American moviemakers with their eye on the hot cultural-diversity issue or the quandaries of the melting pot would do well to see Gurinder Chadha's Bhaji on the Beach. In a splendid balancing act, this able young director brings keen social observation and pungent, distinctly feminine humor to the everyday traumas of three generations of Indian women trying to adapt to life in rough-hewn Birmingham, England.

Superficially, the disparate concerns of a group that ranges from hormone-crazed teenagers to disapproving old ladies locked into the past seem dramatically unmanageable. A troubled wife (Kim Vithana) has fled her husband with their five-year-old son. A premed student (Sarita Khajuria) learns she's pregnant by her black boyfriend. In an emblematic gem, a conservative, sari-clad grandmother (Zohra Segal) cannot abide English "chips" without first sprinkling them with red chili powder from home. The politically correct tour guide (Lalita Ahmed) who's driving all the women on a bus outing to the tatty beach resort of Blackpool can't help urging her oppressed sisters to "have a female fun time."

Thankfully, it is just this teeming variety of issues and attitudes that gives Bhaji its vitality and rich texture. Director Chadha, the first Asian woman to make a feature film in Britain, is clearly just as influenced by the "kitchen sink" directors (Reisz, Loach, Anderson, et al.) of England's postwar period as she is by the Asian masters, and her work here is the same kind of beautiful East/West hybrid she envisions some of the women to be. While their traditions are attacked by outsiders, their values are eroded from within by youthful impatience, and the only wise choice is to embrace the best of both worlds. Just like bhaji itself, the Indian-inspired appetizer that's now a commonplace on British menus.

Sound familiar? The trauma treated here is the same one facing minorities and immigrants in any country. But what might have become a stern political tract is transformed into a witty (and no less meaningful) tapestry of human follies and yearnings, little victories and momentary defeats. An extraordinarily gifted new filmmaker shows us that you needn't be ponderous to be thoughtful about even the most sensitive of subjects.


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