- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2005

The principal location of “Bride & Prejudice,” an exuberant modern update of Jane Austen’s esteemed “Pride and Prejudice,” is the city of Amritsar in northwestern India. Many of the principal cast members are also Indian, notably the counterpart to Miss Austen’s heroine Lizzie Bennet, a proud daughter of the prosperous upper middle class named Lalita Bakshi, portrayed by the awesomely gorgeous Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World.

Nevertheless, the film’s director, Gurinder Chadha, wants to make a few things perfectly clear about the movie’s origins. During a recent conversation at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, she says, “Let us remember, ‘Bride & Prejudice’ is a British movie. It was financed by Pathe in Europe, and American rights were pre-sold to Miramax. It doesn’t have Indian money in it.

“It’s based on my favorite English novel, whose social mores aren’t that far removed from small-town India today. The musical numbers were obviously devised with a nod to the so-called Bollywood musical style associated with Bombay and Hindi-language films. But this is an English-language picture that’s meant to appeal to the global audience I created with ‘Bend It Like Beckham.’ ” The proprietary note may be a little strong. It might be more accurate to say that Miss Chadha rallied a global audience two years ago with “Beckham,” a domestic comedy about the soccer-loving daughter of an Indian immigrant family in suburban London.

Portly and cheerful, the director was born in Kenya to an Indian family that had migrated to the British-controlled colony early in the 20th century. The turmoil of the Kenyan independence movement persuaded her father to transplant the family to London in the early 1960s, when Miss Chadha was still a toddler.

She was raised for the most part in the London suburb of Southall, joining a different wave of Indian migration. She seems uniquely qualified to make the comedy and solidarity of Indian family life a fond preoccupation with international audiences.

“I don’t make Eurocentric or Indo-centric films,” she insists. “If anything, I’m diaspora-centric. Most cities of the world have people who belong to that cultural paradigm. I began to realize it when I came to the U.S. with my first feature, ‘Bhaji on the Beach,’ 10 years ago. I discovered that America really is a country of immigrants, all very proud to be a quarter this or an eighth that or a sixteenth something else. ‘Bride & Prejudice’ is my way of appealing to that fact. We use the world as our back yard while celebrating the Indian diaspora.”

Miss Chadha acquired a spouse and writing collaborator eight years ago in Paul Mayeda Berges, an American whose mother is a third-generation Japanese American.

She claims “Beckham” as “my story.” However, she doesn’t emphasize the adolescent heroine.

“It’s based on my dad,” she explains. “We even lived pretty close to the airport. The cultural adjustment was tough on my parents, but they took it in stride. They didn’t [complain]. My two favorite cinemas were the Dominion, which played Hindi films, and the Liberty, which got the big Hollywood musicals like ‘The Sound of Music.’ It’s so great for me to have turned things around by doing well as a British filmmaker. There’s a lot to celebrate.”

Jessica Yu’s absorbing art-history documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal” got an admiring send-off from the Washington press when it opened a week ago.

A native of the San Francisco Bay Area who graduated from Yale with a summa cum laude bachelor’s degree in English, Miss Yu resides in the Los Angeles area. During a phone conversation, Miss Yu stressed the importance of simulating her initial sense of discovery about the secret artistic life of the late Henry Joseph Darger.

A Chicago recluse who died in the early 1970s, he compiled 60 years’ worth of illustrations and writings while scraping by as a janitor at a Catholic charity organization. The filmmaker recommends a Rizzoli publication, Michael Bonesteel’s “Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings,” as the best single source for moviegoers interested in enlarging their knowledge. In her opinion, the gallery with the best collection is the American Museum of Folk Art in New York City.

“There are great images in the Rizzoli volume,” Miss Yu explains. “It has superior reproductions by far, and the author doesn’t try to supply all the answers. He just lays out the material for you to ponder. All the manuscripts and a good deal of source material are at the Museum of Folk Art. Along with a good collection of the paintings. They’ve also started a Darger Study Center. A bunch of doctoral candidates are trying to read his epic novel about the Vivian sisters, fanciful warrior maidens. It reached 15,000 pages, in single-spaced longhand, so it’s a tall order.”

There are some oddly perverse and morbid elements in Darger’s idealization of the Vivian girls. “His work tends to be very much a Rorschach test,” Miss Yu says. “Some people get fixated on the violent, gruesome imagery. Others prefer the lyrical elements. I wanted to preserve some of what I felt while going through the material with a fresh mind and few preconceptions. I didn’t read theories about his work, and the last thing I wanted was inserts of talking heads contradicting each other. As far as possible, I wanted the paintings and writings to speak for themselves.”

Between documentary projects, Miss Yu has directed occasional commercials and episodes of TV dramatic series, including “West Wing” and “E.R.” She invested about five years in “Realms,” so it was imperative to be a hired hand.

“I’ve been creatively satisfied with documentaries, and it’s become a great time for the whole field,” she says. “I have been working with one particular screenwriter on a fictional feature we’re trying to get off the ground. You get a bit spoiled coming from independent films in the sense that you’re used to pursuing your own projects and pleasing yourself. No one else cares a lot about what you’re doing, since there’s so little money at stake. Usually it’s been a great change of pace to do something that has to be completed quickly while you’re accountable to a large group of people.”

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