Director Gurinder Chadha makes a splashy feature bow with the comedy-drama “Bhaji on the Beach,” a kind of “Mississippi Masala” set in England about a group of Indian women who take a day off at the beach. Humanly appealing and quite feminist, it should encounter few difficulties on the art-film circuit.
Chadha sets a huge cast of characters in motion, with as little fuss as Simi (Shaheen Khan) runs the Saheli Asian Women’s Center. She musters crabby old ladies, gadabout teens and warring families with big secrets on an all-femme day excursion to the northern working-class resort of Blackpool, a kind of British Coney Island.
Ginder (Kim Vithana), an attractive young mother, is going through a painful divorce from her husband (Jimmi Harkishin), a sentimental wife-beater. He and his brothers follow her to Blackpool to drag her and their little boy back to the oppressive family hearth. Hashida (Sarita Khajuria) is getting ready for university when she discovers she’s pregnant by her black boyfriend, Oliver (Mo Sesay), who also takes off after her.
The day proves cathartic for everyone. Severe, tradition-bound aunt Asha (Lalita Ahmed) discovers new emotions when an old English actor squires her around. A chic relative from Bombay scoffs at their saris and outmoded traditions, reminding them they’re out of touch with today’s India.
“Bhaji” gets a lot of laughs at the expense of the extended Anglo-Indian family, which resembles big ethnic families anywhere. Sexism and racism are treated comically, without losing their sting — such as the taunting of some punks, whom Simi almost runs over in revenge.
At times the hypocritical old ladies are a little too easy a target for Chadha’s irony, but their Technicolor fantasies about Indian romance, or about the loose morals of the younger women, strike a note of high hilarity.
Pace is fast, lensing sure-footed and the whole cast fetching. John Altman and Craig Preuss’ lively score wittily underlines the contrast between traditional Indian and modern Western culture.