When Meera Syal was a child, her family would holiday in Blackpool. In the early 1990s the British-Indian playwright and actress told the then Channel 4 film commissioner Karin Bamborough that she’d like to write a film (her first) based on those trips to the seaside. Legend has it, Bamborough said yes on the spot. That film became 1993’s Bhaji on the Beach, a dark comedy about an intergenerational gaggle of Indian women, and a subversion of the “British” summer holiday. It was the feature debut of a young director named Gurinder Chadha, and was nominated for Best British Film at the Baftas in 1995.
In the film, feminist organiser Simi (Shaheen Khan) corrals the members of Birmingham’s Saheli Women’s Centre on to a minibus and off to the beach for a “female fun time”. “Namaste, Sat Sri Akaal, Assalamu Alaikum,” she greets them, a hint that this is a varied group of women with potentially clashing world-views. Among them are Asha (Lalita Ahmed), a middle-aged shopkeeper prone to daydreams, Ginder (Kim Vithana), a single mother getting divorced, and soon-to-be medical student Hashida (Sarita Khajuria), who has just discovered she is pregnant. Extra friction is provided by bratty teenage sisters Ladhu (Nisha Nayar) and Madhu (Renu Kochar), and conservative auntie Pushpa (Zohra Sehgal).
Like me, Syal grew up in the West Midlands – which is to say, landlocked. In the film, beachside donkey rides, ferris wheels, striped deck chairs and the blue expanse of the ocean aren’t just seasonal pleasures, they’re images of liberation. Sure, there’s comedy value in the anticipation of “chips and fish”, a Punjabi cover of Cliff Richard’s “Summer Holiday” (the soundtrack to their road trip), and plonking a bunch of disapproving Indian aunties in a tacky cocktail bar – but in locating these women away from their men and outside of a domestic setting, Syal and Chadha create space for their rarely heard thoughts, feelings and dreams. Chadha shoots their arrival at the beach as though it were a music video; the women slip off their sandals and splash around in the sea, dipping a toe into a new kind of freedom.
A beachside picnic looks like a flask of chai, a metal tiffin of poppadoms and sweaty samosas in plastic Tupperware. Still, Syal and Chadha are careful not to over-romanticise the scene; Pushpa spies a black family eating sandwiches nearby and checks her wallet. Anti-black racism within the Asian community is rife and rarely discussed, and so its normalisation in the film is quietly damning. Hashida’s unplanned pregnancy is further complicated by the father, Oliver (Mo Sesay), being black, while Ginder is criticised by her former mother-in-law for being “too dark” skinned. According to the defensive Pushpa, it’s “not colour, it is culture” that divides communities. Through the younger women, Syal and Chadha suggest that it’s more likely culturally conditioned bigotry – and a view that they don’t wish to inherit.
Back in Birmingham, Oliver’s West Indian friend argues that “black don’t mean ‘not white’ any more”. “Forget the melting pot and respect the differences,” he says warily. In England in the 1990s, “political blackness”, a flawed if well-intentioned strategy of solidarity between marginalised groups, was already fracturing into a consensus of multiculturalism.
Bhaji on the Beach was smart enough to realise this, without minimising the racism many South Asians were also experiencing. From the graffitied swastika Pushpa’s husband must scrub off his shop’s shutters, to the affronted cries of “it’s strictly English food in here” barked at the aunties in a Blackpool café, the older generation are treated as unwelcome outsiders. Their daughters, with their leather jackets and red lipstick, love marriages and elite educations, don’t have it much easier. A group of lads catcall Simi and Hashida at a service station, spitting at them when they don’t get the desired reaction. Ginder’s love marriage to domestic abuser Ranjit (Jimmi Harkishin) is considered a fair price to pay for the right to choose; Hashida’s pregnancy a tax for having sex outside of marriage and, indeed, dating outside her race.
Despite Bhaji on the Beach’s moderate success, it would take Chadha another ten years to get her big break with the 2002 box office smash Bend It Like Beckham. That film also dealt with a British Indian woman’s struggle to negotiate two competing sets of cultural expectations. What feels fresh about both films now is the way they use humour to navigate the heaviness of inherited cultural baggage. “It’s not often we women get away from the patriarchal demands made on us in our daily lives, struggling between the double yoke of racism and sexism that we bear,” speechifies Simi in Bhaji on the Beach. Pass me an ice cream – she’s got a point.
“Bhaji on the Beach” is streaming on Britbox
This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die