Gholam (UK-Iran 2017)

Surreal lighting is used in this promotional image for Gholam

This unusual film places a major Iranian star actor, known in the West for three leading roles in the films of Asghar Farhadi, into a downbeat slow-paced thriller set in parts of North London. The director is Mitra Tabrizian, Professor of Photography at the University of Westminster whose 2005 exhibition ‘Border’ appears to have been the starting point for a script written with Cyrus Massoudi. The film was a first feature for both Tabrizian and Massoudi. The impressive cinematography is by South African DoP Dewald Aukema (who photographed Skin (UK-RSA 2008), one of the most viewed posts on this blog). Overall, the film is very impressive, although it is oddly let down by barely visible subtitling (a thin white typeface), sometimes lost against white backgrounds. The two main languages are English and Farsi.

The dismal bedsit where Gholam (Shahab Hosseini) spends his brief leisure time

Shahab Hosseini plays the eponymous central character, a forty-something Iranian living in a dingy bedsit in what I take to be North East London, possibly Hackney/Dalston? Gholam drives a taxi by night and works in a very quiet garage for an older Iranian migrant by day. He has an uncle who runs a Persian cafe locally and he is subject to telephone calls from his mother in Tehran, wanting him to return home. There isn’t a great deal of plot, but a double narrative develops when Gholam is recognised by another Iranian as someone who was something of a hero as a teenage ‘warrior’, presumably in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. Now he refuses to countenance helping in some form of covert activity (the narrative is actually set in 2011 during various forms of unrest in the Middle East). At the same time he has an altercation with three young white thugs who refuse to pay after travelling in his taxi. Throughout the film, Gholam seems disturbed and his mood seems to pervade the whole film. Here is a man who seems mired in his own despondency, unsure of what he wants to do and especially whether to return to Iran (we don’t know if he is a refugee or what his residency status in the UK might be). Despite this there are strangers (other migrants) who offer him kind words in shops or food stalls. He also meets and befriends a much older African-Caribbean woman (played by the veteran of many UK films and TV programmes, Corinne Skinner-Carter) and her chirpy neighbour played by Tracie Bennett a Lancastrian actor I haven’t seen for quite a while. These friendships seem positive but they have links to Gholam’s eventual fate.

I’m not sure what to make of this film. The performances are all strong and I should mention Gholam’s young cousin Arash (played by British-Iranian actor Armin Karima) who has embraced skate-boarding and rap, but still admires his older relative. As might be expected, Tabrizian has a strong feel for her migrant community characters and the London streets. There were moments when I thought about Rachid Bouchareb’s London River (2009) and Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002), both set in similar London migrant communities with that sense of the ‘invisible workers’ driving taxis, cleaning hotels and offices etc. – or running food stalls and social clubs. The Iranian migrant in Europe is also featured in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (2013) set in Paris and The Charmer (Denmark-Sweden 2017) by Milad Alami and set in Copenhagen. Gholam seems the most austere of all these films and it does need Shahab Hosseini’s commanding performance to sustain our interest. However, the thriller aspect takes over in the last section.

The setting of the garage seems to be inspired by this original image taken from the ‘Border’ exhibition by Mitra Tabrizian in 2005.

I’m surprised and also disappointed with my own lack of knowledge about Mitra Tabrizian. When I found her website, which lists the various projects and academic partnerships she has initiated or been part of since the 1980s, I realised that I certainly should have known this history. The film is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Hall and Jules Wright (who was a major figure in theatre and the art world, latterly as director of the Wapping Project). Tabrizian herself is an important link between Iranian and Western art practice in cinema and photography. Her collaborators on Gholam are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and she similarly elicited support from the wider arts community in London. This makes the film distinctive but also means that it feels caught somewhere between a kind of downbeat neo-realist thriller and the kind of essay film that might be produced by someone like John Akomfrah. Tabrizian’s visual eye is complemented by the use of Iranian music on record and by tabla and oud music at various points. Distributed by Miracle Films, Gholam has received some good reviews and I would certainly recommend it. Its actual cinema appearances are likely to be only odd dates in sometimes out of the way places (see the official website for planned screenings) and VOD may be your best bet to catch it. It is currently playing on MUBI in the UK. Here’s the trailer:

When I Saw You (Palestine-Jordan-UAE-Greece 2012)

Tarek (Mustafa A and his mother Gayheeda (Ruba at the refugee camp

Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) and his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal) at the refugee camp

When I Saw You is an important film. Well-made and times very beautiful, it is perhaps a film that surprises in what it achieves. Significantly, it is one of the first Palestinian films to be made almost entirely with Arab money and to receive critical acclaim and commercial distribution within the Arab world. It deals with issues of identity and the experience of expulsion from home and exile as refugees. From the perspective of contemporary audiences outside the Arab world, the story may seem slight in terms of ‘events’ even if it is rich in observations (a problem evident in Philip Kemp’s Sight and Sound review, July 2014). In some ways it is a ‘personal story’ even though the events take place in 1967 and the filmmaker Annemarie Jacir was not born until 1974. As she has said in interviews, the Naksa (the ‘set-back’) – the exodus of Palestinians forced out of the West Bank by the Israeli occupation following the Six Day War in 1967 – had a major impact on the Jacir family who were forced to leave Bethlehem. Annemarie Jacir grew up travelling between Bethlehem (where she was born) and the new family home in exile in Saudi Arabia before training as a filmmaker in the US. Having spent much of the early part of her filmmaking career in the Occupied Territories she is now barred from returning and she has settled in Jordan where When I Saw You is set and where it was shot.

The central character is 11 year-old Tarek who after a few weeks in a Jordanian refugee camp is still bewildered by events. His mother Ghaydaa is working in a makeshift garment workshop but his father has gone missing during the war and Tarek wonders how the family will be re-united. He’s taken aback to discover that many of the refugees have been in the camp since 1948 and he’s unhappy at the camp school where he doesn’t fit in. He’s determined to return to his Palestinian village and eventually simply sets off walking. Fortunately he’s found by someone who recognises him and he ends up in a secret camp of freedom fighters (fedayeen) preparing for forays into the Occupied Territories. The second half of the narrative concerns what happens in the training camp – where Tarek at first feels much more comfortable – and where his mother will eventually find him.

The fedayeen in the woods. Layth (Saleh Bakri) is on the right.

The fedayeen in the woods. Layth (Saleh Bakri) is on the right.

The time period of the film is very important. The late 1960s was a time of savage conflict but also considerable optimism. The fighters in the camp (never identified as a specific political faction) are drawn from many Arab countries. There are female fighters and the group is mainly secular, drawing on Marxist philosophies rather than religious faith. The weapons and supplies come from around the world, including Europe, China and the Soviet Union. In interviews Jacir admits that there is a romanticism in this representation but that this was true to a certain extent. She researched life in the training camps – which was widely recorded on film and in print journalism – and she does also hint at the tensions and conflicts within the group. Some of the scenes are conventional and familiar from various genre films. The guerilla fighter is a ‘rebel’ figure beloved of Hollywood and I was reminded of Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with musical interludes and dancing around the camp fires. Tarek will learn to play a few notes on the oud and to develop skills in painting propaganda posters. But Tarek is not ‘political’, he just wants to go home and we see things from his perspective. He left the refugee camp because he couldn’t understand the concept of just ‘waiting’ for his father to to find his wife and son. The fighters are not necessarily glamorous because they handle weapons. They are attractive because they have an objective and because they work together. Tarek can play a role. Perhaps the key point is that Tarek seems much more likely to accept the group leader’s instruction to be patient and disciplined than he was to listen to his teacher in the refugee camp. But he is 11 years-old. How patient can he be?

I think I’ve worked out what the title of the film might refer to but since my explanation would give away the film’s resolution, I’ll restrain from giving it here. What I will say is that I think it refers to recognition of the pain of exile. For Jacir herself being in Jordan but not being allowed to cross the Jordan river back into Palestine must be painful.

