Identity among first and second-generation migrants is a poignant issue that they face every day. The process of accepting a new culture as well as holding on to the roots of one’s own culture is very strong. Therefore, in many cases, it is observed that cultural ambiguity arises. One becomes rootless in the process of adapting to an alien culture while trying to abide to their own culture. This essay will discuss two such films that poignantly shows the identity crisis that can be seen when cultural ambiguity arises – how people cope or change and how their lives become different is the main points both the films discusses Bhaji on the Beach and Once were Warriors discuss.
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Bhaji is a story of the bonding among Indian women that they find through their roots and their womanhood. The narrative spins around a day trip to the Blackpool beach of middle-class Asian women and their ironic and complex life in England. The female characters are categorized into “aunties” who are essentially conservative traditionalists, steadfast to their own traditions, and the second-generation neo-modern youths who are trying to find themselves in their mixed-identity crisis. The main characters in the movie in the “auntie”-class are Asha, a traditional, middle-class homemaker, who suffers from headaches, which turns out to be visions of the confusion lingering in her mind. Then there is Pushpa who is the most elderly “aunties” whose legs are strongly grounded in her South Asian roots.
There is Simmi, the trip’s organizer who is critical of the patriarchy controlled Asian society and the giggling teenaged sisters. Then there is a woman from Bombay, Rekha who joins the group and is a contrast with the “aunties” who are traditionally Indian in their ways whereas the former is “modern” in all her manifestations. However, the two most important characters are Ginder, a young homemaker of a handsome Indian who has recently fled from her abusive husband and claustrophobic in-laws with her five-year old son and the other is Hashida who is at a crossroad of her life and has to choose between her promising medical-career and pregnancy by her West-Indian boyfriend. The movie is an expression of the “double yoke of racism and sexism” (Chadha). In this essay, I will discuss the two characters of Hashida and Ginder and the confusion their situations create in the minds of the traditionalist characters of the movie.
Asha is one of the “aunties” who is first introduced in the very beginning of the movie wherein she is addressed by name by a big statue of a deity to “Know your place!” (Chadha). Asha epitomizes the submissive Asian homemaker, dwarfed by the middle-class demand of her husband’s grocery store and the consumerism around her. We are then introduced to Ginder the young somber female clutching on to a paper, which we then learn to be her final divorce papers and her son in a woman’s shelter (Ciecko 98). Hashida and her family is shown next – the former discovers of her pregnancy and her family’s dream of sending her to medical school.
As the group travels to Blackpool, the movie brings in the two subplots into light i.e. Hashida’s pregnancy and Ginder’s divorce into light. Both the subplots are a constant reminder to the audiences that both traditionalist and British ways of life judge the lives of these British-Asian women. The movie expounds how these two contrasting ways create confusion and crisis of their self-identity. The revelation of Ginder’s divorce is a constant topic of murmur among the traditionalist Aunties who visualize Ginder as the evil, modernist wife who disrespects elders and other family members. However, in their dogmatism they fail to realize it was Ginder who failed to get any respect from her in-laws and was abused by her husband, who they feel, is an angel of a man.
Ginder is the modernist Asian who breaks the traditionalist view of the “Aunties” who feel that women should always abide by their husbands and should allow themselves to become the men’s property. Ginder’s husband, Ranjit and his crude elder brother, follow that very norm, considering Ginder to be their family possession, and must return to the rightful place. The traditionalist view shows that a woman’s desires and needs are unimportant while every effort must be put to retain the power relations in family. Ginder is among those British born Asians who intends to break this traditionalist view and move towards her freedom. However, the traditionalist patriarchal society that believes in nostalgic traditions criticizes her move to get a divorce. Ginder first faces hostility from the auntie class especially Asha whom she knew through her husband’s family.
When Ginder asks her how she is, Asha retorts back, “You should bring your husband sometimes, and find out.” (Chadha) Later at the beach when the Simmi draws the aunties’ attention to “poor Ginder” and explains how her husband used to beat her, they are indignant at the woman’s fate and blame her for her condition by saying, “These modern girls can’t adapt.” (Chadha) When Pushpa one of the elderly aunties wakes up Asha and asks her if the allegations against Ginder’s husband are true she says, “No, she must have done something.” (Chadha) This actually shows that Ginder had already broken the traditionalist boundary by taking away her son from her in-law’s family and moving out.
The other character, Hashida, faces the double humiliation at the hands of the aunties who abuse her for being a “whore” for being impregnated by a “Black” man while still unmarried. The stereotype of African people made in the British media is explicitly shown in the movie that is presumed to be aggressive and violent. The racism ingrained in the Asian society in Britain is exposed at their disgust of the idea of Hashida being impregnated by a black man. The idea of mixed race relations is shown as a taboo among the Asian-British society.
