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Shall We Dance?: Martin Henderson and Aishwarya Rai star in 'Bride & Prejudice.'

Gurinder Chadha

By Richard von Busack

Gurinder Chadha is visible in the end titles of her massive hit, Bend It Like Beckham—not tall, a little stout, definitely bubbly. The voice is very West London, with tones of Joan Plowright, but less plummy. She was a documentary maker at first; after making the set in the Blackpool feature Bahji On the Beach, and the too-little-seen multi-culti Thanksgiving Day film What's Cooking, "Bend It Like Beckham was," Chadha says, "my most autobiographical film, although I never played soccer. And Jess (Parminder Nagra's character) was much better behaved than I ever was."

The crowd-pleaser had a loose, fresh touch—it must have been the documentary filmmaker in Chadha that made her incorporate the true-life way Parminder got the scar on her leg into the story. "It's a film ostensibly about an Indian family living in West London, but in Britain it's seen as a British success story, it shows how far we came."

Discussing her new film, Bride & Prejudice, Chadha also talks about the upcoming film version she's producing of The Mistress of Spices by Santa Clara Valley author Chitra Divakaruni. The director will be her long-time collaborator and husband Paul Mayeda Berges—former head of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.

CHADHA: The Mistress of Spices is a great book. Our adaptation is slightly different but keeps the essence.

The book was originally sent to me in 1996, and Paul and I wrote the script, and I was supposed to direct it. And we could never raise the finance for it. And every time we got close, something would happen—Chocolat came out and people said, "It's too close to Chocolat." Generally, it was seen that a film with an Indian woman in the lead was not commercially viable.

So I thought, OK, why don't I try to produce it, and let Paul direct it. Because Paul is from the Bay Area, he lived here for 8 years and he knows the script inside out since he wrote it. And Paul has been shadowing me on the last three movies I made.

He did second-unit work—a lot of the soccer stuff in Bend It Like Beckham—and helped me with the music sequences in Bride & Prejudice.

The Mistress of Spices is going to start shooting on Feb. 14 here and in the Bay Area.

They're shooting in San Francisco and Oakland, we've set the spice shop in Oakland. It's a fantastic city with a brilliant Chinatown. It's not as rich as San Francisco, but it has a lot of history.

With The Mistress of Spices, Paul is going to be working with a lot of my crew from Beckham and Bride, and they're very familiar with my way of working, and Paul slips right into that. Scorsese uses the same editor all the time.

Directing should be a lot of fun, but it isn't always. I try to make it a pleasurable experience. Bride & Prejudice was really hard work and hard mentally, because I was trying to balance a lot of cultural inputs all the time. Before and behind the camera on Bride & Prejudice were people from three different contents, and three different film traditions—Hollywood, Bollywood and Britain.

It was tough when all the actors all did a scene together. The Bollywood actors all have their way of acting, which is a bit over the top. The American actors are very analytical and constantly questioning everything. And then you have the British actors, who thought they were better than the Indian and the American.

So you had these interesting rivalries, and me trying to find the balancing point.

The choreography, too, was a question of how Eastern to go, how Western... a lot of it was a constant negotiation between east and west.

METRO: You had quite a well-known Bollywood choreographer on Bride & Prejudice.

Saroj Khan has been working for 40 years. She's made 2,000 movies, she's won the national award loads of times, and she is the most successful choreographer in India. She's like 5 feet 6 inches, a rotund short woman, who's absolutely fearless. People are so scared of her. She yells at dancers in front of everyone. But she really gets the job done and there's nothing she can't do, nothing. In the movie she did full on 50-60 extra lavish Bollywood style dances, and also a dance for Ashanti.

Me, I kept tempering the Bollywood action down a bit in certain songs, like Martin's (Darcy) in the love song, which we shot all over Sedona and California. In India, the hero would do a lot of throwing his arms around, and Saroj Khan wanted Martin to do that. We did it that way, and all burst out laughing. "Why, this is Bollywood," Saroj said.

I said, let's have him walk and put his hands in his pockets, which is much more western. That's what he did. He walks across the mountain. And Ash (star Aishwarya Rai) does her floaty-floaty stuff and that was the shot we used. It's always a constant balancing, but Saroj is such a master of her work that she wasn't offended.

My only fear about Bride is that people will think it's not for them, because it's a musical. Once you go in through the doors, it's totally not what you think it is.

Happily, we played it at the Jane Austen Society, and it went really well and they made me a lifetime honorary member.

Can you name some of your favorite Bollywood films?