When I Saw You has beautifully composed images courtesy of French cinematographer Hélène Louvart who has also worked for Wim Wenders on Pina (Germany/UK/France 2011) and earlier for Agnès Varda on Beaches of Agnès (France 2008). The Varda documentary ties in with Jacir’s own background as a documentary camera operator on Until When (Palestine 2004). One of the press features that appeared when When I Saw You was released in the UK carries this interesting observation by Nicholas Blincoe:

Her work bears comparison to that of her contemporaries in Iran – deceptively casual, studied cinematography, realistic performances and an eagerness to push the dramatic envelope. “I like to be rooted in real people and real situations,” she says. “Yet at the same time indulge in the freedom of what cinema is about: our dreams, our ability to change or escape”. (‘Annemarie Jacir: an auteur in exile’)

Inevitably, as Jacir toured film festivals she was asked questions in which she was bracketed with other recent Arab directors who happen to be women such as Nadine Labaki (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) and Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda). She has also been asked about comparisons to the already-established Samira Makhmalbaf, who is Iranian and not an Arab. However, she clearly does admire Iranian cinema and I think Blincoe makes a good observation. Tarek is played by Mahmoud Asfa, a non-professional who Jacir found in Irbid refugee camp after a lengthy search for the right boy. She chose him because he really seemed to have the same viewpoint as Tarek. He is excellent in the role and so are the other actors who are working in film for the first time even if they are experienced performers on stage or street theatre. (The two screen actors known to local audiences, Ruba Blal and Saleh Bakri are also excellent.) With her documentary experience and research Jacir is grounded in ideas about realism but she has enough of the imagination required to approach important issues in slightly oblique ways as many Iranian filmmakers have been forced to do. She has also expressed admiration for her mentor on the Rolex ‘Mentors and Protégés’ scheme – Zhang Yimou, the Chinese master who has made his own Iranian-influenced films such as The Long Road Home (China 1999). She was mentored during 2010-11 when she was working on When I Saw You.

When I Saw You offers many pleasures including an eclectic music soundtrack and a song performed by Ruba Shamshoum, a young Palestinian singer who was cast as one of the freedom fighters. (In this interesting review on The Electronic Intifada, Sarah Irving pinpoints how cleverly the music is used and how various bits of the popular history of the time are incorporated in the script.) In Europe and North America the film may be seen as an example of ‘specialised cinema’ likely to be seen in an arthouse cinema but Annemarie Jacir and her producer partner Ossama Bawardi worked hard to get the film shown in Palestinian villages as well as commercial cinemas in Jordan. Jacir sees the film as targeting mothers and children.

Here’s a taster in the official trailer from Philistine Films:

Palestinian cinema is featured as a case study in Chapter 6 ‘Middle East Without Borders’ in the Global Film Book.

Resources:

Official website

Facebook page

Philistine Films

Margarita With a Straw (India 2014)

Kalki Koechlin as Laila – experiencing a different kind of sexual excitement for the first time

Kalki Koechlin as Laila – experiencing a different kind of sexual excitement for the first time

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680(This is one of ten reports on films at the 58th London Film Festival – other reports can be found on The Case for Global Film Blog)

It will be interesting to see how this film fares on release in India. The biggest hurdle to a successful release is likely to be the presentation of lesbian sex scenes featuring a Pakistani character. Writer-director Shonali Bose appears fairly relaxed about the prospect, counting on the audience to react sensibly. She may well be proved right since the Indian audience for the film is likely to be confined to middle-class urbanites. I hope it does go wider because it isn’t an art film. I also hope that it gets a significant release in international markets.

The title refers to the alcoholic drink of preference for the film’s central character Laila, a young woman from Delhi with cerebral palsy who is determined to experience everything life has to offer. Laila’s story is a very personal project for Shonali Bose who wrote the film soon after the accidental death of her son and chose to draw on the experiences of her cousin who has cerebral palsy. The film is co-produced by Viacom 18, Jakhatia Group, Bose’s own Ishant Talkies and ADAPT (the Indian agency ‘Able Disabled All People Together’).

The star performance in the film is by Kalki Koechlin as Laila. Shonali Bose was present at the screening in Islington and she answered the inevitable question about why she hadn’t cast someone with cerebral palsy to play the lead role. She explained that she had tried to find the right person but eventually decided that because of the emotional nature of several major scenes, she needed someone with extensive acting experience. Kalki Koechlin is mesmerising and That Girl In Yellow Boots proves that she can do things that many Bollywood stars would find impossible.

The plot sees Laila, a bright and talented young woman in a Delhi college become frustrated by both the academic and creative limitations she faces. In addition she is frustrated in attempts to develop her love life – she is an ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ girl who just happens to be in a wheelchair. Reluctantly her father agrees to her move to New York University on a scholarship. At first her mother accompanies her but soon she has teamed up with a more experienced blind Pakistani student and the two share an apartment. All goes well until the couple travel back to Delhi and several secrets are exposed.

Shonali Bose trained as a filmmaker at UCLA and this is her second film following Amu in 2005 with Konkona Sen Sharma. She spends her time between LA and Mumbai. Her first film was an international festival success but faced censorship in India (it refers to the 1984 attacks on Sikhs following the assassination of Indhira Gandhi). But whereas the first film was mainly in English, Margarita With a Straw switches between Hindi for most of the Delhi scenes and English in New York. Cast and crew are a mix of ‘international’ and Indian. The film is photographed by Anne Misawa, another Californian graduate (who also shot the Korean indie Treeless Mountain (South Korea-US 2008)). Mikey McLeary is a New Zealander working as a music composer out of Mumbai and sound design includes work by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty. Nilesh Maniyar is credited as co-writer and co-director though there is no indication of what this means in practice (he was at the Q&A in London). The cast includes Revathi (Asha Kutty) the experienced star of many Indian language cinemas and recently in 2 States (2014) as the Tamil mother. William Moseley is an English actor and the star of the first two Narnia films. Sayani Gupta, who plays the Pakistani young woman, is an FTII graduate and in 2012 she featured in a Bengali film Tasher Desh, part-produced by Anurag Kashyap Films. Perhaps she met Kalki Koechlin (Kashyap’s partner) at this point?

What all this adds up to I think is something rather more ‘international/global’ than Indian independent. Perhaps her two features place Shonali Bose alongside Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta as ‘diaspora filmmakers’? I enjoyed the film very much and found it very moving. I was slightly worried in the first section because the incident which partly triggers Laila’s ‘rebellion’ seemed such an obvious slight (Laila’s music group is given a prize seemingly because she is ‘disabled’). But of course such stupidity does happen. Laila, through the script and Koechlin’s performance, is a rounded human being – capable of being petty, mean and selfish as much as vivacious, loving and charming. If I have a criticism of the film it is that Laila’s acceptance by everyone she meets in the New York scenes seemed simply too good to be true. I expect that not all the bus drivers, waiters, taxi drivers and shopkeepers in New York are quite so cheery and helpful – they aren’t in London! Just a little grit and rejection would have helped, but this is a minor quibble. The film is a triumph and deserves to be widely seen. I should also mention the music since this is Laila’s unique talent – in the lyrics she writes and in the singing with her mother. The effect of this film is certainly ‘feelgood’ – but not in a contrived, artificial way. Instead we see somebody living their life and not allowing their own physical difficulties or anyone else’s preconceptions stand in their way. You can’t ask more than that in a story.

It looks like an Indian release is planned but I’m not sure if it has been picked up for North American or UK distribution yet. Variety reported in September that WIDE Sales have a deal for Japan in 2015 and that ‘two or three’ distributors are interested for North America and two for the UK. Having wowed audiences at Toronto, Busan and now London you hope that a distributor would get behind it.

