25 years on, bhaji on the beach is still essential viewing for british asians
This cult 1993 film, from the director of 'Bend It Like Beckham', was groundbreaking in its depiction of domestic violence, racism and the life of young British Indian women.
For those of us who are British Asian in our twenties or thirties, our earliest memories of being represented on TV likely involve references to a group of Asian lads ‘going for an English’ courtesy of late 90s BBC sketch show Goodness Gracious Me. Our first memory of a British Asian woman rejecting stereotypes may well have come with M.I.A’s Bucky Done Gun in 2005. But in 1993, Gurinder Chadha (who later directed Bend it like Beckham) had already set the pace and smashed the template for British Asian female representation when she brought the “double yoke of racism and sexism” to the British big screen in Bhaji on the Beach, a film that showed the experiences of female British Asians in a way that hadn’t been done before.
The film, written by Meera Syal, follows a troop of British Punjabi women of all classes, ages and backgrounds on a daytrip to Blackpool. It explores interracial relationships, domestic violence and anti-blackness, presenting all these issues through the lens of intergenerational conflict. There is tension between the older, more conservative and traditional ‘aunties’ and the younger members of the community, who are struggling to balance the freedoms of British society with the social pressures put on them by the aunties.
Immigrants sometimes have to splinter and separate their existence between two cultures. In one scene at a fairground, for example, the youngest members of the group, Ladhu and Madhu, get their kicks by flirting with the local white boys, much to the aunties’ disapproval. Asha, a religious married older woman, hits it off with an eccentric, white British artist. However she is tied to traditional notions of honour, and feels she must stay in her marriage regardless of her feelings. Ginder is a young woman married to an abusive husband and is subjected to victim blaming by the older members of the group, who question what she must have done to make her husband to abuse her. Their beliefs uphold patriarchal power structures, despite the fact that they’re victims of those structures too.
Of course, while these issues are by no means exclusive to the British Asian community, they certainly haven’t disappeared from it in the years since the film came out either. Domestic abuse in the British Asian community is a complicated issue, but holding victims responsible for their own abuse still happens today. In the last few weeks, Sri Lanka-born Packiam Ramanathan was jailed for manslaughter, beating her husband to death after years of emotional and physical abuse. She’d repeatedly tried to go back to Sri Lanka to escape the abuse and stay with her family, but was pressured into looking after her wheelchair-bound husband. There’s still an overwhelming pressure for Asian women to be loyal to their husbands, with no consideration for their own wellbeing. The case mirrors that of Kiranjit Ahluwahlia, who famously set fire to her husband after 10 years of abuse 40 years ago, and is an urgent reminder that British society is still in need of more organisations like Southall Black Sisters and Imkaan, both of which address gender-related violence against women of colour and provide support, resources and advocacy for those affected.
At the time of Bhaji on the Beach, there was a propensity for many of the organisations supporting women of colour to lump the Black and Asian community together under the umbrella term “politically black”. Political blackness was the idea of a shared struggle against whiteness for people of colour in the UK, which makes us all “black” — an idea which often erased the identity of Asians, and ignored anti-black sentiment in the British Asian community. While in 1993 political blackness was still fairly in vogue — although admittedly beginning to fall out of favour — Bhaji on the Beach presented a nuanced representation of relations between the black and Asian communities that looks remarkably similar to those today.
This is explored in the film through the character of Hashida, a budding artist who is due to start medical school, who finds herself pregnant by her British Caribbean boyfriend Oliver. Despite having kept her relationship quiet from her parents for a year already, Hasida’s secret is uncovered when, in the fairground toilets in Blackpool, she tells Ladhu and Madhu, not realising that the eldest, most conservative member of the group, Pushpa, has overheard everything. It’s striking that Pushpa is more distressed by the fact that the father is black than she is by the fact that Hashida is pregnant at all, showing how deep the anti-black sentiment in British Asian communities runs.
Hashida and Oliver also experience difficulty with Oliver’s friend Joe. While he had been supportive of their relationship to begin with, mainly because Hashida wasn’t white, upon learning of the pregnancy, Joe rejects any sense of political blackness. Clearly, to begin with Joe felt that the struggle against whiteness was more important than the struggle for individual black or Asian rights. Yet having seen what Oliver had gone through to hide the relationship from the British Asian community, Joe’s change of opinion reminds us that, as people of colour, just positioning yourself in relation to non-whiteness erases your own identity and reinforces the power of whiteness. When he says to Oliver, “Black don’t mean ‘not white’ anymore. Forget the melting pot and respect the differences. But that’s what’s missing between us and them — respect,” he’s highlighting the disparity within the concept of political blackness. In refusing to minimise the anti-blackness in the British South Asian community, Bhaji on the Beach is far ahead of its time, highlighting an element of the British South Asian community some still ignore or even reinforce today.
Bhaji on the Beach is a film which seems to have been unfairly forgotten against the backdrop of male-centred British South Asian films like East is East and Four Lions. A film made by and featuring British South Asian women that passes the Bechdel test was both nearly unthinkable and revolutionary in 1993. While some of the themes the film deals with, like the idea of living a 'double life', have now become cliche in British Asian representation, it’s because of directors like Chadha and writers like Syal that these stories have been able to be told at all. Bend it like Beckham may have its place in British film history cemented, but Chadha began to pave the path for British Asian women when she made Bhaji on the Beach — and it’s still a fundamental film in the history of British Asian female representation that all young British Asians should see.