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Teenage kicks: 'Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging'

After 'Bend it Like Beckham', director Gurinder Chadha was inundated with offers from Hollywood. So why is her latest project another British coming-of-age film? Kaleem Aftab finds out

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Mamma mia! Chadha with her twins

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Mamma mia! Chadha with her twins

There comes a time in the career of every successful director when they decide to do a movie that is a marked departure from the winning template that has made their name. At first glance, Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging is that project for the gregarious Gurinder Chadha.

Chadha established her reputation as one of the leading film-makers in Britain by making movies about second-generation Indian girls trying to live life and find love in the West. Her feature films Bhaji on the Beach, What's Cooking?, Bend it Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice all feature principal protagonists with backgrounds similar to her own; although she was born in Kenya in 1960, Chadha grew up in Southall, west London, to parents with strong beliefs about the value of cultural roots and the comportment of a "good" Indian girl.

What separates her previous work from Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging, the adaptation of Louise Rennison's first two books about Eastbourne-based teenager Georgia Nicolson, is the skin colour of the principal character. For the 48-year-old director this isn't such a big deal: "I'm as English as I'm Indian and it's good to explore that side of me. There is a lot of stuff in the film that is as much about me growing up as came from the novel."

Nonetheless, it seems that many of Chadha's fans in Britian from an Asian background feel differently; they would be happy for the director to continue churning out tales of ethnic life. She says: "It's hard for me. When I go to weddings or parties, anywhere in fact, Indians are constantly on my case." She then switches into a strong Indian accent to mimic them: "Make another Beckham, make a good film for us, there are not enough films about us." Switching back to her own west London tones, she adds, "I kind of feel the pressure but I wanted to do something else. I didn't want to do another Asian film straightaway. That's why I chose to do Dallas."

After the success of the Weinstein-produced Bride and Prejudice, Hollywood was throwing plenty of projects her way. Harvey Weinstein offered Chadha a slate of films and simply asked for "loyalty" in return.

In the end, she decided to pass and signed on to make a cinema version of Dallas, the US TV series. She moved to LA to begin work and casting rumours began to fly, but Chadha reveals that despite the buzz, Dallas is a project destined not to happen: "I pulled out of Dallas. The producers wanted me to stay but I didn't think it would happen. The trouble with Dallas is that they did some market research and found out that if you're under 38, the likelihood is that you've never seen the show. That was kind of damning. Basically, they're worried that there is a whole generation of young kids that would not go and see it."

The reverse could be said of the hugely successful Georgia Nicolson novels, of which there are now 10. It's likely that if you've not been a teenage girl in the recent past then you've no idea who Angus the cat is or why thongs should be a turn-off for sex gods. Chadha, who was originally employed as a scriptwriter on the project, was amazed by how popular the books are: "You know, I've got a huge audience of young girls all over the world, it's ridiculous. Fans of Beckham and now fans of the Angus books. When the project came to me, the studio, Paramount, had had it for five years and even though they're British books they had these two American guys adapt the book and they couldn't get it to work.

"I read the script and thought how weird, this is a sort of LA male's version of an English girl's childhood and then I read the books and I thought wow, there is something here that relates to me growing up that I hadn't seen in the script. I thought this could be a British genre film or be like Clueless or Mean Girls in England and I liked the idea of doing a British version of those films. Then it clicked that it should be like Sixteen Candles."

There was another reason why the director wanted to move back to England from LA – she was pregnant with twins. The father is her long-time partner and screenwriting collaborator Paul Mayeda Berges. The producers of Angus were happy to wait for the babies to be born and give Chadha maternity leave, although, in the end, Chadha returned to work as soon as she could after the birth. Now that the film is made she is making other changes in her life that bringing up twins has necessitated. The most pressing being her imminent move out of Soho to a house near Regent's park.

I joke that she's going to have to find another location to conduct interviews as we're sitting in a British-Asian fusion café a stone's throw from her current Soho home. The director is adding to the ambience by wearing a Desi T-shirt and bursting into Punjabi when talking about her upbringing, or the Indian community, as she has an actor's instinct for mimicry. It's impossible not to be enamoured by Chadha. She can talk for England and India, is humble about both her success and her current position at the forefront of the British film industry.

Chadha also takes criticism in the right way. I've always felt that the way she depicts her community is a little too romantic and tends to shy away from confrontation. It's a rose-tinted view of life where everything turns out fine in the end. It's even more annoying because away from the director's chair she's a perceptive watcher and commentator of Asian life in Britain. So why continually rehash the same story?

She admits that Angus also follows her favourite template: "I like telling the story of innocence moving into non-innocence; it's that journey from moving from child to woman; suddenly you move from being one thing to another and the world suddenly sees you as this rather than that. Obviously that comes down to me feeling that people are constantly judging me in different ways, they see me as one thing and are surprised when I'm something else. It's rooted in race and I find myself constantly trying to subvert who or what people think I am. It doesn't happen so much in England now, I don't think people look at us anymore and think we all have shops." She follows this with the quip, "Now they think we're all on the telly." In America she loves seeing the reaction from journalists when she tells them that her cultural hero is Bruce Springsteen.

British cinema should be thankful that Chadha is now a mother as it's unlikely that we're going to lose her to America again in the near future. "It's definitely going to be harder to choose what movie to do as I'm much more likely to choose movies that work around the children rather than the other way around.

"Now I would think twice about going over and doing an American film or getting on a plane to meet stars at the drop of a hat. There were two stars I was supposed to meet in the last months for potential projects and everyone was surprised when I said that I'd like to speak to them on the phone. I don't feel I need to go over any more as I've got so many good things happening over here."

She'll be able to show her face at Asian weddings without blushing about doing a non-Asian film as she reveals that one of these projects is "back in Beckham territory and set in Southall". Another idea germinating is a fantasy kids' adventure set in an elephant sanctuary in India.

The conversation is in full swing when Chadha turns into the archetypal Asian aunt and starts dishing out relationship advice. In riposte, I wonder what Chadha has done with her kids. She says: "They're upstairs. I put them to sleep just before I came so they'll be asleep for another hour yet." I squirm in my seat and turn off the tape recorder as I know I'm about to get interrogated for another hour. You can take the girl out of Southall but you can't take Southall out of the girl.

'Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging' opens tomorrow

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