`Bhaji On The Beach': Facing Differences Down By The Sea

Movie review

XXX "Bhaji on the Beach," with Kim Vithana, Jimmi Harkishin, Sarita Khajuria, Zohra Segal. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, from a script by Meera Syal. Harvard Exit. No rating; includes male strip show, some rough language. -----------------------------------------------------------------

This boisterously offbeat British movie is only a few minutes old when it introduces a Punjabi version of Cliff Richard's early-1960s hit, "Summer Holiday," complete with new and largely indecipherable lyrics.

Richard sang the song in a blissfully unrealistic 1962 British movie of the same name, in which a group of kids took a double-decker bus on a continental holiday. The fantasy gets a working-over here, as three generations of working-class Anglo-Asian women board a bus that takes them from industrial Birmingham to the seaside resort of Blackpool.

In the course of the day-long trip, they flirt with white men, encounter racism, settle domestic quarrels, visit the English equivalent of Chippendale's, and find very different ways to have "a female fun time," in the words of their cheerleading tour organizer (Shaheen Khan).

One generation is represented by an abused mother (Kim Vithana) who has left her viciously seductive husband (Jimmi Harkishin), and a pre-med student (Sarita Khajuria), who has abandoned her West Indian boyfriend (Mo Sesay) after he seemed less than pleased at the positive results of her pregnancy test.

While the script focuses on these two friends and their men, there's a rich supporting cast of other bus passengers. A video-shop owner (Lalita Ahmed) daydreams in the crazed style of Bombay musicals. Teenage sisters with a boom box (Nisha Nayag, Renu Kochar) check out a couple of white boys. Dressed in saris, the older women (Zohra Segal, Souad Faress) fuss about tepid food and lack of tradition.

The term "Bhaji" refers to a snack food that began as an Indian treat but developed an English identity. It's a mixture of cultures, like the blend of nationalities and spices suggested in the title of Mira Nair's "Mississippi Masala," in which a group of Asian exiles found themselves adopting to the American South.

The concept gets quite a workout here. An old woman who finds English food too bland sprinkles chili powder on her French fries. At the touristy Blackpool, young British boys parade in cowboy clothes; other visitors pose for photos with a boa constrictor. The soundtrack is a medley of Caribbean, Anglo and Asian influences, with an emphasis on the bhangra music that blends Richard's white-bread song with stronger rhythms.

First-time director Gurinder Chadha, whose hero is British filmmaker Ken Loach ("Riff Raff," "Raining Stones"), is the first Asian woman to direct a feature in England. A native of Kenya and a former documentary filmmaker (her previous work includes a non-fiction film on bhangra music), she gets off to a frantic start in the Birmingham scenes and never entirely overcomes the choppiness of Meera Syal's script.

But the scenes in Blackpool are vibrant, funny and finally quite complex and powerful, particularly when Vithana is forced to confront her husband and Khajuria has a generational showdown with Segal. Stand-outs in a fine cast, these three actresses help make "Bhaji on the Beach" considerably more than an auspicious first effort.