Here’s the rather good ‘International Trailer’:

Spring in a Small Town (Xiaocheng zhi chun, China 1948)

Yuwen and Liyan

Yuwen and Liyan

Spring in a Small Town has attained almost mythical status in the history of Chinese Cinema. It dates from the brief period between the end of the Sino-Japanese war and the final victory of the Chinese Communists and the foundation of the PRC. The studio Wenhua was a small company formed in 1946 but Fei Mu (1906-51) was an experienced Shanghai director who had made melodramas with the major star Ruan Lingyu in the early 1930s. He was also very interested in Peking opera and open to ideas from Western filmmaking. Production of Spring in a Small Town was possible only because Fei was prepared to work with a small budget and a limited cast of just five actors for only a few weeks during a forced break from his major production of the opera film Eternal Regret – China’s first colour film with the leading opera star Mei Linfang.

Fei was interested in the possibility of making a new kind of film based on a script by a 26 year-old writer Li Tianji. His approach was to attempt to find a way to balance realism and romanticism and to to do this by exploring aesthetic ideas. These are discussed in detail by David Der-wei Wang in a paper titled ‘A Spring That Brought Eternal Regret: Fei Mu, Mei Lanfang, and the Poetics of Screening China’ (2013). The film lasted only a few weeks in Shanghai cinemas. It was then suppressed by the PRC officials charged with overseeing Chinese cinema post-1949 and its reputation was only kept alive by some of those Shanghai filmmakers who migrated to Taiwan and Hong Kong. (Fei Mu himself went to Hong Kong, but died soon after arriving.) The film was also shown in Taiwan. The PRC officials condemned the film for ‘petty-bourgeois decadence’ and ‘ideologogical backwardness’ creating a ‘narcotic effect’ on audiences. (This para draws primarily on Chinese National Cinema by Yingjin Zhang, Routledge 2004). Spring in a Small Town was not properly seen again until the 1980s in China and has been unavailable in the UK for many years but has now been released in a restored version by the BFI. It is now hailed by Chinese critics as one of the greatest films in Shanghai cinema and indeed one of the best films in Chinese film history.

I was not disappointed when I finally saw this in the cinema. I’d only seen short extracts before, although I was familiar with the remake Springtime in a Small Town (2001) directed by the 5th Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang. Ironically the remake marked Tian’s return to favour with the Chinese authorities after his earlier critical film The Blue Kite (1993). But although I was familiar with the outline story of Spring in a Small Town, I wasn’t really prepared for the treatment of the script or the intense emotional power of the film.

As I suggested in discussion of Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind, 1948 is a pivotal year in global cinema with many films set in the ‘rubble’ left by the preceding years of war. In that sense, Spring in a Small Town is related to Rossellini and De Sica’s work in Italy and to Ozu, Kurosawa and the other Japanese masters, even if none of the filmmakers were themselves aware of the similarities. It isn’t a neo-realist film as such, except in the sense of having little in the way of budget or indeed facilities – and therefore limited choices in terms of techniques. Fei Mu chose a distinctive approach with long takes and a panning, moving camera covering dialogue rather than cross-cutting. Each scene ends with a fade to black. The tension that the camerawork evokes is compounded by the approach to sound. I don’t know if this was intended or whether it is the result of restoration using damaged source materials but it appears that the sound has been post-synched. Apart from the dialogue, music/songs and certain sound effects, the film is silent – i.e. there is no ‘atmos’ or ambient sound and quite long periods without sound at all. Allied to this, there are lengthy narrated passages by the female lead.

The story is relatively simple. In 1946, after eight years of war and its immediate aftermath, a Shanghai doctor Zhang Zichen returns to his home town ‘somewhere in rural China’ (it was actually filmed in a town not that far from Shanghai) to visit his old friend Dai Liyan. He is taken aback to discover that his friend is ill with tuberculosis and heart disease and that he has been married for several years to Zhou Yuwen, who was once Zhang’s own love interest. The Dai family home, once wealthy, has been damaged by war and the one family servant left forlornly attempts to rebuild the garden walls. Liyan’s young sister, 16 year-old Xiu, is the one lively element in the household. (No other inhabitants of the town are seen but Yuwen frequently walks along the ruined walls of the town.) Zichen and Yuwen have an obvious erotic attraction and the narrative tension is built around developments which bring them together and then keep them apart. Liyan is energised – and disturbed – by his friend’s arrival and invites him to stay. He then has the idea that Zichen might marry Xiu.

The complex network of desire and fear creates the intensity of melodrama, but without the usual outlets of expressionist camerawork or musical score it is sometimes their absence that helps to create emotional power. One outlet for the usual excess of melodrama is costume and this is developed around the outfits designed for Yuwen, including an opulent cheongsam/qipao and an array of scarves and combs. I was amazed to see what looked like seamed stockings (several shots focus on her feet and ankles). By contrast, Xiu is mostly dressed simply. The effects of the costume are accentuated by lighting – candles being used when electricity in the town is cut off). There are at two songs in the film, both of which surprised me. One is a folk song that seems to reference a Kazakh man (which I could understand if the film was later than 1948, but perhaps Russian songs had already reached Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s?). The other referred in some way to whips on the body (!) according to the subtitles. If memory serves it is the young sister who sings the songs (and dances on another occasion).

The romantic triangle has within it the seeds of potential tragedy but I won’t spoil the plot (the film is available on video in North America). Less clear-cut is the sense that the narrative also explores a metaphor about the state of China in 1948. Zichen tells Liyan that he has worked in many parts of the country during the war and now he is in Shanghai. He is always in Western dress while the other three (and the servant) are dressed traditionally. He is ‘modern China’ visiting the ruins in the countryside. By contrast Liyan has done nothing during the war except preside over the decline of his house and the household seems to exist out of time (and almost out of place). After 1948 the film gradually became the focus for a nostalgia about China especially for overseas Chinese. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love (HK 2000) with its passionate but repressed non-affair and Maggie Cheung’s breathtaking costumes strikes me as at least one film drawing on that nostalgia (Wong’s family had migrated from Shanghai soon after Spring in a Small Town was produced in Shanghai).

There are several academic essays on this iconic film. As well as Zhang and Wang discussed above Susan Daravala’s (2007) ‘The aesthetics and moral politics of Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town‘ in the Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1:3 offers several useful arguments. She argues that Fei’s approach aims to be:

the avoidance of the theatricality and suspense that made viewers concentrate on the narrative to find out what happened next. He wanted instead to engage them by putting the focus on psychological description, which would be more likely to produce a self-reflexive, thoughtful response in the audience . . .

Daravala also compares the film with David Lean and Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter (UK 1945), also a melodrama in which a married woman has an affair with a doctor that is not consummated but displays erotic tension. Both films have the voiceover of the woman.

After I finished writing this I read Noah Cowan’s essay on the film, ‘Love Among the Ruins’ in Sight and Sound, July 2014. It’s a useful summary of the various takes on Fei, his ideas and this specific film and might be the best piece to read first. There is certainly a wealth of scholarship to explore – more than I have briefly covered here. But you should watch the film first and be amazed.

Lilting (UK 2013)

The poster for LILTING. The film is presented in the 2.35 CinemaScope ratio. The image shows Naomi Christie and Ben Wishart in Junn's room. Note also the graphics for the title.

The poster for LILTING. The film is presented in the 2.35 CinemaScope ratio. The image shows Vann (Naomi Christie) and Richard (Ben Whishaw) in Junn’s room. Note also the graphics for the title.

This film is a gem – a total justification of micro-budget filmmaking and public funding for cinema. Made for £120,000 under the Microwave scheme from Film London, the capital’s screen agency, it achieves more than most films on twenty or thirty times that budget. The Microwave scheme puts first-time feature directors through ‘micro-school’ involving a mentoring process with established practitioners including director Clio Barnard in this case. The process is explained in the Press Notes. Other Microwave films discussed on this blog include Shifty (2008) and Ill Manors (2012).

