The director of Bend It Like Beckham talks about Viceroy's House, her most daring project yet and offers some advice for Malaysian cinema.
Bend It Like Gurinder Chadha: 5 Ways To Better Malaysian Films
There are two moments I often credit for changing my views on storytelling. The first, when as a 13-year-old, I had to say goodbye to Frodo, Sam and Gandalf; and the second, after watching Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega walk out of a diner, surviving a robbery and standoff.
Those two moments, put together, opened my world to the incomparable wonder of storytelling on film.
So it was heartening to hear Gurinder Chadha express a similar sentiment during a talk held at APU University on her brief trip to Kuala Lumpur recently.
“I make films to tell tatler_tatler_stories,” she said. “Stories that only I can tell.”
The director took a roomful of fans and students down memory lane, back to the beginning of her own story as a filmmaker, which started before she was even born.
Gurinder’s grandfather was amongst the Indian diaspora in colonial Kenya. After India's independence and partition, his family joined him there before Gurinder was born some years later. However, when the British then ceded control over the East African country, the filmmaker’s family moved to the United Kingdom, where she was raised.
I’m British But…, the title of Gurinder’s directorial debut may well be the first few words she utters to anyone who asks about her heritage.
“I am Indian, I am British, and I am Kenyan,” she says. “And that gives me a unique perspective on many subjects, something that I use to tell my tatler_tatler_stories.”
I’m British But…, in Gurinder’s words, started off as a documentary about the burgeoning Bhangra music scene in the UK, but became an introspective into the British-Indian identity. Playing it safe and shying away from personal and political topics was never in her DNA.
Her feature film debut, Bhaji on the Beach addressed interracial relationships and abuse within the British Indian community, before her biggest success to date, Bend It Like Beckham, focused on its conservative practices.
The film about Jess, a British Indian girl who plays football against the wishes of her family brought the story close to home for Gurinder, not because she faced similar adversity for her own ambitions, but because she got to tell the story of a relationship between a British Indian father and daughter.
By her own account, Gurinder’s father was incredibly supportive of her ambitions, even defending her topics of choice against naysayers. That paternal protectiveness and support is reflected in Jess’ father, who despite refusing her at first, due to his own fears, relents and gives her his blessings to follow her dreams. Jess may have bent the ball like David Beckham and scored for her team, but it was Gurinder who brought home the win.
Her experiences with Bend It carried her through a string movies that stayed true to her cultural heritage – Bride and Prejudice and It’s a Wonderful Afterlife – as well as show off her ability to tell a story – Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging – before arriving at her most daring and difficult project yet – Viceroy’s House.
Set during the end of the British Raj, the film follows Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India and the consequential partition that formed Pakistan. A historical film though it may be, Gurinder admits that it is a historical story she would tell, where the British aren’t placed in the same light as their own history suggests.
“We were always told that the reason for partition was because we couldn’t get along – the Muslims and the Hindus and the Sikhs – but there were always rumblings that the British were up to no good and today there is some evidence to support that. So I wanted to explore that.”
28 years since I’m British But… and the filmmaker's love for taking on heavy political subjects, thankfully, hasn’t waned. Viceroy's House is expected to release locally later this year.
Before she took her leave, Gurinder offered an honest evaluation on the Malaysian film industry and some advice on what we could do to capture the Bend It Like Beckham magic – small movie, small budget, and international success!
1. The Writers
“I think you have the beginnings of a film industry here, but the most important thing is to encourage scriptwriting. It has to be about the scripts and the writers, and you don’t need fancy equipment for that – just a laptop and imagination.”
2. The Stories
“Keep your tatler_tatler_stories truthful and authentic; the more truthful and authentic they are, the more universal they become. So don’t think of making films just for Malaysia, think of making films for the world – but you can tell a Malaysian story and it can work for the whole world.”
3. The Learning
“The greatest tool for teaching is watching other movies. You watch other movies and ask ‘Why did that move me?’ or ‘Why did that make me laugh?’ and ‘What is it about that movie I liked?’ Then you need to start writing the scripts, bringing in your own experience. That’s what Bend It Like Beckham was – it was trying to come up with a formula that was commercial but remain truthful to my own experience with my family growing up.”
4. The Complexity
“Anyone can come up with a good story, but you need a good story that can last 90-minutes. You need to have complex characters, and a complex story to sustain someone sitting in a cinema and giving you their money to see it.”
5. The Finance
“Once you get those good scripts, and some good directors then you need the financing. There is a lot of wealth in this country, and there should be a way to get some of that to nurture some of these scriptwriters and these directors. You only need a couple of films that are a hit around the world to get going.”
Just a couple of good tatler_tatler_stories, a couple of hits, and maybe someone brave enough to bend it like Gurinder Chadha, and we may just get our stagnant film industry going again.
Further reading: Dhyan Vimal's tips for first-time filmmakers