Gurinder Chadha and the Identity of Diaspora

Joan Didion famously wrote in The White Album, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” As a pioneer of New Journalism, the subjective and deeply immersive style of writing which defined American reportage in the 1960s and 70s, Didion believed that the power of narrative lay in constructing our own respective truths, and in establishing meaning where there previously existed only random occurrence. The long and short of it was this: stories aren’t real, but we’ve convinced ourselves that they matter – because the alternative would be a debilitating swath of nothingness.

To that, I would offer a less bleak counterpoint: if stories can indeed inform our perception of the world, then they must also bear infinite possibilities to reshape our individual realities. Stories have the ability to entertain, conjure faraway places, and affirm our beliefs, but the really great ones force us to rethink what we’ve long taken for granted. When deployed with intent, any form of art can be a tool of resistance; film’s sense of immediacy happens to serve it particularly well as a medium of activism (for recent examples, see Rayka Zehtabchi’s Period. End of Sentence and Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki).

I was reminded of film’s power to confront the uncomfortable when the trailer for Blinded by the Light played before a recent showing at my local multiplex. The movie follows British-Pakistani teenager Javed, who grows up in Thatcher-era England with dreams of becoming a poet. Embittered by racist taunts and his father’s impositions on his personal life, he discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen, and through it, a vent for his own frustrations. Javed’s family, however, is less supportive of his newfound obsession; in one particularly memorable scene from the trailer, their divergent views come to a head:

“You think that this man speaks for people like us?” Javed’s father demands, his shoulders trembling with emphasis.

“But he talks to me!” is Javed’s earnest response.

Even with limited context, it’s easy to see where both sides are coming from. On the one hand, Javed’s father, who has undoubtedly faced his own fair share of adversity as a working-class immigrant, is wary of his son reading too much into the battle cries of a white, American musician with a vastly different vantage point. On the other, Javed’s love of Springsteen makes a compelling argument for the universality of music. Songs are meant to be disseminated and dissected, whether or not these new interpretations align with the artist’s original intent. With race playing an important factor in this film, there is also something empowering about a subaltern reading of such mainstream lyrics as Springsteen’s.

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Luckily for the movie-going public, this kind of nuanced conflict, wrapped in the affable veneer of a teen dramedy, is characteristic of director Gurinder Chadha’s work. Chadha, herself a “third culture kid” born to Indian parents in Nairobi, who now resides in London, has been heralded for making thoughtful films that ask difficult questions without sacrificing an idealistic point of view. Blinded by the Light offers strong echoes of Chadha’s best-known film, the 2002 cult favorite Bend It Like Beckham. The latter depicts 18-year-old Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra, who goes against her parent’s wishes to play in the local football league.

For all intents and purposes, Bend It Like Beckham plays like a lighthearted coming-of-age tale, with low stakes and a star-making turn from Keira Knightley (why Knightley became the breakout and not its lead actress, Parminder Nagra, is a conversation for another day). What the film meant to an entire generation of people growing up in the shadow of their immigrant parents, however, can hardly be overstated. Not since The Joy Luck Club had a film examined generational and cultural clashes with such exuberance and sensitivity. A simple Google search will produce dozens of personal essays about the mark Bend It Like Beckham has left on young women’s lives, from one who learned to appreciate the beauty of a “hybrid identity” to another who saw herself represented on-screen for the first time.

Being a product of diaspora can be a fragmented and often isolating experience. It means facing a deluge of subtle but nefarious offenses that creep into the fabric of our daily life, or as writer Durga Chew-Bose puts it: “For some of us, there [is]…an assumption…that we must reply to a stranger’s inquiry on matters we ourselves struggle to have words for, let alone understand.” It means invasive questions about our names, clothing, food, and customs that inevitably rub the wrong way, no matter how well-intended. “When it comes to our identity,” Chew-Bose concludes, “the ways in which it confuses or interests others has consistently taken precedent as if we are expected to remedy their curiosity before mediating our own.”

Compounded with the demoralising sense of Otherness is the tug-of-war between expectation and desire. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the severe, overbearing parents who insist that their children excel in school, pursue the “right” kind of career, and bring honor to the family, butting heads with their rebellious offspring, who want desperately to fit in with their peers and follow their passions. It’s a trope so common that for years it informed the way I saw my relationship with my own parents, despite the many, many ways in which my reality was not actually a binary.

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What Chadha manages to do so effortlessly is to turn the spectre of ancestral tradition on its head. She seems to understand that the kind of culturally-specific conservatism espoused by our parents, and the opportunities we seek for ourselves, are but two sides of the same coin. However misdirected their efforts may be, most parents simply want to provide a better future for their children than the past they knew, and personal sacrifice is the only currency they can afford.

By offering compassion on all sides, Chadha humanises her characters and breaks down the stereotype that all of us must make a choice between tradition and modernity, East and West, reputation and disgrace. In fact, carving out space for parents and their children to support each other, while highlighting the real enemies – xenophobia and sexism, among others – may be her most radical act of all.

Nowhere is this point more succinctly illustrated than during a confrontation between Jess and her father in Bend It Like Beckham, when he reveals that his own past brush with bigotry was the reason he initially objected to her playing soccer:

“When those bloody English cricket players threw me out of their club like a dog, I never complained. On the contrary, I vowed that I will never play again. Who suffered? Me. But I don’t want Jessie to suffer. I don’t want her to make the same mistakes that her father made of accepting life, accepting situations. I want her to fight.”

 

by Kathy Li

Kathy Li is an undergraduate student in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. She is a voracious reader, writer, and occasional artist, who loves all things fashion. Her favourite films include Ratatouille (Remy is her “Frankenstein is the name of the man, not the monster!!!”), Bend It Like Beckham, and Lady Bird.  You can find her on Twitter at @StylishDreaming.

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