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995; aka The Bighearted Will Win the Bride). A very famous Bollywood film, that, a modern one that appealed to my generation. There are a lot of older films that my dad used to love. One was [the one-named director Mehboob's 1957] Mother India.

("India's Gone With the Wind," the historian Mark Cousins calls Mother India.)

Baiju Bawra (by Vijay Bhatt, 1952; aka Baiju The Poet) was my father's all-time favorite film. When I first met my husband, Paul, one of our first dates, I made him sit through the whole movie.

I'm not expecting the whole world to come up and claim Bollywood after this movie. I think that Bollywood has a long way to go. But this movie will certainly introduce some sections of the audience to go out and discover this whole different new way of filmmaking. It's not for everyone. But we can let people know there's an alternative to Hollywood, and India does make a lot more movies than America does, and it's good to put that on the agenda.

What's next?

A Hollywood movie for Sony Pictures, a prequel to I Dream of Jeannie. It's set in ancient Persia, 200 BC, the time where Jeannie comes from. But we do go to Cocoa Beach later.

It's a contemporary feminist adventure with an $80 million budget. I consider myself to be a feminist filmmaker, and I go out of my way to make three-dimensional female characters.

When you go back and look at the old show, it's really dodgy [creepy]. I remembered it as this flighty little '60s show. But I went back and watched the pilot. Barbara Eden is like, 4 months pregnant, that's why she had so much material covering her everywhere.

She turns up on Cocoa Beach, which is actually a beach in L.A., and she comes out of the bottle and sees the astronaut. And as soon as she sees him, she falls in love right away... moaning, "Ahhhhh," and caressing him. It's about her being in love with him... Every man's fantasy.

I've been having a lot of fun learning about all the special effects and computer graphics cheating that goes on. We'll be filming it this summer, and it'll be ready in the summer of 2006.

When was your first trip to India?

When I was 9. I hated it. The toilets were horrible. I pleaded with my grandma to make me French fries every day, and I complained because she cut them in circles instead of strips. I went back in my gap year in University and then I liked it much more. I spent a lot of time in Amritsar.

Is that why the Golden Temple of the Sikhs is the first image in Bride & Prejudice?

All Bollywood movies start with a religious image or icon, a statute of Sita for example. So I wanted something, and what could be better than the Golden Temple.

I understand that in Indian film, there's a ritual blessing of the camera every morning of shooting.

In India they'll worship anything. Every morning, someone gets a coconut and crack it open, and do a puja ceremony. They put a pinch of incense into the coconut, and light it. Then they walk round with the flame, and breaks the coconut into pieces and everyone eats it.

I guess it's a way of worshiping where their food comes from, your job. I've seen actors in India, as soon as they walk on set, touching the camera and blessing themselves. It's nice, it's spiritual, and it's a way of being more at one with forces bigger than yourself.

My films are always exploring cultural identity. In England in the 1980s, there'd been quite a few disturbances by second-generation black and Asian kids, establishing our identity as British citizens. British born and raised kids were saying, "we're not going to accept second best." It was important for me to get behind the camera and show other perspectives.

The difference between me and other people is that I chose to do it in a very commercial, mainstream way. And I'd decided early on if I was out there to change people's ideals, I'd do it in a way to entertain them... so that I could appeal to as many people as possible.

It's interesting that Bend It Like Beckham is the most successful British-financed British movie ever—it made $75 or $80 million and they're still counting...

And it launched the career of Keira Knightley...

Wish I'd had 10 percent there...

In Bride, Aishwarya has the potential to break out. She's very very picky, as well she should be, yeah. And she doesn't do kissing or sex, she'll be very particular.

The taboo is still that strong?

Interestingly, we had a screening of Bride & Prejudice for India Waves in San Fran. Afterward, so many Indians came up, saying "thank you for making a film that we can take the whole family, and there was no kissing and no sex... "

That's how deep it goes, culturally. I don't go out of my way to make a movie with no kissing or sex, but I invariably end up doing that. There's a kiss in Jeannie, but no nudity or sex.

It's just ingrained, it's cultural, and I can't shift it. Even when I'm at home with my mom, and when there's something rude or naughty, like a woman taking her top off, we have to turn the telly off.

I imagine her putting her hand over your eyes.

She just goes, "Stupid, stupid, silly... "

Bride & Prejudice (PG-13; 111 min.), directed by Gurinder Chadha, written by Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges, based on the novel by Jane Austen, photographed by Santosh Sivan and starring Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson and Daniel Gillies, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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