Lilting is an example of a diaspora film as discussed in The Global Film Book and particularly in Chapter 4 as an aspect of British ‘national cinema’. It’s unusual in dealing with Chinese characters in the UK since there have been relatively few films to do this and they haven’t had much exposure. Director Hong Khaou’s family left Vietnam for the UK when he was eight, having already moved from Cambodia after Pol Pot came to power. Hong’s mother has never learned English and this issue of assimilation is central to Lilting, although the story is not autobiographical as such. Lilting offers us Junn, a Cambodian-Chinese woman who now finds herself in her sixties in a care home in East London. She speaks six languages, but not English, and she is resentful of her son Kai and jealous of his ‘best friend’ Richard who may be the reason that she can’t live with her son. She is unaware that Kai and Richard are lovers. When Kai dies in an accident Richard in his grief attempts to connect with Junn. He persuades Vann, a young British-Chinese woman, to act as a translator and pays her to assist Junn in making contact with Alan, another of the home’s residents. Eventually, however, Vann finds herself with the difficult task of enabling Junn and Richard to deal with their grief and speak through her to each other.

The strengths of the Microwave scheme are in the mentoring process which focuses on script development and the practicalities of shooting very quickly on a limited budget so that ideas have to be thought through carefully and preparations made accordingly. There is little scope for reshoots. It helps to have A List performers and Hong hit paydirt with his ambition in approaching Ben Whishaw to play Richard and the great Hong Kong action star Cheng Pei-Pei as Junn. In the role of Alan, a rather seedy old man, Peter Bowles offers an ironic performance for UK audiences (Bowles was a major TV star of the 1980s playing a gentleman ‘cad’ in sit-coms and more recently a major star of West End theatre). Given these stellar performers on screen it is remarkable that the first time screen actor Naomi Christie does so well as Vann – a tribute to both the actor and the director.

Cheng Pei-pei as Junn

Cheng Pei-Pei as Junn

Partly no doubt because of the budget, most of Lilting takes place indoors – in the care home, in Richard’s flat and in cafés. The care home has décor that is supposed to remind residents of the 1960s and the look of the film is important, achieved through art direction/production design and the cinematography of the Polish-born NFS graduate Ula Pontikos, adding another ingredient to the cosmopolitan feel of the depiction of London (Hackney, Dalston etc.) Hong has said in interviews how much he loves this aspect of London. I was also intrigued to note that he lists Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999) as one of his favourite films – I’m with him on that. Like Winterbottom, Hong manages to suggest the realism and authenticity of the locations while at the same time utilising expressionist devices to convey the emotions of characters. One of his techniques is to seamlessly insert flashbacks into a scene – as if in the same shot so that Kai seems to be still alive and part of the conversation. For Junn and Richard their grief means that Kai is still alive in their thoughts. I’m not sure exactly what the title ‘Lilting’ is supposed to indicate. It refers in the dictionary definition to “singing or playing, especially merrily, or vaguely and absent-mindedly” (Chambers). That doesn’t seem quite right in this context but clearly it does refer to something found in the flow of dialogue in English and Mandarin that Vann must exchange between Richard and Junn. In his excellent Sight and Sound (September 2014) review Ashley Clarke refers to the editing technique described above as:

. . . a smart use of form to keenly evoke that strange, hard-to-communicate time in the aftermath of a bereavement, when the departed person remains a palpable presence despite their corporeal absence.

I’ve noted in another interview (which stupidly I forgot to note down) a suggestion that this ‘presence’ of the deceased character is an aspect of East Asian film culture. Hong replies that his family has a shrine to his father in their home and I think it is the case that the film does enable an exploration of grieving which opens up a discourse across cultures. Clarke’s review also tells us that the script began as a stage play but without the LGBT dimension. The film does, I think, manage to make that work too as a gentle reference to cultural difference. Vann is a sensible and sensitive British-Chinese who provides the bridge – perhaps she creates the ‘lilt’?

This is one of my films of the year and I urge you to seek it out. It’s still playing in cinemas and is available online through Curzon Home Cinema.

Here’s the Artificial Eye trailer that suggests at least some of the film’s qualities:

London Indian Film Festival #1: Josh (Against the Grain, Pakistan-US 2012)

Josh

Josh is the first of three screenings of films from the 2013 London Indian Film Festival to be shown ‘on tour’ at the National Media Museum in Bradford and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Screening at 6pm during Ramadan is possibly not a real test of its popular appeal and the local Urdu-speaking audience was not in evidence. For audiences more used to popular Punjabi comedies at the local multiplexes the film may not have appealed even without the difficulties created by religious observance. Josh has been described as a ‘social drama’ and that is a reasonable description of a narrative that takes in class differences, feudalism, violence by the rich towards the poor, the empowerment of women and the youth movement in Pakistani politics. ‘Popular’ themes like the relationship problems of young men and women are included somewhat lower down the priority list.

JOSH

Iram Parveen Bilal on set in Pakistan

Writer-director Iram Parveen Bilal is an American-trained filmmaker (ten years in the US) who returned to Pakistan to make this film based on important local news stories about women as both victims and forceful agents of change. One of the problems about discussing the film is that the Pakistani film industry is still in the early stages of recovery from long-term decline. My local Bradford contact, with direct experience of Pakistani film and television culture, explained to me that in her view cinema was still not really respectable amongst the Pakistani upper middle classes. Television with its long-form narratives is still dominant. This perhaps explains the presence of several women as directors in a Pakistani film industry that is not fully ‘institutionalised’ – and why the lead role in this film is played by one of the big stars of Pakistani TV, Aamina Sheikh.

Fatima (approaching from the background) and a local street artist

Fatima (approaching from the background) and a local street artist

The plot outline of Josh sees Fatima (Aamina Sheikh) as a wealthy young woman in Karachi, still living at home with her widowed father, a leading lawyer. Fatima is a teacher in an English-medium secondary school. She hasn’t married, but has a boyfriend Adil, an aspiring artist who may be about to leave for America. She has friends in the Westernised milieu of upper middle class Karachi and is introduced to Uzair, a rising politician representing the Pakistan Youth Party. Uzair is played by Aamina Sheikh’s real-life husband Mohib Mirza (also a well-known actor in Pakistan). The equilibrium of Fatima’s comfortable life is disrupted by the disappearance of her ex-nanny Nusrat, a woman who has been heavily involved in trying to alleviate the suffering of her home village community outside Karachi. When Fatima discovers what has happened to Nusrat (who she considers her ‘second mother’), she finds herself in conflict with the village landlord and his group of armed thugs. Who will help Fatima – her father,  Adil or Uzair or her other friends? Can the villagers help themselves in their struggle?

This bald outline of the plot connects Josh to Hindi social films and Indian parallel cinema. It isn’t a ‘popular film’ in the Indian sense. Although there is some use of music that might correspond to contemporary Bollywood (i.e. in a montage sequence as might be found in independent Indian films), on the whole the music is used more in a Western mode – and there are no dance sequences. In fact I was a little disappointed in the music soundtrack, a mixture of Pakistani songs and Western film scoring. Despite the presence of Pakistani star names, the film has a low budget feel. The image was soft (and appeared to be projected from a DVD or Blu-ray disc) but more of a giveaway was the uneven sound recording. In one scene involving a conversation between two people, the background sound was completely different for each of the speakers in the same location. A quick glance online reveals that Bilal as producer-director had great difficulty getting financial support together and that the film’s completion was dependent on funds from Netflix administered through The Women in Film Foundation.

