification.

The film also uses a set of conventions -- sports movie, romantic comedy, family clash -- but also challenges some of those generic boundaries.

Yeah, this is a problem for me, but also a pleasure. I keep making films that don't fit genres, so they're hard to market. So, as we're traveling with this film, we went out to Chicago's suburbs, and they pitched it as "a soccer movie." And kids came, and they loved it, but all these dads and coaches were saying, "This is not a soccer movie. It's more than a soccer movie." It is multiple genres at once. But that's what our lives are about -- you don't think, today I'm going to just be a teenager, and tomorrow I'll deal with race. It's everything all at once.

Speaking of multiple experiences at once, I was wondering too about the burn on Jess' leg.

That was not in the script. I had seen Parminder, after seeing her in a theater production four years previously, and I loved her. Casting is such an important process, and then I work really hard at giving them space.

You talked with them a lot during filming?

Oh yes, you have to have that dialogue, especially with young performers. Because I write the script, I'm not precious about it. I give it to them and say, "Make it yours." And that's a tremendous amount of freedom for an actor, and then you start nudging them, and they think they're coming up with the ideas. But that's the trick of directing, though, isn't it, to let them think the ideas are theirs, but they're really doing what you want, even if you're figuring it out with them. Bless them.

With Parminder, I gave her the part, and then the next day, her agent called and said, "Uhh, I think there's something you should know. She's got a bit of a scar, and it's gonna be visible." So she came in, and I said, "Okay, let's have a look." So she took her trousers off, and I was like, "Whoa!" I remember saying, "Well, makeup's not going to hide it!" And she was really upset because she thought I wasn't going to give her the role. And then she told me what happened, and I said, "Okay, we'll put it in the script then." So, the scene that's in the film is exactly what happened to her. And these things happen, and it just works so well. When you see it, you think, "Well, that's not about race or color! That's about something else!" And then it worked with [the coach] Joe's scar: he always had one in the script. And I liked it because it gave the mum another layer: the reason she didn't want Jess to show her legs was because of the "deformity," as well as the Indian thing.

I came into films initially on this platform to challenge the representation of women and people of color in the media. That was my thinking, I wanted to use the camera, which is so powerful, to change the way that people are portrayed. My first film [Bhaji on the Beach] is quite like that, even if it's dressed up like a comedy. It's actually a film about domestic violence. But I've got you all suckered in by the time that becomes clear, so it's overtly political. This film isn't quite so overt, but it makes a point. Because I come from that platform, it's my instinct to pull the carpet out from you.

I was pleased, I confess, to see that faraway shot of (the fake) Beckham and Victoria at the end of the film, not so much because he's so clearly important to the film, but because of the Spice Girls, whom I find fascinating.

Yeah! Girl Power! Totally, that's what this film is about. One has to credit them for giving girls a sense of assertiveness and confidence and aggressiveness, which was absent before. And now, with the Britney thing, it's more insipid. The Spice Girls came along and were all in your face, and I thought they were great. They were the best thing to happen to nine-year-old girls.

A lot of adults read them as "ironic" or as sex dolls, or whatever. But girls used them differently, took them to heart.

And what was great was that they offered all the different sides of girls -- you could be sporty or you could be black, or you could be blond and girly, or dark and dangerous like Posh.

I saw them when they toured the U.S., and the audience was almost as compelling as the show, because the girls were so enthusiastic.

I had a similar experience when I went to the Rose Bowl to see the Women's World Cup. It was great to see the players, who were brilliant. But what was something else was to see 90,000 spectators, all mostly young women with their dads and mums.

And are you thinking of that audience, or another one, while you're working on the new film, a musical based on Pride and Prejudice?

That's so much fun. What we're doing with that is, that the Bennetts are now the Buckshees, and they live in Hicksville, in the north of India. And Lizzie is now Lelita, very feisty, and she'll be played by Aishwarya Rai, the most popular Bollywood actress, whom Julia Roberts has described as the most beautiful woman in the world.

She would know.

Yes, she would (laughs). The character is very feisty and strong, and Darcy is a Caucasian American, son of a rich hotelier family, very smart with old New York money. And his good friend Mr. Bingley is now Baraj. British Indian. And he's a barrister in London. The story takes place in India, England and America, and it's very subversive. In the novel, Darcy is very high class, and Lizzie is slightly lower class. But now the conflict is about Darcy being American and her being Indian, more like he's First World and she's Third World, the West versus the East on a global level.

I imagine the music is exciting to put together.

It's a voyage of discovery for me. One of the things that shocked me about Beckham when I first saw the whole thing, was how English it was. Now I'm more aware of that sort of effect, and with the music, I'm bringing to the music something inside me, but working with a composer from India, a cheesy Bollywood composer. So he's suggesting stuff he thinks I want, that will work in the West, and I'm telling him, no, you need to make it more Bollywood. I'll bring the influence of the West to it. And somewhere along the line, it's becoming Bollywood Grease. It's really exciting.

Do you feel that, even amid this good fun, you've maintained something of a testy relationship to the mainstream industry?

There's no question about it. The film is, again, about weddings and girls and marriage from another point of view: we're going to call it "Bride and Prejudice." But there is a part of me that does want to do something totally different. That said, even if I do a sci-fi movie, I'll bring my world to it, it will have the undercurrents of identity and culture and the sense of diversity or camaraderie, in metaphorical terms.

Do you anticipate doing a generic Hollywood film in the future?

You may be surprised. You know, I've got to buy a penthouse sometime! But then you see, that in itself, I see that as an incredibly political thing, someone like me doing it.

Moving on up

Yes (laughs). And I do secretly love films like Wayne's World, and incredibly stupid comedy, Austin Powers and all that.

Well, they're not totally stupid, are they?

No, they aren't. Not if you read them the way we read them!


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