Eight things we learned from Gurinder Chadha at the OKRE Summit

From Bend it Like Beckham to side-stepping the rabbit hole, Gurinder Chadha lives and breathes the idea of representation, ownership and empowerment.

In this funny, empowering and insightful conversation with journalist Mishal Husain, Gurinder Chadha shared insights from her journey as a stereotype-smashing filmmaker, writer and director.

Outrage can be a driving force

A key defining moment for Gurinder was the Brixton riots and the media reporting around it at the time. When she saw a photograph in The Sun of a Black man holding a Molotov cocktail with the words ‘The Face of Britain Today’, she remembers being outraged at the message.

“I realised the power of the camera,” she says, “and I thought…okay, that’s what I need to do. My life will be about challenging those kinds of images, that kind of racism but using the camera.”

From her first film I am British But… to her current work, Gurinder has been creatively finding ways for someone like her to talk about the things that matter.

Great entertainment can have great impact

With Bend it Like Beckham, she is aware that most people think of it as a lovely British comedy and drama about a girl who wants to play football. Which it is. But, she says, that is not all that it is about.

“It is, at its core, a film about racism – absolutely, undoubtedly. The heart of the story is about the father and the experiences that the father went through and because he was so affected by racism, he is trying to hold his daughter close… he’s trying to protect her.”

“I realised the power of the camera,” she says, “and I thought…okay, that’s what I need to do. My life will be about challenging those kinds of images, that kind of racism but using the camera.”

“You have to be authentic. With anything to do with storytelling, unless it is coming from a place of knowledge and nuance from the inside, it is never authentic in my book.”

Gurinder Chadha

Know why you want to tell a particular story

For example, on the success and impact of Bend it Like Beckham, Gurinder notes that though it took her a long while to get the film financed (no one, she was told, wanted to watch a film about a girl trying to bend a ball like David Beckham), it is amazing looking back twenty years later to know that the film now holds a statistic that no other film in the world has: it is the only film in the world that has been distributed in every country in the world – including North Korea.

“The most important thing, if you’re a storyteller, is knowing why you want to tell a story. If you know why you want to do what you want to do, then it is much easier to convey what you want to do in slightly covert ways – if you want to get money [financing for a project].”

Don't be scared of cancel culture

On creating content with a social impact message, Gurinder acknowledged that people are often scared.

“I think right now is an interesting time because people are nervous of being woke, nervous of saying the wrong thing culturally and I think as a result people aren’t doing things. For example, with The Simpsons, everyone was very upset about Apu, but for many years, he was the only Asian on American mainstream TV.

Even though a White guy was doing it however, there was some warmth in that character. What they did was put him [Apu] away and retire him. They don’t know what to do with him for fear of getting it wrong.”

Ask who controls our stories

Gurinder believes that this is now the time to talk about the ownership and control of the stories that we see on our screens.

“I strongly believe,” she says, “that people who are monocultural and monolingual haven’t got a clue how to tell stories that are multicultural and multilingual – and that goes both ways.”

At a time when Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement have made such strides, she emphasises the importance of nuance:

“We’re in a world where we have to look at how our stories are being told and who controls our stories.”

Definitions of change

With questions now opened to the audience, our attendees were quick to ask for her stance on the use of search terms as BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) and the more commonly used American BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour). What kind of emotions do these words evoke?

“I think it’s a dialogue,” she begins by saying, “I remember when people said Afro-Caribbean or coloured, you know. And so, I think that there are always people wanting to define us. Now what you have is people saying on surveys ‘are you British-Indian, British-Bangladeshi, British-Muslim ‘– these definitions are constantly evolving. On the one hand, they’re useful and one needs them to organise society and on the other hand, it is always up to us to keep that dialogue going as to how we are defined and how we see ourselves to keep shifting those definitions.

She speaks of herself as a British-Indian filmmaker.

Don't let yourself be weakened

Discussing if she would have fared better as a White male or female doing the same thing, Gurinder is quick to note that the obvious answer is yes but this, she says, is a rabbit hole.

“I try not to go down that rabbit hole because what it would be doing is weakening me. I think it is important to acknowledge that there is heinous racism and sexism in our society, we all know that. I think the most important thing is for us not to define ourselves by it. For us to be empowered as we move forward. So I try not to look at it that way because I look at it the other way – by giving you the statistic about Bend It… no other film maker’s got that. And that’s mine.”

Challenge prejudice. Empower Others

Ending the session on a rousing and encouraging note and citing the work that such directors as Ava Duverney and Shonda Rhimes, among others, are doing now Gurinder noted that challenging prejudice and empowering others was the way forward.

“I think we always need to be empowered and my message has always been challenge prejudice in all its forms but also empowerment. So there’s no way I can ever make a film where the people of colour within it or the females are not empowered and coming out on top.”

Gurinder Chadha