Hard on the heels of “Bend It Like Beckham” comes “Anita & Me,” another cross-cultural tale of Anglo-Indian femme friendship, this time in a retro British setting and sans any soccer angle. Sprightly ensemble comedy, adapted by writer-comedienne Meera Syal from her own first, semi-autobiographical novel, has performed brightly in its first frame in Blighty since wide release Nov. 22 as an alternative to Bond’s big guns. It looks to enjoy a pleasant career, at least on home turf, with crossover to Indian communities prolonging its life on ancillary. Though a small movie, which will work equally well on the tube, pic also marks a more prominent outing for TV director Metin Huseyin, whose multicultural debut feature, “It Was an Accident,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, disappeared far faster than it deserved two years ago. “Anita” shows a similar gift for juggling a large ensemble cast, with tight editing by Annie Kocur again playing a crucial role. However, chances in Anglophone countries outside the U.K. may be impeded by the thickness of some of the Midlands accents, which are often a strain even for British ears.
Aside from being set 30 years ago rather than in contempo England, the film’s main difference from other cross-cultural exercises is its location in a small rural town instead of grim inner-city environs.
Twelve year-old Meena Kumar (Chandeep Uppal) lives in a working-class street on the edge of Tollington, a mining burg sarcastically dubbed “the jewel of the Black Country” (industrialized Midlands).
Like Syal herself, Meena has Punjabi parents (Sanjeev Bhaskar, Ayesha Dharker) who’ve thrown up everything for a new life in the U.K., and they’re determined that their daughter will study hard (“education is your passport” opines her father) and not end up like some of the English kids who lounge around the neighborhood.
Opening voiceover by Meena quickly sketches her background, relatives, dreams and frustrations as she finds herself on the edge of teendom but trapped in a cultural warp all her own. Help arrives in the form of Anita (Anna Brewster), the blonde, 14-year-old daughter of Meena’s feuding new neighbors, the Rutters; the confidant Anita heads a small girl gang, the Wenches, and Meena finally finds a role model.
The only problem is that Anita & Co. are white and Meena, despite her thick Midlands accent and inability to speak Punjabi, is a conspicuous outsider. Nevertheless, the two girls finally bond in an unlikely friendship, charted in great detail in her diary by Meena, who has aspirations to be a famous writer.
Pic’s first hour is basically a loose assembly of character comedy and small incidents, as Meena grapples with her cultural confusion and a large number of mildly eccentric supports are stirred into the mix. Latter include a kindly young vicar (Mark Williams), a stern local shopkeeper (Lynn Redgrave, almost unrecognizable), Meena’s busybody aunt (Syal herslf, having a whale of a time), and a longhaired rocker (Max Beesley) who lives down the road.
Helped by yards of Meena’s continuing v.o., some well-chosen period songs and brisk pacing, the sitcommy masala jogs along in entertaining style, though with few real belly laughs. Final half-hour becomes briefly darker as the script stirs in a split between the two girls and brief moments of racial disharmony, prior to a genuinely moving finale that regains the light opening tone.
Though her contorted Midlands accent takes some getting used to, Uppal gradually makes Meena a likable, touching figure — ornery but cute, and a genuine innocent in matters of sex and society. (It is, after all, the early ’70s.)
As the sullen Anita, possessed of an equally flat, incomprehensible accent, Brewster initially makes her character seem a strange role model; but the unspoken joke is that only a confused young girl like Meena, with such limited horizons, could possibly describe such an unglamorous nobody as “groovy.”
Like all the darker undercurrents in the movie, Anita’s own background, as the daughter of an abusive father, is only briefly — but tellingly — referred to.
Adult cast is fine, with pros like Redgrave and Kathy Burke (as Anita’s battered mom), providing plenty of color, and Dharker especially good as Meena’s beautiful, devoted mother, who still yearns for the sounds and smells of her native India. Bhaskar is quietly solid as the father.
Period look, by p.d. Caroline Hanania, is extremely detailed but sometimes looks more ’60s than early ’70s; costumes by Susannah Buxton seem more natural and spot-on. Lensing on East Midlands locations by Cinders Forshsaw is unfussy and often bathed in a slight yellowy light which, along with the ’70s-looking color processing, imparts a suitably period feel.