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Gurinder Chadha Finds Her Next Coming-of-Age Gem in ‘Pashmina’

Empathetically portraying the struggles of a protagonist caught between two worlds definitely plays to the ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ director’s strengths.
Pashmina Nidhi Chanani
First Second
By  · Published on March 11th, 2019

Gurinder Chadha now has a big Netflix deal to call her own. Deadline has reported that Chadha will dive into Nidhi Chanani‘s wondrous debut graphic novel, Pashmina, for her latest project. Specifically, she will turn it into a CG-animated musical.

Chadha, the director of coming-of-age gems such as Bend It Like Beckham and our recent Sundance favorite Blinded by the Light, will work together with long-term co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges (who co-penned Bend It) to bring Pashmina to onscreen life in all of its fantastical glory.

That said, Chanani’s bestselling book isn’t just about escapism. It tracks the self-discovery of an Indian-American girl named Priyanka, who was raised by a single mother who’d immigrated to the United States from India. As young Pri deals with the throes of teendom, she grows restless. She wonders about her heritage, her mom’s homeland, as well as an extended family that she’s never met.

However, Pri’s mother refuses to answer her burning questions about their roots, let alone return to India at all. Luckily, the teenager finds a magical pashmina tucked away in an old suitcas,e and once she puts it on, she is transported to a glossy, vibrant, bombastic version of India.

This feels exactly like the kind of dreamlike adventure Pri desperately craves…or so she thinks. When she suddenly receives correspondence from her mother’s estranged sister and actually visits India for herself, Pri embarks on a sobering journey to unearth her mother’s secretive past and decipher the mysteries of the magical pashmina.

Any Chadha fan would immediately resonate with such a story surrounding immigration, family, and girl power, as these themes have made up the bulk of her onscreen explorations for years. Beginning with Chadha’s feature debut, Bhaji on the Beach, her filmmaking mission has been clear: she turns an understanding lens to clashing cultures and ever-changing identities.

Chadha often examines tensions between warring ideals — mainly tradition and modernism — in her work. This happens whether she’s considering the relatable woes of awkward adolescence in Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging¬†or taking on the partition of India in Viceroy’s House.

Most notably, Chadha shines a light on the lives of Indian women in Western contexts. Bhaji on the Beach and Bend It Like Beckham make up a shining double feature that reflects on this concern of hers most precisely.

Bhaji on the Beach depicts a group of British-Indian women taking a day trip to Blackpool. These characters all have differing views on what it’s like to be an immigrant in ’90s England. Some of these women are older and hang onto more conservative opinions, while others attempt to balance less traditional principles with some cognizance of their heritage.

The older Westernized liberal ringleader of the ensemble and a couple of boy-obsessed teenage girls defy expectations of more traditional elder generations. So do the more troubled members of the group, such as one woman fleeing from an abusive husband, and another who is in an interracial relationship and tries to keep her pregnancy a secret for fear of cultural backlash.

The women are no strangers to prejudice, either. For example, the gross racism of the Western world is sadly exacerbated by problematic in-group dynamics stemming from older members of their very own party.

Chadha avoids darkness when tackling all that social commentary. She keeps Bhaji on the Beach on-point with a wry and light-hearted atmosphere. The film may be quirky in its dysfunction, but its many arcs manage to reach a somewhat hopeful and fulfilling (if also ambiguous) resolution.

This particular sense of tempered feel-good energy would eventually become a signature of Chadha’s most well-known movies. Bend It Like Beckham is a sports rom-com focusing on 18-year-old Jess Bhamra, who dreams of making her mark as a star soccer player. Her conservative parents strongly disapprove of such dreams, though, believing that sports evidently don’t befit young women.

Regardless, Jess finds her calling on the field after a newfound friend named Jules encourages her to try out for their local women’s soccer team. She goes behind her parents’ backs for a shot at glory and succeeds in spades, taking the team to soccer league tournament finals and subsequently earning a sports scholarship.

However, Bend It Like Beckham is careful to acknowledge how hard it is for Jess to celebrate these milestones when they contrast so greatly with her family’s pushback. Not to mention the fact that she sort of begins a romance with her white sports coach Joe and grows closer to Jules every day. These details of Jules’ home life emphasize that she is caught between two worlds in more ways than one.

Thankfully, once again, what makes Bend It Like Beckham so heartwarming and special is the movie’s tender approach to its conclusion. And when a happy medium is reached — once the older Bhamras relent a little and Jess and Jules chase their dreams overseas — the audience is assured that the process of modern-day cross-cultural acceptance may be ongoing but always rewarding.

It would make sense to also be extremely excited about the fact that music will play a big part in Pashmina. Many of Chadha’s films are driven by catchy tunes to enhance their inherent enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the comic’s plot alone speaks to the director’s vibe so specifically and that’s enough to get me hooked.

On the page, Pashmina benefits from Chanani’s delightful art and conscientious, relatable writing. The novel expertly teeters between fantasy and reality, effectively portraying the hardship of growing up feeling like a fish out of water. Simultaneously, it addresses feminist topics such as women’s choice with apt complexity.

Among a growing number of projects centered on Indian girls, Pashmina certainly inspires some high expectations given the profile of its director. But Chadha, whose movies simply burst with pure, unadulterated feeling, could very well impeccably translate Pashmina for families everywhere.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)