Welcome to Auteuse Theory

Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.

Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.

And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…

Monday, 16 April 2012

Bhaji on the Beach (Gurinder Chadha, 1993)

Melanie Williams

Bhaji on the Beach tells the story of a daytrip to Blackpool undertaken by the members of a Birmingham Asian Women’s Centre. Several of the women harbour secrets which are revealed over the course of the day: student Hashida is pregnant by her black boyfriend Oliver; frustrated shopkeeper Asha keeps having hallucinations; young wife Ginder is being physically abused by her husband Ranjit, who has followed the women to Blackpool to bring Ginder home, accompanied by his two brothers. Teenagers Ladhu and Madhu enjoy a brief holiday romance with two fast food vendors and Asha meets Ambrose, a gentlemanly actor who shows her some of the sights of the resort. Oliver and Hashida are reunited while the other women meet up at a male strip-club. Ranjit snatches his son and there is a violent confrontation between the women and the brothers, before the women finally make their way home in the minibus, with Ginder and her son being comforted by the group.

The seaside resort of Blackpool, that ‘great roaring spangled beast’ according to J. B. Priestly, has provided a vivid setting for many British films, from the Gracie Fields extravaganza Sing As We Go (1934) to the meditation on comedy Funny Bones (1995). In Bhaji on the Beach, as its title suggests, Blackpool provides the material for culture clash comedy, as a diverse group of Asian women enjoy its pleasures, from the innocent enjoyment of paddling in the sea and donkey rides to the rather more risqué delights of boob-shaped Blackpool rock and male strippers. However, the colourful opulence of the town also acts as a reminder that Britain is far from uniformly monochromatic and that sometimes perhaps the cultural distance between Blackpool and Bollywood is not so far.

Throughout the film, cultural hybridity is emphasised, via small touches such as the adding of masala spice to a bag of chips or the witty use of a Punjabi cover version of Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’ to accompany the minibus driving along the motorway. The film itself, in its yoking of Ealing-esque ensemble playing and Bollywood fantasy, speaks of the intermingling of cinematic traditions from Britain and India. Indeed, any attempts to adhere to a traditional monolithic identity prove impossible and ultimately undesirable, as when Asha is mocked by Mumbai sophisticate Reka for trying to be true to the ideals of the home country when that society has itself modernised beyond recognition. Perhaps the most eloquent statement of the film’s hopes for multiculturalism comes from the romance of Hashida and Oliver, who look like they might be able to overcome the entrenched prejudices of their respective backgrounds, and whose embrace is blessed by the magical touch of the famous illuminations suddenly beginning to twinkle overhead.

Despite its comedic touches, Bhaji on the Beach retains a keen awareness of the racism which is ‘always around the corner’ according to director Gurinder Chadha, with a nasty stand-off between the women’s group and a group of thuggish men at a service station. Chadha and co-writer Meera Syal also provide a nuanced portrayal of an abusive marriage, refusing to present Ranjit as an outright villain and presenting his vulnerabilities, whilst never pulling their punches in showing his brutality towards Ginder and their son. In this subplot, along with that of downtrodden Asha who finally revolts against ‘duty, honour, sacrifice…what about me? I wasn’t meant for this’, Bhaji on the Beach triumphantly lives up to Chadha’s aim (for non-Asian viewers, at least) to ‘draw you in and make you care for my characters, and feel for them, and make you see that they’re not “other” any more’. Almost a decade elapsed between Bhaji and her next British feature, the highly successful Bend It Like Beckham (2002) but Chadha remains a pioneer of the new wave of British Asian cinema along with Hanif Kureshi, Ayub Khan-Din and Udayan Prasad, providing her own valuable and often humorous perspective on female identity.

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