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A film that bagged an award at Cannes this year tells of a love story aided unwittingly by the noted 'dabbawallas' of Mumbai.
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At the age of 50, British-Asian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha is a woman focussed on motherhood. It is a warm Saturday morning, and we are sitting in the sunny terrace garden of her house in the posh Primrose Hill neighbourhood of London. But her mind seems to be fixed somewhere between the terrace and the floor below where her tiny threeyear-old twins - Ronak and Kumiko - are squealing. "The children aren't well and they know I am here, " she explains. "They'll be like 'where's mama', then you can experience this motherhood thing when I abandon you half-way through your interview in an abrupt end, " she adds with a raucous laugh.
She doesn't, naturally. But I hurry with the questions nevertheless.
We are meeting to talk about her latest film, It's A Wonderful Afterlife, a comedy set in the Indian community of Southall, London, about a serial-killing Punjabi mother (played by Shabana Azmi), whose victims come back to haunt her as ghosts. Again, she blames her unexpected motherhood at the age of 47 for the outrageous premise of the film. "When my children were first born, every time I looked at them, I would think about my own death, " she recalls. "I would just look at these things and go - 'Oh my God, if I die tomorrow, how will they manage? Oh my God, if I die tomorrow, they will never know me. " Her overblown anxiety got her started on the theme of motherhood, death and reincarnation. Further, as she explains, "even though Shabana is doing these killings for her daughter, it is really a metaphor for how much a mother will do to see her child happy".
It's A Wonderful Afterlife is Chadha's third fulllength feature film since the light-hearted comedy Bend It Like Beckham put her on the international charts eight years ago. Made on a shoe-string budget, it unexpectedly became the highest-grossing British film of that year, picking up several international awards along the way. Since then, she has made Bride & Prejudice (2005), a lavish Bollywood-style western musical, and Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008), a small-budget teenage drama set in Eastbourne, England, which was not released in India. Neither of the films were set in the British-Asian community of Britain, which had been the focus of Bend It Like Beckham and most of Chadha's films before it. Notably, neither achieved the tremendous success of Bend It Like Beckham.
"Whatever I did after Beckham would have had a rough ride, I think, " says Chadha, reflecting on the reception of Bride & Prejudice, which ranged from lukewarm to frankly hostile. As she explains, after Bend It Like Beckham, audience the world over wanted her to continue regaling them with films about the foibles of the Indian diaspora in a light, frothy way. "But, obviously, as a director I can't keep repeating the same film over and over again, " she explains. So, she consciously decided to move away from the world of the British-Asian community in her films.
Even with her latest film, Chadha was aware of the looming comparisons with Bend It Like Beckham. In fact, it was especially likely with It's A Wonderful Afterlife, set as it is in the streets, shops and gurudwaras of Southall and its loud, lively British-Punjabi community. Chadha decided to turn it into a goofy, horror-spoof film in the style of Shaun Of The Dead or An American Werewolf In London. "You can't ever accuse this film of trying to copy Bend It Like Beckham. "
Besides, Chadha mulls, the success of Bend It Like Beckham fulfilled the quest that set her on the path of filmmaking initially. "The reason I went into films was that people like me were very absent from the screen in the UK, " she says. "Fifteen to twenty years ago, whenever there was an Indian on TV, everyone would go 'quick, quick. . . Mum mum. . there's an Indian on TV, " she recalls. Most of her initial films, from her documentaries such as I am British But. . . (1989) and Acting Our Age (1992) to her features such as Bhaji On The Beach (1993) and Bend It Like Beckham, were more about chronicling Asian lives in Britain than about filmmaking itself. The success of her films went a long way in making Asian faces and stories common on British television. In fact, last Christmas, the longrunning British soap opera EastEnders ran an Asian storyline on its peak viewing time and it barely raised any eyebrows.
"I feel I have achieved what I set out to do, in terms of making the British-Asian family a mainstream of British culture, " she explains. All her work since Bend It Like Beckham has attempted to take her beyond message-centric, community-specific films to more broad-based genres.
For the British-Asian community of Southall, Chadha remains a much-loved progeny. In fact, her films have a corner to themselves in an exhibition called Southall Story, which is currently on at the Southbank Centre in London. It traces the history, culture and life of Southall, one of the most mixed, vibrant immigrant neighbourhoods in London. As Shakila Mann, one of the minds behind the exhibitions and a Southall child herself, explains, Bend It Like Beckham gave the people of Southall a lot of confidence. "Suddenly you were going to see not just a Bollywood movie, but you were going to the multiplex to see Bend It Like Beckham, which was about you. "
It's A Wonderful Afterlife has opened to mixed reviews in Britain and the US. However, Chadha herself remains remarkably unfazed by the fate of her films. She again credits motherhood to her new-found calmness. "Earlier I'd watch other films coming out or I'd see the award season and think, 'Ahh. . I should make a film like that', " she admits. "But now I don't care about such things. I just want to make sure that my children have a good lunch, a good dinner, and are happy. "
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