Bhaji on the Beach tells the story of a daytrip to Blackpool undertaken by the members of a Birmingham Asian Women’s Centre. Several of the women harbour secrets which are revealed over the course of the day: student Hashida is pregnant by her black boyfriend Oliver; frustrated shopkeeper Asha keeps having hallucinations; young wife Ginder is being physically abused by her husband Ranjit, who has followed the women to Blackpool to bring Ginder home, accompanied by his two brothers. Teenagers Ladhu and Madhu enjoy a brief holiday romance with two fast food vendors and Asha meets Ambrose, a gentlemanly actor who shows her some of the sights of the resort. Oliver and Hashida are reunited while the other women meet up at a male strip-club. Ranjit snatches his son and there is a violent confrontation between the women and the brothers, before the women finally make their way home in the minibus, with Ginder and her son being comforted by the group.
The seaside resort of Blackpool, that ‘great roaring spangled beast’ according to J. B. Priestly, has provided a vivid setting for many British films, from the Gracie Fields extravaganza Sing As We Go (1934) to the meditation on comedy Funny Bones (1995). In Bhaji on the Beach, as its title suggests, Blackpool provides the material for culture clash comedy, as a diverse group of Asian women enjoy its pleasures, from the innocent enjoyment of paddling in the sea and donkey rides to the rather more risqué delights of boob-shaped Blackpool rock and male strippers. However, the colourful opulence of the town also acts as a reminder that Britain is far from uniformly monochromatic and that sometimes perhaps the cultural distance between Blackpool and Bollywood is not so far.
Throughout the film, cultural hybridity is emphasised, via small touches such as the adding of masala spice to a bag of chips or the witty use of a Punjabi cover version of Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’ to accompany the minibus driving along the motorway. The film itself, in its yoking of Ealing-esque ensemble playing and Bollywood fantasy, speaks of the intermingling of cinematic traditions from Britain and India. Indeed, any attempts to adhere to a traditional monolithic identity prove impossible and ultimately undesirable, as when Asha is mocked by Mumbai sophisticate Reka for trying to be true to the ideals of the home country when that society has itself modernised beyond recognition. Perhaps the most eloquent statement of the film’s hopes for multiculturalism comes from the romance of Hashida and Oliver, who look like they might be able to overcome the entrenched prejudices of their respective backgrounds, and whose embrace is blessed by the magical touch of the famous illuminations suddenly beginning to twinkle overhead.
Despite its comedic touches, Bhaji on the Beach retains a keen awareness of the racism which is ‘always around the corner’ according to director Gurinder Chadha, with a nasty stand-off between the women’s group and a group of thuggish men at a service station. Chadha and co-writer Meera Syal also provide a nuanced portrayal of an abusive marriage, refusing to present Ranjit as an outright villain and presenting his vulnerabilities, whilst never pulling their punches in showing his brutality towards Ginder and their son. In this subplot, along with that of downtrodden Asha who finally revolts against ‘duty, honour, sacrifice…what about me? I wasn’t meant for this’, Bhaji on the Beach triumphantly lives up to Chadha’s aim (for non-Asian viewers, at least) to ‘draw you in and make you care for my characters, and feel for them, and make you see that they’re not “other” any more’. Almost a decade elapsed between Bhaji and her next British feature, the highly successful Bend It Like Beckham (2002) but Chadha remains a pioneer of the new wave of British Asian cinema along with Hanif Kureshi, Ayub Khan-Din and Udayan Prasad, providing her own valuable and often humorous perspective on female identity.