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February 2, 2000


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Chadha's newest wows Sundance Fest

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Aseem Chhabra

British-Indian film-maker Gurinder Chadha seems to be on top of the world. She has just returned from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where her film What's Cooking? had its world premiere.

What's Cooking? -- a story of four ethnically diverse households in Los Angeles during that all-American holiday, Thanksgiving -- was selected by the festival's committee as its opening night event.

The films stars some of the most exciting talents in Hollywood, including Joan Chen (The Last Emperor ), Julianna Margulies (star of the television hit series ER), Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King), Kyra Sedgwick (Born on the Fourth of July ), Alfre Woodward (Passion Fish) and Estelle Harris (George Costanza's mother on sitcom Seinfeld ).

Since the screening at Sundance last month, there has been some real buzz about the film.

"Robert Redford (the actor and founder of the Sundance festival) saw the film and he said he loved it," an excited Chadha told in an interview from her new home in Los Angeles.

"It turned out he grew up in the area (in Los Angeles) where we shot the film. His father was a milkman in that neighborhood.

"Roger Ebert (the film critic whose television shows have made him a national icon in the US) came out of the screening and gave two thumbs up," said Chadha, director of Bhaji on the Beach and several charming short films.

Geoffrey Gilmore, co-director of the Sundance event, wrote in the festival's program notes: 'What's Cooking? is a beautiful tapestry of love and anger, difference and familiarity and a moving vision of a changing America.'

'(Chadha) has created what could become a classic holiday film of immense charm and energy,' Gilmore added.

Associated Press called the film 'a skillfully layered love song to Los Angeles.'

Glowing reviews also came from two of Hollywood's leading trade publications.

Kirk Honeycutt wrote in The Hollywood Reporter: 'The film mixes comedy and drama spiced with sentiment and an occasional dash of sentimentality to create a savory dish for American audiences. Certain to sell to a US distributor, this feel-good film could, with clever marketing, become a breakout hit, bringing in crowds well beyond the art house.'

Writing in Variety, Emmanuel Levy said: 'A valentine to the cultural diversity that defines Los Angeles as a new kind of city, Gurinder Chadha's What's Cooking? is a broad, highly accessible comedy.'

Levy added that the film is 'one of the big screen's most heartening love poems to the city of angels.'

Chadha first thought of working on a film project based on Los Angeles during her trip to promote Bhaji on the Beach.

"I kept thinking, 'Los Angeles is such an exciting city and what I was seeing around me wasn't reflected in the scripts I was reading or the films I had seen about America in the past,' " she said.

"So I decided I'd really like to make a film about LA that I see around me that we never get to see in England."

A couple of years ago, Chadha married a native Angeleno screen writer, Paul Mayeda Berges, who is Japanese-American. Los Angeles became her second home. The two eventually collaborated on the screenplay of What's Cooking?

Chadha, who does not like to reveal her age ("I don't see what's that got to do with anything," she said), feels she had a distinct advantage as an "outsider" to work on a film project about Los Angeles and its ethnic communities.

"Sometimes, as an outsider, what you do have is a different eye that notices the minutiae," she said. "You are constantly questioning, wondering why someone might do that or say that or behave like that.

"As an outsider I am interested in culturally how people do things differently, but also how people do things the same way," she said.

What's Cooking? is about people from different races, but their race is not an issue in the film. The problems that Chadha and Berges write about are those that echo in every family, regardless of their color.

Chadha considers the four families selected in the film -- African-American, Jewish, Latino and Vietnamese -- to be representative of some of the most visible communities in Los Angeles.

The stories that she and Berges tell are about intergenerational conflicts, desperate parents trying comprehend the lives of children (including a family that has to cope with their daughter's lesbianism) broken marriages, and philandering fathers. The emotions and conflicts are interspersed with elaborate food shopping, cooking and eating -- all activities associated with the Thanksgiving holiday.

Chadha said she decided not to use Indian characters in her film because the community is much more scattered and not that visible in the city.

"You hardly ever see Indians in LA, especially compared to the communities that I have selected for the film," she said.

"Actually even though they are what they are (her ethnic families in What's Cooking?), they are all quite Indian-like Indian families," she said.

"What goes on in each of those families could happened in any race. For instance in the black family, the mother-in-law nitpicks on her daughter-in-law. Now that's a very common experience for us (Indians)."

Chadha said she had spent several years of her life questioning what it meant to be a British and an Indian.

"That was very much there throughout my teens and all my earlier film," she said. "That's what Bhaji on the Beach is about. It's about opening up what we mean about British cinema. It is a very British film, made in a very British way, with Indians.

"Our cultural identities (in Britain) are made up of so many different things." she said. "In Britain you are able to take influences from different cultures and adapt and move on."

The experiences of Indian-Americans are very different than those of Indians in Britain, Chadha said.

"Anyone can be an American -- America allows that," she said. "In Britain, you really have to question your identity. When you accept that you are not from India or no longer have links with India, then you have to question what are you and what makes you English?"

"The term 'British' is not as fluid as the term 'American'," she says.

"Lots of people's works ( including Bhaji on the Beach) have been on opening up that definition."

The success of Bhaji on the Beach led Chadha to work on a project that was close to her heart and childhood -- a British-Bollywood film with songs and music. She started to shoot the film in London with Sunny and Bobby Deol and Karisma Kapoor. Gulzar wrote the lyrics for the songs and Vishal composed the music. Quite suddenly the finances ran out and the project collapsed, she says.

While she would like the British-Bollywood film to be still made, she is not quite sure when that would happen. For the next several years, she appears to be extremely busy.

After the distribution and the promotion of What's Cooking? is settled, Chadha has three projects lined up -- Love in London, a musical set in England; a film adaptation of the critically acclaimed novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Mistress of Spices, and finally Bend it Like Beckham, a story of desires, football and two young girls in a London suburb.

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