Before Bend It Like Beckham… before Goodness Gracious Me… there was Bhaji on the Beach (1993), an ensemble dramedy scripted by Meera Syal and directed by Gurinder Chadha, which follows a disparate group of British Asian women on a tumultuous day-trip to Blackpool pleasure beach.
First up is ‘Asha’ (Lalita Ahmed), a middle-aged newsagent troubled by visions of the Hindu god Rama berating her for doubting her faith and duties… then there’s ‘Ginder’ (Kim Vithana), a young mother who’s dumped her strangely sinister husband and taken their five-year-old son to stay with her at a women’s shelter… ‘Hashida’ (Sarita Khajuria), an aspiring art student, who’s just been knocked-up by her secret black boyfriend… ‘Bina’ and ‘Pushpa’, two bigoted old biddies, played by Surendra Kochar and the ubiquitous Zohra Segal… ‘Rekha’ (Souad Faress), a garish nouveau-riche visitor from Bombay… and finally, ‘Ladhu’ and ‘Madhu’ (Nisha Nayar and Renu Kochar), a couple of rambunctious teenage girls, on the prowl for white boys. The trip is organised and overseen by community worker ‘Simi’ (Shaheen Khan), who also drives the bus and tries to boost morale while everyone around her bickers and bitches.
I kept expecting Syal to show her face on-screen, and think she would have been a shoo-in for the part of Simi, but she doesn’t appear at all… not even in a cameo role! Very strange. Still, having seen Khan play a nagging, dowdy mother in several later Chadha joints, it’s great to see her playing a feisty young firebrand here, in a battered leather jacket and cool shades. She doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of men, but she’s still my fave character, and would definitely be my number one crush in real life. Meanwhile, Nayar is probably better known these days for playing uptight foster-home worker “Elaine the Pain” in The Story of Tracy Beaker, so it’s funny to see her on the other side of the age gap for a change, acting up and talking back to her elders!
Generally, I’m not a big fan of serious “kitchen-sink” stories, but there are enough amusing moments mixed in with the melodrama to take the curse off all that shouting and crying… and Asha’s fever dreams add a welcome note of surrealism to distract from the rather grim, grey setting (no offence to Blackpool, but I grew up on the South coast, so I’m used to a little more sunshine with my seaside). At times the characters and plotting can seem a little clunky and dated, but it’s still pretty ambitious for a debut feature, and certainly marked out Syal and Chadha as talents to watch in the future… as well as establishing the themes and concerns that they would both continue to explore in the work that followed. To quote the director directly: “You have tradition on the one side and modernity on the other… Indianness on the one side, Englishness on the other… cultural specificity and universality… but in fact there is a scale between each of these polarities and the film moves freely between them.”
Unfun fact: I was hoping to find an MP3 of the Punjabi cover version of ‘Summer Holiday’ that plays during the film, but sadly the track isn’t available on Amazon, and the soundtrack album seems to have gone out of print (if it ever even existed). Dammit!