Given Ms Bilal’s difficulties in raising funds – and the important nature of her social issues-based themes – I’m a little reluctant to criticise the film. I will say that I was engaged throughout and the emotion of at least one scene brought me to tears. On the downside, I didn’t enjoy some of the montages that used ‘flash editing’ – sequences comprising shots only a few frames long, producing a kind of strobe effect. I could work out what they were supposed to mean but they still irritated. Equally, I was dismayed when I learned after the screening that the lead actors were married when they created so little erotic energy on screen. The rest of the cast seemed much more ‘authentic’ – perhaps there is a clash of acting styles? Overall, I think that the film tries to do too much and in doing so loses some of its potential to move the audience.

In trying to categorise/classify the film it is worth considering Ms Bilal as a diaspora filmmaker. The film’s narrative makes only limited references to studying/working abroad, themes common to some of Mira Nair’s films (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding etc.) but there are aspects of the film that suggest American style filmmaking and several of the key technical staff work mainly in the US. It seems unfair to compare a young filmmaker with established names such as Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta – and anyway the context of filmmaking in the sub-continent has changed markedly since those directors made their first Indian films back in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. Thinking about the national identity of the film also means that a more appropriate reference point might be a Pakistani diaspora director such as Jamil Dehlavi (Jinnah 1998). We might ask why the London Indian Film Festival decided to include a Pakistani film for the first time. Personally, I’m glad they did because I got a chance to see it. A release in both India and Pakistan has been announced for the Eid festival period. I fear for the film’s reception in India and I’m not sure what to expect when it is seen in Pakistan. It has however been a festival success, first at Mumbai in October 2012 and then at various other festivals.

Iram Parveen Bilal is clearly a talent to watch and there are various ways in which to explore her background. She has a website here. The official website for the film lists many of the positive reviews. Here is the trailer from the London Indian Film Festival:

And here is a set of interviews with the filmmakers. Bilal herself describes the film as a ‘mystery thriller’:

The social issues that the film tackles are very important and the current coverage of the campaign led by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who refused to be silenced by the Taliban emphasises the auspicious timing of the film’s release. Josh didn’t start out as a feature film and it will be interesting to see if by presenting the social debates in this way they get wider coverage and more attention. Despite its flaws, it would be good if it attracted audiences in the sub-continent and in the UK. 

Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002) – Narrative, Genre and Representation

Jess is surrounded by her teammates when it looks like she will be unable to play.

Jess (Parminder Nagra) is surrounded by her teammates when it looks like she will be unable to play.

This is one of our occasional archive publications of notes on specific films for film and media studies students. These notes were originally published in 2004.

Introduction
Bend It Like Beckham (BILB) is in many ways an excellent case study for British film, in terms of both ‘industry’ and ‘culture’. The release of the film in the UK in 2002, during the run-up to the football World Cup (at a time when David Beckham’s injury was front page news), represented something of a gamble for the distributor Helkon, with a wide release on over 380 prints – the kind of release usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. The gamble paid off so well that the film became the most successful ‘non-Hollywood’ British film of the modern era with a UK box office of over £11 million. The ‘universality’ of the central theme then went on to win large audiences in North America where the ‘Beckham factor’ was (then) of little importance. An American box office of $32 million and healthy returns in Australia, India, France, Italy and Germany guaranteed that director Gurinder Chadha would have carte blanche for her next project. Keira Knightley, the second lead in the film also become ‘hot property’ with subsequent starring roles in major American films. (Parminder Nagra had success on US TV, but nothing like that of Knightley.)

The success of the film was also associated with the way in which it presented aspects of British Asian life in accessible ways for a mainstream audience – attracting little or no controversy in the process (cf East is East, 1999). These notes will discuss the film in terms of narrative, genre and representation and also raise questions about contemporary British Cinema.

SynopsisSPOILERS (These notes discuss the film’s narrative in detail, so this is a full synopsis)

Jess Bhamra is an 18 year-old school-leaver who dreams about football and being able to ‘bend’ a ball like David Beckham. Her mother expects Jess to follow tradition in their Punjabi Sikh family and prepare for marriage, like older sister Pinky (but only after she has got a degree). One day in the local park, Jess is spotted playing football by Jules who is a member of the Hounslow Harriers women’s football team. She invites Jess to watch the team play and persuades the coach, Joe, to give Jess a trial. Jess is accepted but she decides to keep her new activity secret from her family. Mother finds out and tries to stop her, but Jules persuades her to carry on (being similarly under pressure from her own mother, who worries that Jules is too ‘tomboyish’). Preparations for Pinky’s wedding are in full swing, but Jess uses her clothes budget to buy new football boots – angering her parents. Jules gives her some suitable shoes but the two are seen by Pinky’s future parents, who thinking Jules is a boy, declare that Jess brings shame on the family and they call off the wedding. Jess is banned from football. Joe visits the family to plead her case. He fails, but Jess is determined to carry on and secretly joins the team on a trip to Germany where Jules sees for the first time that Jess and Joe are attracted to each other.

Mr Bhamra has worked out what is happening and meets the team on their return. He despairs of Jess and Pinky. Meanwhile, Jules falls out with Jess. Mrs Paxton overhears the row, convinced it is a lovers’ tiff. Jess confides in her cousin Tony and discovers that he is gay – but his family don’t know. Jess is playing in a game when her father sneaks in to watch. Jess is pumped up and gets sent off. Father discovers Joe comforting Jess. When they return home, Teetu’s family have come to rescue the marriage. The new wedding date clashes with the final of the football competition. Jess gets her A Level results, but Jules is looking forward to the American scout seeing her play.

On the day of the wedding, Father relents because Jess looks so unhappy and he allows her to leave the reception to play. Jess scores the winning goal – ‘bending it’. Jules and her mother arrive at the wedding and cause a scene because Mother sees Jules kiss Jess. At Jess’ house Tony tries to help Jess by telling the family that they are getting married. But Jess wants the truth – she announces that she has won the scholarship in America and her father says she can go. Jess goes to see Joe – she tells him she can’t start a relationship, but she offers hope. David Beckham is glimpsed in the airport as the girls fly off.

Gurinder Chadha
Gurinder Chadha was born in Kenya, but brought up in the UK, in Southall, West London. She first came to attention as a features director in 1993 with the release of Bhaji on the Beach, a social comedy which followed a group of Asian women on a day trip to Blackpool. In the best traditions of the genre, the narrative of this film provided the opportunity for women of different ages to exchange ideas about men and their own lives. The Blackpool setting also allowed some comic moments of culture clash. Overall, however, the film offered a serious discourse about the issues facing Asian women in Britain and it found an appreciative audience, despite restricted distribution.

“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.” (Gurinder Chadha quoted on www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/502103/)

In 2000, a second feature, What’s Cooking? moved Chadha to Los Angeles and a multi-strand narrative about four families from different ethnic backgrounds experiencing familiar domestic problems which are brought into focus by the pressures of Thanksgiving Dinner. Again more of a critical than a commercial success, What’s Cooking confirmed Chadha’s skills as a filmmaker and her ability to explore cultural diversity without emphasis on cultural difference.

Recipe for Success

It’s difficult to escape from culinary puns in describing Gurinder Chadha’s work and Bend it Like Beckham was presented with the tagline “Who wants to cook aloo gobi when you can bend a ball like Beckham?”. Much of the success of the film derives from perfect timing in combining an interest in football and celebrity, at a time when ‘Beckham mania’ was beginning to peak in the UK, with the increasing popularity of Indian culture and all things ‘Bollywood’. A further significant factor in easy recognition in the UK was the success of the television series Playing the Field (1998-2002) created by Kay Mellor. This series had already introduced the idea of women’s football as an interesting site for dramatic narratives. Although the series generally concentrated on older women players, it was important in appealing to a female audience, especially an older audience, notoriously difficult to attract to cinema features.