In the end, both the characters of Ginder and Hashida embrace change and decide to break the dogmas of Indian society in Britain. This shows that the young Asian generations in Britain were embracing certain British ways of life, which though clashed violently with the traditionalist elders, but still strove to find the new way. The character demonstrate that change was inevitable, and even the British-Asians had to emerge out of their nostalgia of an imagine homeland.
Once were Warriors is a movie based on the story of New Zealand’s Maori people who have transcended from their traditional world to modern life. However, modern life has brought them poverty and shanties in the outskirts of Auckland. The movie is an amalgamation of the heroic past of the Maori people and the troubled present (Sklar 53). The main characters are Beth and her husband Jake. The movie revolves around the friends, family, and children. Jake, having lost his job, indifferently moves on to a bar, knowing that the welfare stipend will be as good as his pay, eventually brings back a drunken party home, and brutally abuses his wife. Beth, on the other hand, tries to hold her family together.
Nig, the eldest son of Beth and Jack, joins a violent Maori gang and Grace, their teenage daughter is a fervent storyteller and writer. Boogie, the second son also faces criminal charges. The Hekes live in the poorest corner of Auckland. The movie demonstrates Maori masculinity and domestic violence in such families through drunken Jake beating his wife Beth. The movie exemplifies a system of violence that moves on in all levels of family hierarchy. The reason for the prevalence of rampant violence among young and older men in the Maori society is due to the lack of “sense of worth or of their place in society” (Sklar 54).
Beth living a life surrounded by poverty and violence has a dream of owning a home for her family, which is put to rest when her husband is laid off at work. Violence is rampant for Jake who expresses his aggression at the pub. Violence at home is not shown until Beth refuses to abide by Jake’s wishes at a dizzy party. Beth is frustrated at their incapability of guiding their children properly, and as a result throws the eggs rhythmically on the floor, and asks Jake to make the eggs himself (Tamahori). The beating of Beth in the hands of Jake is one of the most violent scenes in the movie which accentuates the gender issues in the society in the Pakeha society and enjoys the forgetfulness that alcohol provides to the men and treats women as slaves.
The predominance of violence in the Maori society is enunciated again in Gracey’s rape as she enters her teen years. In another such party nights at the Hekes, Uncle Bully sneaks into Gracey’s room and rapes her. The girl remains shocked and perplexed and her confusion is heightened as her parents fails to understand the assault that has physically and mentally tortured her. She finally decides to hand herself. The plot ends with Jake finally knowing that Bully was his daughter’s rapist and unleashing a fist fight against him with sheer brutality. But the male dominance and the predominance of violence is shattered as Beth walks off with her three sons, after this fight at the pub, and Jake’s angry commands are reduced to sorry whimpers. This demonstrates the breaking away of the coming generations from the modern to the traditionalist life. Jake realizes this as he gazes at the tree on which Gracey hanged herself. Beth finally realizes that the problems in their life was due to the lack of a root that they had forgotten in order to enter the modern way of life, and finally decides to embrace her Maori roots. This identification of her cultural identity is the crux of the movie.
In an interview with Robert Sklar, the director of Once Were Warriors, Lee Tamahori states that “If you are disconnected from your culture and you are very much a part of an indigenous culture, …and if you have become alienated from that culture, your problems in life are going to be amplified by the fact that you are cut off from what is essentially your basic character make-up…it’s very important to know who you are and where you have come from. This is what makes you what you are.” (Sklar 54) Jake, the undisputed “villain” of the movie is a “complex and confused individual” though a villain who could be transformed (Sklar 54).
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However, another villain that lurked in the garb of friend was Uncle Bully who was a “villain pure and simple” (Sklar 55) Jake in his confusion embraces violence. He runs amok due to lack of his closeness to his roots and inability to adapt to the new culture. In this dilemma of cultural ambiguity Jake, weakly embraces a life of violence. On the other hand, Beth, the mother is the “strength of the whole movie” (55). She is unique and different for her total rejection of the violence that encompasses their life. Finally, Beth reconciles to embrace her traditional roots and move away from the life of violence.
Cultural ambiguity brings in two kinds of people as demonstrated in the two movies, Bhaji and Warriors. In both the movies, the protagonists are caught in a flux of change and alienation from their traditional and new culture. In this ambiguity, the characters end up losing themselves. However, in the end, they find their way. Identity in both the films is in a liminal stage trying to achieve constancy.
Bhaji on the Beach. Ex. Prod. Gurinder Chadha. Segal, Zohra.: Filmfour Video. 1993. DVD.
Ciecko, Anne. “Representing the Spaces of Diaspora in Contemporary British Films by Women Directors.” Cinema Journal, 38(3) (1999): 92-110. Print.
Once were Warriors. Ex. Prod. Lee Tamahori. Owen, Rena.: Communicado Productions. 1994. DVD.
Sklar, Robert. “Social Realism with Style: An Interview with Lee Tamahori.” Cineaste 21(3) (1995): 53-63. Print.