BRIDE & PREJUDICE directed by Gurinder Chadha, written by Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges, with Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, Naveen Andrews, Namrata Shirodkar, Nitin Ganatra and Daniel Gillies. A Miramax release. 111 minutes. Opens Friday (February 25). For venues and times, see Movies, page 84. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Don't be surprised if you see Gurinder Chadha hiding behind the samosa tray at an Indian wedding.
"All these mothers and fathers come up to me and want to take my picture with them," she says. "Then they tell me about their beautiful daughters and good-looking sons and how they'd make perfect movie stars."
Guess that's the price you pay for being the Indo-Anglo director of the most successful British-financed film in history.
The film? Oh, a sweet little thing called Bend It Like Beckham. You may have heard of it. Scored, oh, about $120 million U.S. at the box office two summers ago.
Chadha is sprawled out on a hotel sofa right now, wearing a bright red T-shirt made by the local company Desi Wear. She met the Indo-Canadian designers at a South Asian conference years ago. She's doing publicity for her latest film, Bride & Prejudice, a Bollywood-inspired adaptation of Jane Austen's comedy of manners.
Her large eyes pop out even larger when she sees the hotel's humongous idea of a fruit tray.
"Take some!" she cries out to me. "There's no possible way I can eat all this. Take some!"
She seems relaxed, despite the fact that there's a lot riding on her latest film. While Bride is by no stretch her second film - her moving comedy-drama Bhaji On The Beach came out in 1993 and What's Cooking appeared in 2000 - she's never felt such expectations before.
"When you make a movie that's so successful, there's only one way to go," she laughs and dramatically points downward.
"But in making it, I didn't think about the pressure. I knew it would do me in. I know some people are going to say, 'Oh, it's not Beckham.' And they're right. It's a different genre entirely, a musical. But I do think they'll understand that it's directed by the same person."
Like Beckham, Bride takes on the East-meets-West theme, with comic results. She shrugs off those who criticize her work as slight when there are real racial problems in the world.
"Listen, comedy is the biggest weapon we have to fight racism," she says. "It's warm and human. It's the big equalizer. Speaking as a filmmaker of colour, comedy is the most fantastic way that I can say the most subversive things but dress them up in what seems like a song-and-dance movie, or what feels like a girl who wants to play soccer."
No wonder she and her work have been called "genially subversive."
"Film is about layers. When you write, your point is right there. But when you make a film, you've got so many things working for you - the visual image, the people you cast, what they're saying, the music. You can say something and subvert it in another way."
Chadha tried her hand at a Bollywood-style movie back in the late 1990s. But the project collapsed after a month - financing fell through - and it remains her one unhappy film experience.
Buoyed up by the Beckham bucks, she felt ready to tackle another Bollywood work.
"I knew I didn't want to make a full-on Indian movie for the typical Indian crowd," she says. "If I was going to make a Bollywood film, it was going to be for an international crowd. It would have to be diasporic and clever with film language. I knew that if I was going to take this very alien film language to a new audience, I needed a story they we're familiar with. What's the antithesis of Bollywood?"
Austen and her classic romantic comedy felt like a good multiculti fit. Most know the book from school, or caught the BBC series. (Note: Pride & Prejudice star Colin Firth declined an onscreen cameo in this version.)
"At first I thought it would just be cheeky to mix Austen and Bollywood. But the more I started working on it, I realized how close Austen's society in 1790 England was to contemporary small-town India. Everyone's obsessed with marriage. Women have no role unless they're married. Combining Bollywood with the book seemed like the perfect metaphor for integration."
And a pricey one. Bride & Prejudice is set on three continents. It features actors from three different acting styles (Bollywood, American and British) and boasts five ultra-complicated song-and-dance numbers that each took a week to film.
"The music, the style of singing. You've got to decide." She sighs. "Do we go Bollywood or Western? Do we emphasize violins in a song, or is that too cheesy? Do we go campy in the choreography or tone it down? In the end, I had to balance every element. I salivate now when I think of movies that are set in one place with a couple of actors."
Making the film brought back memories of her childhood in London's Southhall district, where she'd watch Saturday-morning movies at one movie house, things like The Sound Of Music and Thoroughly Modern Millie (which she now calls "a fucking racist movie!"), and the latest Bollywood product at another.
"I didn't want to take the piss out of Bollywood," she says. "That would have been too easy. It's a genre that lends itself to parody very well. I wanted to honour both Bollywood and Jane Austen. So for me, it was fantastic when I showed the film to some Bollywood producers and directors and they liked it. They're hoping it opens doors for them."
At the same time, after she screened the film for the Jane Austen Society of North America, they made her a life-time honorary member.
Not that she's going to be doing the Merchant-Ivory thing any time soon. The most important thing to her is that she not make Eurocentric movies.
"My films are what I like to call diasporacentric. They represent the contemporary world. Every city you go to anywhere in the world has people who have come, or whose parents or grandparents have come, from one place to another to another to another."
Among contemporary filmmakers, she says only people like Atom Egoyan and Ang Lee (or, the Ang Lee of The Wedding Banquet, not The Hulk) are exploring similar territory.
Commercial success doesn't mean she's ready to sell out. Her next film, a big-budget prequel to the 1960s TV series I Dream Of Jeannie, will continue to upturn cultural stereotypes. It's a feminist fairy tale set in ancient Arabia about a warrior and sword-fighter (Lindsay Lohan) who is punished after rejecting the king's sexual advances and forced to be subservient to whatever man finds her.
"People who are monocultural and monolingual have always set the agenda about how to talk about race and culture," she says. "It's always on their terms. It's rare that someone like me, who is equally British and Indian, gets to set her own agenda.
"When those people look at us, they see race. And race to them equals problems. What I'm doing is saying, 'Yes, race is a problem. You guys deal with it. Because we also have other things to deal with.'
"There's more to our lives than race. Now let's celebrate."