Overall, BILB can be seen as a British ‘feelgood’ film which appealed to audiences much in the same way as The Full Monty (1997) and Billy Elliot (2000). It differed in being ‘Southern’ rather than ‘Northern’ and female-centred rather than male-centred. It is also ‘feelgood’ in a British Asian context. The more affluent Punjabi/East African Sikh family setting also distinguishes the film from the other major British Asian comedy success, East is East (which like the other two examples represented Northern working class life). For the British film industry, the most important difference between BILB and the other films mentioned here is that it was made and distributed without Hollywood studio money. The rather complicated financial arrangements saw the lead taken by the German media group, Helkon AG which set up a distribution arm in the UK, eventually taking a 51% stake in the UK ‘start-up’ company, Redbus (which itself had hired staff from the disbanded Polygram distribution arm in the UK). Helkon has since gone into bankruptcy in Germany, but Redbus survived (and was sold to Lionsgate in 2005). German and British money went into BILB, but essentially it is a ‘British’ film.

It is worth noting that BILB breaks many of the ‘rules’ that low budget British films being ‘groomed’ for feelgood success are normally expected to follow. The film is arguably too long for its subject matter at 112 mins (80-95 mins. is the norm for a film of this kind in the UK). It does not boast either the ‘star’ cameo performance of a Julie Walters in Billy Elliot (Juliet Stevenson could be argued to fill this role, but her star status was less established) or the leading role recognition of Robert Carlyle in The Full Monty. Similarly, the film lacks the range of familiar ‘character actors’ and the ‘gritty’ social realism of films like Brassed Off (1996).

BILB is in many ways a youth picture, but one more in the mould of a Hollywood ‘teen picture’ rather than a British ‘social problem’ film. (Youth pictures in the UK have often concentrated on the problems associated with young people – drugs, delinquency etc. – rather than on their aspirations.) Youth pictures, by their very nature feature tend to feature younger, lesser known actors. They also tend to feature popular music and this is certainly the case with BILB which not only sports an extensive range of music clips, but also uses them in a series of montage sequences, often associated with football training and action from featured games. The reliance on these montage sequences is perhaps the defining stylistic feature of the film. (The film is in the main very conventional in terms of aesthetics. It is filmed on location with studio inserts for the Bhamra home. Apart from a couple of crane shots and extensive steadicam work on the football field, camerawork is not particularly expressive.)

Narrative

The central idea of BILB is the linking of two ‘conflict narratives’ – effectively doubling the narrative potential. The first narrative concerns the attempts of Jess (Jasminder, played by Parminder Nagra) to live her life ‘independently’, according to her own interests rather than those expected of her by other family members, and especially by her mother. The second narrative concerns the possibility of women’s football as the basis for a successful career (i.e. rather than as a recreational activity) – something which is extremely difficult in a British context.

A different way to present this ‘double’ would be to assess the problems or barriers facing Jess. She wants to be a footballer, but not only is she a woman, but she is an Asian woman. Note that the image of ‘Asian woman footballer’ has to contend not only with the concept of a young woman challenging traditional roles for women in British Asian families, but also the almost complete absence of Asian role models in professional British football. In this sense, the narrative of BILB is set up like a traditional Hollywood ‘quest narrative’. Jess might as well be tackling dragons and wizards, so fantastical does the challenge sound.

The other characters in the film are all developed in relation to Jess’ quest. Jules, played by Keira Knightley, at first appears to have so many advantages in her parallel quest for football success – not least her greater experience and her height and athleticism. But Jules has to contend with her mother and her fears about lesbianism. Mrs Paxton provides a kind of counter-balance to the similar negative feelings of Jess’ mother.

It is noticeable that in contrast to other British Asian films (My Beautiful Laundrette, East is East, My Son the Fanatic) – all of which feature British Muslim families – the main dramatic focus is on the mother figure. This does not mean that father does not have an important role, only that the opposition to Jess comes mainly from her mother. Interestingly, it is only via the father and his memories of playing cricket in Kenya that the film makes direct reference to forms of institutional racism. Father is a patriarchal figure in this Sikh family, but he is also prepared to be flexible in dealing with his daughter.

The other characters in the film have similar personal battles that contrast with those facing Jess and to some extent provide other dimensions to her struggle. Sister Pinky offers a stereotype of a young British Asian woman who can be both ‘modern’ (in dress and appearance and in attitudes towards sex with her boyfriend) and ‘traditional’ in the way she accepts that she must marry according to the customs of her community.

Tony carries a secret that he cannot reveal to anyone other than his cousin, Jess. His gayness is even more unacceptable to the family. Joe carries several burdens – he is estranged from his father, has had to give up his career as a player and is unsure about his future as a coach. In dramatic terms, both Tony and Joe are seen as supportive of Jess – almost as if they sympathise with her position or because they want to see her succeed where they can’t. The male power in the film lies with Mr Bhamra and it is because he is understanding that a resolution is possible.

The two narratives come together in the final act with the crosscutting between the wedding and the football final.

Representation

The representation issues in the film clearly relate to gender and ethnicity. Less obvious are the questions about social class, which are raised less by the film itself and more by audiences attempting to read the film. BILB is essentially a (young) woman’s film. Gurinder Chadha herself has said that she got the idea for the film after watching the reactions to England’s failure in the 1996 European Nations Cup. She was intrigued by the prospect of putting an Indian girl into the ‘testosterone-fuelled’ world of British football. At the centre of the film is the mother-daughter relationship in the Bhamra household. The similar relationship in the Paxton household emphasises this relationship. For Jess, the alternatives seem to be the life as mapped out for Pinky or the camaraderie of her teammates.

Shaheen Khan as Mrs Bhamra, playing older than herself and representing a woman of her own mother's generation.

Shaheen Khan as Mrs Bhamra, playing older than herself and representing a woman of her own mother’s generation.

Chadha has also stated that many of the lines of dialogue attributed to the two mothers came from her own experience – listening to her own mother and the mothers of her (white) friends. She suggests too, that young British Asian women went back to see the film for a second or third time, just to hear how Jess’ mother berates her. (Comments taken from the DVD commentary.) Here we have confirmation of one of Richard Dyer’s arguments about representation. Gurinder Chadha as writer/director ‘speaks’ in the film. Hers is the authentic voice of a woman brought up in an Asian family in Britain. This is further emphasised by actors playing older than their real ages (Shaheen Khan as Mrs. Bhamra and Harvey Girdi as Teetu’s Mum) – effectively playing their own mothers. How audiences read these scenes depends very much on how ‘real’ they take the situations to be. (It might be argued that while the plot is formulaic, with its expected actions and its repetitions, the confrontations themselves ring true.)

The contrast between Jess and Pinky is expressed in a number of ways. Dress and appearance are important, but casting and acting style contribute as well. As Pinky, Archie Panjabi has to suggest the modern/traditional contradiction of a particular kind of Southall girl. Parminder Nagra was 27 when she played Jess as an 18 year-old and she has an uncanny ability to look even younger at times – to be almost childlike. But in some of the later scenes with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, with her hair down, she looks much older (older than him in fact). This switching suits her character which is innocent and direct, but also capable of maturity. In this respect she represents authenticity – Pinky seems a much less mature woman. Other issues surround Pinky’s behaviour. She hasn’t gone to college which might affect her ‘marriageability’ and she has also slept with Teetu, another mark against her in the marriage stakes for a traditional community. Yet, she does love Teetu and she wants to marry him for love, not just because the families approve. So there is an ‘authenticity’ about her behaviour.

The running joke about food also becomes part of the discourse about gender and ethnicity. In the famous line that developed into the tagline for the film’s poster campaign, “Anyone can make aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”, Gurinder Chadha is again making a reference to her own childhood and the traditional view that a young girl must be taught by her mother how to make a ‘full North Indian meal’. The DVD commentary is again interesting on this point and provides an explanation for the scar on Jess’ leg. The explanation in the film is that this is the result of an accident when she was heating up baked beans as a child and her trousers caught fire. Gurinder Chadha tells us that this is what really happened to Parminder Nagra.

