The film Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha, 1993), funded by the ethnic outlet of Channel 4, attracted a broader popular audience to the subject matter of the South Asian diaspora in Britain. The narrative concentrates upon the journey of a group of South Asian women, representing different generations, as they escape their home life for the quintessential working class English resort of Blackpool. The narrative combines the contemporary multi-ethnic nature and the theme of South Asian female social mobility in Britain. Chadha asserts that within the film,
‘You have tradition on the one side and modernity on the other, Indianness on the one side, Englishness on the other, cultural specificity and universality – but in fact there is a scale between each of these polarities and the film moves freely between them’ (Chadha, in Bhattacharyya and Gabriel, 1994:60-61).
The female characters in the film represent a spectrum of different British Asian identities. Trans-generational differences surface within the polarities that Chadha outlines, since the younger female generation of British Asians have embraced modernity and an amalgamation of British values and their Asian roots, whereas the older generation retain fossilized traditional values and are clinging onto the perception of India that the characters have left behind.
The British Asian female characters all derive from the diverse and multicultural site of Birmingham. The second-generation characters have ingested the ‘Brummie’ accent, highlighting their British-ness and marking their difference from the elder generation. By drawing upon the example of Handsworth Songs, the film presents an image of Birmingham in the 1980s as a repressive space for ‘black’ communities, since it is ruthlessly policed. However, for the British Asian female characters the city remains a repressive site, not due to ‘white’ institutions and racism, but because the characters are repressed by gender roles and expectations within their own community and traditions. The Asian women are attributed with less power within the male oppressive and patriarchal society. The character of Simi conveys these two tropes that suppress the British Asian female, since she perceives them to be ‘struggling between the double yoke of racism and sexism’. However, the female characters subvert traditional expectations and achieve a level of agency and social mobility by means of the odyssey to Blackpool. This functions as an emancipating act, which Simi articulates as ‘an escape from the patriarchal demands’, creating a sense of female solidarity, which adheres to Chadha’s feminist subtext.
The South Asian traditions of duty, honor, and sacrifice, that the elder generation upholds, are articulated by means of hallucinations within the subconscious of the character Asha. These traditions are, however, presented as religious and cultural pressures placed upon the British Asian woman. The Asian community is therefore regarded as a repressive system that exerts traditions and religious pressures upon the individual. These pressures are extended to the second-generation, implicating them in fraught tensions between the two cultures. The second-generation character of Ginder clashes with these traditional values that are ingested within the bodies of the elder generation, since she has left her husband and is now living with her son in a woman’s refuge. However, the elder generation believes it is her duty to return to her husband and adhere the subservient role as a wife that is afforded to her within the community.
Ciecko attests that ‘ethnicity or cultural identity is worn as a uniform or individualized in a more “hybrid”, even diluted or disguised manner’ (Ciecko, 1999:74), since the second-generation British Asians wear Western clothing, for example Simi and her leather jacket, with accessories that reflect their South Asian roots. Their costume thus displays their cultural identity, fusing together the two influences and thereby reflecting a hybrid identity. The costume of the elder generation, however, is more problematic, since the inclusion of the Bombay citizen, Rekha, confuses and conflates the ethnicity of the characters. The elder British Asian characters are dressed in traditional South Asian garb, which on a superficial level adheres to an ethnic absolutism and a re-gaining of their ‘lost’ South Asian roots. The character of Rekha exposes these beliefs, by wearing Western attire and clasping a copy of a capitalist culture gossip magazine, as a nostalgic perception of the homeland or of a perception of an ‘imaginary homeland’ (Rushie, in Ciecko, 1999:74). Rekha hence symbolizes a modernized India that has evolved and changed over time, embracing a more Western philosophy.
Food and music retain an important position within the film in order to symbolize the cultural hybridity of the characters in postcolonial Britain. The use of Bhangra music and in particular the use of the Punjabi version of Cliff Richard’s eponymous song ‘Summer Holiday’ maintains this fusion of cultural influences within the multicultural space of Britain, in a similar manner to the use of Bhangra music in the film I’m British but…. The role of food additionally functions as a melting pot of cultural influences. This is highlighted when two characters of the elder generation purchase fish and chips, but the archetypal British seaside delicacy is not to the taste of the characters and they need to add spices.
The site of Blackpool functions as a juxtaposition to the multicultural space of Birmingham, since it is a quintessential English working class seaside resort. It is a site implicated in the discourse of whiteness and the acknowledgement of white as a race. Within mainstream cinema, whiteness is considered the norm and ‘are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race’ (Dyer, 1997:3). The inclusion of the white characters on the periphery in the film, principally the character of Ambrose Waddington, permits the British white audience to recognize their own ethnicity. It further suggests a gaze beyond the diasporic community and a wider engagement with ethnicity in Britain.
The character of Ambrose functions as an excessive stereotype of the English gentleman, and an engagement with the past image of the imperialist British figure. He is a figure that invokes a comedic sentiment in terms of his representation of British-ness. Nevertheless, he also engenders the sentiments of pathos and racism, displaying on screen the stereotypes of British-ness in order to highlight the stereotyping of South Asian and ‘black’ characters within ‘white’ British films. This is highlighted by means of the hallucination in which Ambrose is viewed ‘blacked up’ and mimicking South Asian characters, which pertains to an imperialist and racist portrayal of the Asian body.
The trope of the inter-racial relationship is introduced through the relationship between Ambrose and Asha, but is addressed more pertinently in regards to the relationship between the British Asian Hasida and the Afro-Carribean character, Oliver. The first generation British Asian Asha discards the English gentleman due to her duty to the Asian community and their traditions. However, the relationship between Hasida and Oliver is more problematic, since it is obfuscated from the view of her parents and her pregnancy brings ‘shame’ upon the community. Familial pressure is placed upon Hasida by her parents to conform to the typical vision of the Asian woman, which is acknowledged by the elder generation who believe that ‘these modern girls can’t adapt’. Her modernity is thus her embracing of the multicultural beliefs that have permeated into the second-generation British Asian culture. The problematic ‘black’ British identity framework is acknowledged in this inter-racial relationship, reinforcing the adaptation of the politics of blackness and difference to signify that not being white, does not immediately equal recognizing oneself as black. This highlights the increasingly divided nature of the British ‘black’ community.
The film Bhaji on the Beach is considered as a crossover film from an art house cinema circuit to a mainstream appeal. It utilizes conventions of popular genres, in the form of drama and comedy, and translates Bollywood devices. These mainstream aesthetics are used to engage with a broader audience demographic and are used to diffuse the key areas of tension and racism within the film, thereby reducing the risk of alienating audiences.