'Bhaji' is a nicely done story of travelers and their baggage

September 02, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Bhaji on the Beach," which opens today at the Charles, might more accurately have been titled "Microcosm on the Bus."

It's an old standby brilliantly re-imagined, the journey movie, in which a slice of society climbs aboard the old iron pooch and sets off for a destination, each traveler carrying with her the baggage of her complex identity -- and each, in her way, pursued by a demon.

The society, in this case, happens to be immigrant Hindu in the bleak British city of Birmingham, female division. Over the course of a single afternoon's outing, each of the 10 or so women will encounter, endure and triumph over a mini-crisis, achieve an epiphany, reach a higher form of wisdom, make a decision.

To make matters more provocative, the generations are mixed. Two younger attendees have been totally Anglified, and think only of boys; the older women cling to sub-continental ways and still feel isolated from the vulgar, coarsing England that surrounds them; and in the middle is the transitional set, women who still feel the tug of their Indian ancestry but who are dealing, however awkwardly, with the pathologies of the modern age.

The director, Gurinder Chadha, plots all this astutely and keeps the camera roaming from character to character and crisis to crisis. The film has something of the expansive, improvisational brilliance of Robert Altman's work, particularly in the deft way it plays the stories within the stories against each other for maximum ironic impact.

Ginder (Kim Vithana) is fleeing a husband, and Chadha cleverly holds the reason for the flight off until the climax. He, meanwhile, is in pursuit with two loutish brothers, each of whom himself has a subtly different agenda. Poor Hashida, who carries her family's hopes and aspirations with her (she's a medical student) discovers that she's pregnant, a situation made more desperate by the fact that her lover is of another ethnic group.

Meanwhile, Asha (Lalita Ahmed) is haunted by religious visions that seem to punish her for living among the heathens and not attending to proper religious ritual. Yet hers is the most comic destiny; before the day at the beach is over, she will be wooed by a most proper British gentleman and his stilted, Edwardian ways mesh with her own old-fashioned sense of values.

This is one of those films that really bridges cultures: in the early going, it seems exotic, and the language so fast and trilling it feels foreign. Yet as one settles in with the characters, its universality becomes apparent: these are dilemmas faced by all women, regardless of ethnic membership. Though it's profoundly rooted in the specific, "Bhaji on the Beach" rapidly achieves universality.

And it has one other dimension, the visual. Chadha sees the magic in the tatty seaside town of Blackpool; it's like a wonderland, an enchanted glade, where all things are possible and the oppressiveness of life momentarily seems handleable. What her camera is seeing is something emotionally devastating: the bright colors of freedom.

"Bhaji on the Beach"

Starring Kim Vithana and Lalita Ahmed

Directed by Gurinder Chadha

Released by First Look



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