Ethnicity

BILB is a film in which, although ‘ethnic difference’ is several times the basis for comedy or dramatic effect, it is almost never a ‘problem’. The film is set firmly within the community that has produced both the filmmaker and the story. Gurinder Chadha is completely ‘at home’ and the narrative is infused with her love and affection for her family. There are only two moments in the film where racism becomes an issue.

One is when Mr Bhamra recalls his own treatment as a cricketer from Nairobi who is excluded from a local club in England. He goes on (with complete justification) to point out to Joe that there are no British Asian players in the Premiership. “They won’t let our boys in, so what hope is there for Jess?” Jess responds by saying that Nasser Hussein became the England cricket captain. The argument ends, but in the credit sequence at the end of the film, we see Joe bowling to Mr Bhamra on the green outside the Bhamra house, with all the players properly dressed in cricketing whites. (The same experience is also used in the closing scenes to explain why Mr Bhamra let his daughter play in the final – he wants her to make decisions in which she wins and doesn’t regret.)

Mr Bhamra (played by Hindi cinema star actor Anupam Kher) backs Jess partly because of his own frustrations over institutional racism that stopped him playing cricket.

Mr Bhamra (played by Hindi cinema star actor Anupam Kher) backs Jess partly because of his own frustrations over institutional racism that stopped him playing cricket.

The second moment of potential conflict over racism comes when Jess is sent off in the match watched by her father. After the game, Joe berates her. She tells him that he wouldn’t understand, because the opposing player had called her a ‘Paki’ and that is what caused the incident. Joe responds with “Of course I understand. I’m Irish.”

It could be argued that in both these instances, the reference to racism in UK society ‘works’ in a narrative sense, especially in the case of the father’s actions. However, it could be argued that both offer a fairly rosy view of UK life from within an established and confident community. Racism in UK sport is still very much a ‘live issue’ and the different experience of immigrant groups in the UK is not to be discounted. These representations also become problematic for audiences in other territories (see comments below on social class).

Social class

Issues of social class remain a problem for UK filmmakers. Despite the protestations of politicians about the creation of a ‘classless society’, most British films are read by audiences in class terms. In other words, audiences make sense of what happens on screen because of their own knowledge of the nuances of social behaviour and they choose the films they want to watch, partly at least, on the basis of what they assume to be the audience address of the film. So, for example, films such as Notting Hill (UK 1999) or Love Actually (UK 2003), written by Richard Curtis are perceived as ‘middle class films’. In the most extreme recent example, most (middle class) UK film reviewers fell upon the comedy Sex Lives of the Potato Men, which they identified as a ‘working class film’.

Many of these differences are difficult for overseas audiences to follow. This is important because most British films need overseas sales to make significant profits. Successful films abroad have tended to celebrate a certain (arguably nostalgic and certainly ‘realist’) view of working class communities in the North of England or selected areas of London. Alternatively, they have attempted to promote a generally affluent England (i.e the South East) with as few local ‘quirks’ as possible. BILB falls some where between the two. It is set in a definable and recognisable place – the borders of Southall, Heston and Hounslow, west of London. The houses where the two lead characters live are ‘semi detached’ and suburban. The Bhamra house looks out onto an attractive green or common. Location, and especially housing, have always been key indicators of class in Britain.

Given the high cost of housing in contemporary London, these houses scream ‘middle class’, especially to audiences outside the capital. Yet, the narrative information suggests that the Paxton family is to be read as ‘nouveau riche’ ( a view supported by the DVD commentary). Social class in the UK is judged not by money, but by education, taste, ‘lifestyle’ etc. The gauche behaviour of Mrs Paxton (plus her accent, dress etc.) are crucial. The Bhamra family is rather different. In East Africa the family would have been relatively wealthy. On arrival in the UK, they would have had to rebuild their lives – thus the early struggle and the need to work overtime etc. Because of the extended family system and the family work ethic, as well as other factors, many such Punjabi and Gujurati families have been able to achieve material success in the UK relatively quickly. The development is emphasised in BILB by the fact that Jess is qualified to enter university, unlike her older sister. Mr Bhamra’s uniform suggests that he has progressed in his Heathrow job, although precisely what he does is not clear. Note also that he reads the Guardian – a sure sign that he associates himself with a liberal middle class. It isn’t possible to pigeonhole the Bhamras. ‘Lower middle class’ might be the best description. What is important is that the film goes to some lengths to avoid the possibility that audiences will make an automatic assumption about social class and ethnicity. In this respect a comparison with My Son the Fanatic (UK 1998) is useful. In this contemporary melodrama, the Bradford setting for a taxi driver’s family suggests a more traditional Northern working class community in which a second generation Muslim youth is growing up (although again this film shows different experiences within the Muslim community).

The confusions in BILB for North American audiences are neatly summed up in these two quotes from review articles:

What sets Bend It Like Beckham apart, however, is that director Gurinder Chadha exposes the social and historical context that drives this personal story. In a brilliant scene not central to the plot, Chadha subtly draws attention to Jess’ class background when she reveals a gruesome burn that she suffered as a young girl fixing her own dinner while her mother worked the night shift at London’s Heathrow Airport. Chadha is equally skillful in revealing the racist white English culture that keeps the girl’s parents, despite their rise from their working class immigrant roots into the middle class, in a space of cultural seclusion.

It is a theme to which many Asian Americans can surely relate. Perhaps it was easier for Asian American college students to buy into the hype of Better Luck Tomorrow (US 2002) because of that film’s middle class ennui in contrast with the immigrant politics of Bend It Like Beckham. (from: ‘Better Buzz Tomorrow’, Anmol Chaddha, 6/5/03 on Alternet.org)

and . . .

In promoting Bend It Like Beckham, Chadha implores, “the film celebrates the processes of cultural change, the experience of living in a diverse environment from one generation to another and not only the difficulties involved but also the pleasures in becoming more integrated.” Yet surely the film shows that whites next door to a south-east Indian wedding celebration can continue to live in blissful ignorance of the party going on next door. Where interracial alliances are shown, we find the new lower middle class in England comprising well-educated visible minorities reading the Guardian alongside the Del-boys (or Boycies) made good – white English (who are impressed by the respect for elders in ‘exotic’ cultures) or Irish (who are allowed to – absurdly – explain that they understand what being called a ‘Paki’ means) individualists from working class backgrounds. (Daniel McNeil, University of Toronto, in The Multiracial Activist, April/May 2003)

The first of these quotes is from an Asian American, praising BILB in comparison with a recently released Asian American film. The second is a Canadian postgraduate student who clearly knows British culture very well. Taken together (and putting aside understandable American confusion with class boundaries in the UK), the comments are reminiscent of those in the debates that surrounded The Cosby Show on US (and UK) TV in the 1980s. Bill Cosby was at the time, the highest paid performer on US television and he produced his own show which a middle class African American doctor and his beautiful and talented family in a sitcom. Black audiences were divided between those who enjoyed the assertion of family values and saw the show as ‘aspirational’ and others who were concerned that it was not representative of the lives of most African Americans at the time. Similar feelings were expressed in the UK.

Jess and Pinky (Archie Panjabi) represent nuanced differences in second generation British Asians – but the wedding is a possible shared experience if it wasn't for football.

Jess and Pinky (Archie Panjabi) represent nuanced differences in second generation British Asians – but the wedding is a possible shared experience if it wasn’t for football.

