"Bhaji on the Beach" is one of those small but remarkable pictures that smiles at the supposed difficulties of movie-making. Warm and charming while sacrificing neither its integrity nor its point of view, it covers considerable personal and political territory without overreaching or condescending. And it never forgets to have fun.
The debut film of director and co-story writer Gurinder Chadha, apparently the first Indian woman living in Britain to direct a film in that country, "Bhaji" is further evidence that Britain's supposedly moribund film industry is turning into cinema's most celebrated invalid. Though economic difficulties have seriously curtailed output, those British films that do get made are invariably models of strength and compassion.
The seriocomic story of a day trip to the seaside resort of Blackpool by several generations of women, "Bhaji" has points in common with other socially conscious British directors, particularly the pioneering Ken Loach, who Chadha views as a mentor, and Mike Leigh, whose ideas of extensive rehearsals to define character she has made her own use of.
Yet as indicated by the bhaji of the title, an only-in-England snack derived from a traditional Indian dish, this is very much its own film, flavored by the distinctive sensibility of the Indian community that it depicts.
For while "Bhaji's" key protagonists may sound just like the English they live among, they are separated from them not only by skin color but also by the difficulties of being a transitional generation, with one foot in the clannish, fearful society of their immigrant parents and the other in the modern Western world their futures will take place in.
"Bhaji" begins in Birmingham, an industrial city in the Midlands, and its almost too-rapid introduction of characters gives audiences a sense of the crowded, hectic conditions of the Indian community there, with married children still living with their parents, and the whole business overseen by a network of vaguely related, invariably censorious older women known collectively (as they were in the similarly themed "The Joy Luck Club") as aunties.
But by the time a bus holding a cross-section of women sets out for a day of "female fun" at Blackpool under the tutelage of feminist Simi (Shaheen Khan), two of the passengers, each with her own romantic crisis, have come into focus as the film's parallel protagonists.
Ginder (Kim Vithana) has precipitated a crisis in the close-knit community by leaving her husband, Ranjit (Jimmi Harkishin), and moving into a women's shelter with her young son. And Hashida (Sarita Khajuria), a college graduate about to enter medical school, knows she will cause even more of a sensation if word gets out that a) she is pregnant though unmarried and b) the father is a young black man of Caribbean descent named Oliver (Mo Sesay).
When the bus arrives at Blackpool, the city itself, with its gaudy, Coney Islandish air of down-at-the-heels frivolity, becomes a character in the film. A place like this by definition encourages a loosening of bonds, allowing everyone from teen-age sisters Ladhu and Madhu to decorous Auntie Asha (Lalita Ahmed) to engage in amusing flirtations. And with both Ranjit and Oliver headed toward Blackpool to try to resolve their difficulties, more serious events are likely as well.
It is this ability to move with grace and ease between comedy and drama that is "Bhaji's" particular accomplishment. For though Meera Syal's script deals with provocative issues from racism to the place of women and the often injurious power of custom and tradition, both she and director Chadha employ a fluid touch that allows points to be made with welcome subtlety.
Critical to this accomplishment is the fondness and empathy for its characters that marks the film's every scene. The chance to put situations close to their own experience onto the screen must have meant a great deal to everyone involved, and the sense of vivid life that results has made "Bhaji on the Beach" into a film that manages to be as pleasant as it is pointed.
* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes some violence toward women.
'Bhaji on the Beach' Kim Vithana: Ginder Jimmi Harkishin: Ranjit Sarita Khajuria: Hashida Mo Sesay: Oliver Lalita Ahmed: Asha Shaheen Khan: Simi Zohra Sega: Pushpa
An Umbi Films production, released by First Look Pictures. Director Gurinder Chadha. Producer Nadine Marsh-Edwards. Screenplay Meera Syal. Story Gurinder Chadha & Meera Syal. Cinematographer John Kenway. Editor Oral Norrie Ottey. Costumes Annie Symons. Music John Altman & Craig Pruess. Production design Derek Brown. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
* In limited release at the Goldwyn Pavilion, Pico Boulevard between Westwood and Overland, (310) 475-0202, and the Sunset 5, Sunset at Crescent Heights, (213) 848-3500.