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Gurinder Chadha: "Getting my stories out there... It hasn't been easy"

The East-meets-West Bend it Like Beckham director on the moment that defined her youth and retaining her "tenacity and determination"

At 16 it was all about school, school, school. I didn’t go out very much, and if I did it was with my family. I’d never eaten in a restaurant, I’d never eaten Chinese or Italian food – it wasn’t part of my parents’ culture to go out to eat [Chadha was born in Nairobi; the family moved to west London when she was two]. I lived the simple life of a goodie two-shoes Indian girl. But I did refuse to wear Indian clothes. I didn’t want people to think I was just another goodie two-shoes Indian girl. I knew I was much more than that. So there are pictures of me at weddings – all the women around me are in these fabulous Indian clothes and I’m in a bright blue three-piece polyester suit.

My parents and I reacted differently to the growth of the National Front and overtly racist politicians. They wanted to put their heads down, ignore it – put up and shut up. I wanted to stand up and scream: “This isn’t right.” I remember going on the demonstration down Fleet Street for the children who died in the New Cross fire. It was very rowdy, quite scary: people were screaming and shouting at each newspaper as we went past their building. There were lots of policemen and we came across an Indian policeman and suddenly these Indian girls started shouting at him in Punjabi, basically calling him a motherfucking spooner, sucking up to the establishment. I was shocked at that – he was a policeman doing his job, being attacked by the Asian community.

I was at the first Rock Against Racism concert. My parents really didn’t want me to go so I told them I was going shopping. I was too scared to go to the demonstration so I went straight to the park in Hackney. The Clash were in the middle of a soundcheck when I got there, then it went very quiet. I waited about an hour on this big empty park then thought, well, no one’s going to come. It was a nice idea, what a shame. But as I was walking out of the gates, I heard the weird sound of hundreds of whistles coming towards me. I stood on a wall and saw thousands of people – black, white, Asian – all marching together. That was a defining moment for me. To see these white English people marching alongside Asians, and black people, marching for people like me, marching against racism. It was very moving and really defined my teenage years.

My parents and I reacted differently to the growth of the National Front and overtly racist politicians

I wasn’t allowed to even think about boys. But… there was one. I used to get the bus to school and I was often carrying my tennis racquet. There was this boy who was often standing at the bus stop across the road and he used to pretend to serve me with an imag-inary ball. Of course I pretended I wasn’t interested in looking. He ended up working in the Indian cinema in Southall. I didn’t really care for Bollywood films at that age but I remember getting quite excited about going to that cinema because he was there, serving hot samosas and warm Coke. I never spoke to him. I wasn’t allowed to. And that was the extent of my teenage romance.

If you told the teenage me what her life was going to be, oh my God, I would never have believed it. That I was destined to travel to so many countries, to make movies, to touch people all over the world with my stories! When I was a young girl, whenever we came into central London from Southall we’d go along the A14, past The Bridge Hotel. It was just this little hotel with little orange lamps in the fake lead windows. But whenever we went past I would always think, wow, that’s a completely different world to mine. I will never be that person who stays in posh English hotels like that. I think about that little girl every time I go past The Bridge Hotel now. That sums it up. Now I’ve stayed in the most fabulous five-star hotels in the world. That little girl had never even eaten in a restaurant.

I think my sense of who I am, that hasn’t changed. That’s what has taken me through. It hasn’t been easy being the sole woman Indian director in the film industry for many years. Getting my stories out there, having my voice heard. But I do it with tenacity and determination. And I think that came from that 16-year-old who, when she told her school careers adviser that she wanted to go to university, was asked: “Darling, really? I think you should apply for secretarial college.” At that moment I knew she had me for someone else. I think I’m still showing people who think I’m one thing that I’m really something else.

People like me were always at the edge of the frame or absent. I wanted to be at the centre of it

I was in my 20s before I decided I wanted to work in cinema [she began as a BBC journalist]. That was when I realised how powerful the camera was in defining who we are. And people like me were always at the edge of the frame or completely absent from it. I wanted us to be at the centre of the frame. Bend it Like Beckham was really about me, my teenage years growing up with my parents. My advice to my younger self would be to be even more vociferous in fighting to create those opportunities for those communities. Because you deserve them, and they won’t come to you. You have to go out and get them.

My only regret is that my father died before he saw my success. That really has shaped me enormously. I’ve talked about it a lot and worked very hard to get over it. I was very close to my dad. He struggled a lot in his life and he relished everything I did. But he never got to see my big success with Bend it Like Beckham and that’s always been a sore point with me. When I decided I wanted to become a journalist, then a film-maker, he was over the moon. Though he’d always wanted me to do the classic Indian thing, become a doctor, he really appreciated that I wanted to represent my community. His younger brothers are both here with me now. They saw my new film [Viceroy’s House, which deals with the Partition of India], and my uncle was very moved by it. He said I’d done a great job and my father would be very proud of me. That really meant a lot to me.

If I could go back to any time in my life, when I was at my absolute happiest, I’d go back to my first Christmas with my baby twins. When they were podgy, juicy little things you could squeeze and hold and carry around. I thought I was never going to have them [she and her husband spent years struggling with IVF] so to have them – to have two, a boy and a girl – that was just amazing for me.

Gurinder Chadha’s new film, Viceroy’s House, is in cinemas

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