The main ways in which the film represents Punjabi identity is through the narrative leading up to the wedding. The sights (and sounds) of the wedding party in the Shepherd’s Bush gudwara seem very familiar to any filmgoer with more than a nodding acquaintance with Indian Cinema. Even those British arthouse audiences who would not normally see a Bollywood film, would have enjoyed a similar spectacle in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). Crucially what the wedding celebrations emphasise is the confidence of the Punjabi community in a set of traditions that are at the same time able to refer to a rural past and to embrace a modern future. The wedding is just as ‘at home’ in Southall as in New Delhi. Because of partition in 1947, Punjabis are scattered around the globe, but family and religious celebrations keep the community together. The wedding and the references to food and music (see below) are part of what has been argued to be cultural diversity rather than cultural difference. The community celebrates in a traditional way, but is also happy to participate directly in the culture of the ‘majority’ or ‘host’ community. The images of Southall Broadway – a ‘real’ London high street with national chainstores and Asian grocers side by side – at the beginning of the film represent the sense of a hybridising of UK culture. Punjabi culture contributes to and draws from a new culture which mixes traditions. (Difference still exists in the lack of comprehension shown by both white and Asian characters towards the behaviour of others, but mostly this is a factor in older generations, not the second generation characters like Jess and Tony.)

Music

Music is essential in BILB, not just to provide ‘background’ for montage sequences of football training etc., but also to represent the ‘feelgood’ ethos of the film and also to promote the ‘hybridity’ that Gurinder Chadha obviously supports. Again the DVD commentary provides some explanations of why particular tracks have been used. Throughout the film there are musical sequences which combine traditional film music scoring with Punjabi popular music. There are songs written for the film (e.g. from Melanie C.) and examples of songs from other traditions given a Bhangra treatment (e.g. ‘Hot, Hot, Hot’ originally a hit for the Trinidadian Soca star Arrow in 1983 and then used as the theme for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico – a link in BILB to ‘Nessun Dorma’, used so successfully in the BBC coverage of Italia 1990 and here signalling the moment of Jess’ triumph with her ‘bent’ free kick).

Perhaps more about ‘personal politics’ is the use of Curtis Mayfield’s 1971 hit ‘Move on Up’. Chadha states that this song was particularly important for her because of the singer and the context of the original song. Curtis Mayfield was for many African-Americans one of the major voices of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the lyrics of this song are all about ‘empowerment’. It plays in the film as Jess sets off for football training for the first time and again at the end of the film when the two girls fly off to America.

Genre

Issues of narrative and representation are also bound up with questions of genre. BILB is a ‘feelgood’ film. This isn’t a traditional generic category, but it is certainly a recognisable set of elements, especially in the context of contemporary Hollywood. The ‘feelgood’ narrative often centres on the ‘quest’, clearly evident in BILB.

Gurinder Chadha has been quoted as referring to the film as a ‘teen comedy’ and this may be the most useful focus for a genre analysis. ‘Teen comedy’ is a Hollywood concept, usually associated with a high school setting, but also applicable to a range of other settings and mixes with other genres, including science fiction and the combat film (e.g. in Starship Troopers, US 1997) and the whole cycle of ‘teen horror’ films.

The term ‘youth movie’ is a useful broad category term and fits BILB well. Several aspects of the youth movie repertoire are referenced in the film:

  • generational conflict, parents v. daughter
  • forms of ‘rebellion’ by daughter
  • focus on clothes, food, use of language to represent ‘difference’
  • narrative with time constraint – takes place over the summer holiday before university
  • climax at major social event – wedding/football final
  • extensive use of popular music

These are elements found in a whole range of youth orientated films. ‘Youth movies’ usually set out to target a youth audience and so alienate older audiences. BILB clearly appeals more broadly, even though it has all the other elements in place. This is partly explained by the added ingredient – the focus on the Punjabi family and the importance of elements of the Bollywood formula, especially the wedding as climax of the narrative. BILB has been described as a ‘Bollywood film’, but this is only valid in terms of the wedding and the internal family conflicts. The musical sequences, for instance, are derived from Hollywood cinema, not Bollywood.

The American dimension

BILB was successful in North America for different reasons than those which helped The Full Monty etc. Rather than a ‘British film’ adapted for an American market or marketed as ‘distinctively British’, BILB was conceived with aspects of the American market already addressed in the script. Gurinder Chadha’s husband and writing partner, Paul Mayeda Berges, is American and Chadha herself had previously made an American film, the Los Angeles set What’s Cooking? After living in America she was aware of some of the audience needs. Although the Beckham name was not so important in North America and the title of the film would baffle most American audiences, Chadha also knew that ‘soccer’ in America is arguably more important as a participatory game for women and girls, than as a male spectator sport. It is very much a ‘college game’ and therefore it is important that the film ends with the two protagonists flying off to a ‘soccer scholarship’ in California. The women’s game in America also has a professional presence and the stars of the American Women’s team that won the World Cup in 1999 are household names in America. In Jules’ bedroom she has a poster of Mia Hamm, who for most of the late 1990s was the best known female sportsperson in America.

In preparation for BILB Chadha watched sell-out women’s soccer games in California and she knew an audience was there. As part of the promotional tour for BILB in North America, Parminder Nagra made a public appearance at a men’s professional league game and launched a new season with the kick-off (see www.filmjournal.com)

What may seem puzzling from a UK perspective is that the US release, several months after Europe and therefore not related to the World Cup, followed the huge American success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Some American audiences took BILB to be primarily a feelgood comedy romance about an ‘immigrant community’ and its wedding conventions.

Conclusion: BILB and British Cinema

Since there are very few British films that have massive international success (BILB’s cinema box office was ten times the production budget), it is inevitable that each ‘winner’ will become the next film to be emulated (or rather imitated). In the case of BILB this is going to be very difficult as can be perceived from the ‘success factors’ apparent in the film’s production and reception by audiences:

  • relatively low budget production (£3-4million)
  • writer/producer/director with knowledge of subject
  • all the benefits of ‘hybrid culture’ without the possible barriers
  • ‘feelgood’, upbeat narrative
  • well targeted for audience plus possibility of ‘universal appeal’
  • good timing for release re Beckham/World Cup etc.
  • full distributor support for release

Gurinder Chadha herself used the success and her new status to get finance for Bride and Prejudice (UK/US 2004) – a Bollywood version of Jane Austen. Whilst this film was still under the creative control of Gurinder Chadha, it had US (Miramax) money in from the start as well as an Indian star. It was certainly not a low budget ‘British’ film. BILB is likely to remain a one-off until another combination of factors produces a similar success in a few years time. Other attempts to carry on in the same way have not succeeded at the box office (e.g. Peter Cattaneo followed up The Full Monty with the relative flop Lucky Break in 2001 and Damien O’Donnell followed East is East with the little seen Heartlands (2002).

Questions for discussion

1. In what ways is Bend It Like Beckham clearly targeted at an audience of young women?

2. Using specific scenes from the film as examples, show how Pinky and Jess have different attitudes towards their parents ideas about marriage.

3. Discuss the ways in which camerawork, music and editing are used to link the two main narrative lines in the film during the wedding/football final.

4. How would you analyse the concept of ‘hybridity’ in relation to Punjabi culture in Britain as represented in the film?

Resources

There are many reviews and interviews on websites. This is a selection of some of them (including those quoted in the notes above):

www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/502103/

www.alternet.org/story/15835/better_buzz_tomorrow

www.multiracial.com/readers/mcneil5.html

http://www.scope.nottingham.ac.uk/filmreview.php?issue=may2003&id=717&section=film_rev

film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,4120,682376,00.html

Claire Monk’s generally negative review of the film in Sight & Sound May 2002 is an interesting example of the problems associated with ‘judging’ a film on a preview screening. It is difficult to argue with any of Monk’s general criticisms of the film (“. . . artless and mediocre . . . unsatisfying viewing for thinking adults”), but she can’t predict its power to move audiences.

Bend It Like Beckham is available on DVD from Helkon (the DVD includes a very useful director’s commentary). All text in these notes © 2004 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated. Images © Helkon.