Gurinder Chadha was having one of those surreal multicultural moments you get in L.A.
The Punjabi Brit was munching a bagel at Nate 'n' Al's when two elderly Jews walked in and ordered Chinese chicken salad. "I just thought that was hysterical," says Chadha, whose charming film, "What's Cooking?" centers on four families - Jewish, Black, Vietnamese and Latino - celebrating Thanksgiving on one block in L.A. "This Jewish deli was selling something called a Chinese chicken salad, which you never see anywhere but California, and these elderly Jews were clearly relishing it."
Not surprisingly, the Jewish family in "What's Cooking?" eats Chinese chicken salad along with the turkey. (And, of course, kugel.) Fare on the other Thanksgiving tables includes pho, tamales and macaroni and cheese - all devoured between family crises.
While most U.S. films expose the conflict in diversity, Chadha's comedy-drama is celebratory. "I wanted to make a classic American family movie, but I wanted to people it with Americans we hardly ever see on screen," says the director, a jovial former BBC radio journalist who reports her age as "sort of 30's, late-ish." "If you choose to see it that way, it's quite a subversive film. Using food as the metaphor, you discern that everything can be accommodated on the Thanksgiving table in the same way that culturally anyone can be called an American."
"What's Cooking?" began simmering for Chadha during her first trip to L.A. in 1994, when she was promoting her first feature film, "Bhaji on the Beach," another story of identity and eating in the Diaspora. (Bhaji is a popular Indian food in the UK, similar to vegetable tempura.) In between screenings, she wandered the streets and was astounded to discover a city that was vastly different from the L.A. she'd seen in Hollywood films. "I saw storefronts with Hebrew and Korean signs," she says. "I saw billboards in Spanish and people reading The Forwerts."
The clincher was the Thanksgiving dinners she attended with her French-Japanese-American husband-to-be - notably the one with sushi at his mom's house. Chadha asked for the Tabasco and decided she wanted to make a film about this kind of America.
Chadha's films depict the rich duality of the Diaspora, because she grew up in one herself. Until the age of 3, she lived in British colonial Africa; after Kenya achieved independence, her father searched for work in London, only to be laughed out of a branch of Barclay's Bank because he wore a beard and turban.Her family ultimately found haven in the colorful, West London neighborhood of Southall, "a fantastic place that was to the Punjabi community what Fairfax was to L.A. Jews," Chadha says.
At home, she ate daal and chapati, read teen zines and complained when her grandmother made her turn off the telly for evening prayers. Chadha and her sister rolled their eyes when grandma pointed to every trashy TV villain and blurted: "He's a Muslim!" After school, young Chadha took her British classmates to eat free meals at the local Sikh temple.
At 14, she went through a rebellious phase when she decided that everything Indian was bad. "There are all these pictures of me at weddings, wearing dreadful polyester flares while everyone else was in glamorous, shiny gold brocade," she recalls, laughing.
But by the late 1980s, Chadha was wearing Indian fabric with her Doc Martens and filming a significant, controversial docu-mentary, "I'm British, But - " about Indian immigrants.
She obtained the funding for "Bhaji," her first feature film, from the very bank that had spurned her father 30 years earlier.
To research the 41 characters in "What's Cooking?" Chadha and her husband, co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges, interviewed family and friends who belonged to various ethnic groups. Her mother-in-law's close friend, Doreen Seelig, a history teacher at Venice High, was a primary source for the film's Jewish family.The fictional character of Ruth Seelig, played by Lainie Kazan, is deliberately written against the stereotype of the pushy Jewish mother, says Chadha, who lives in London and Redondo Beach. In the movie, the Jewish mom quietly struggles to accept the fact that her daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) has brought home her lesbian lover, played by Julianna Margulies, for Thanksgiving. Relatives eat rugelach, argue over the propriety of circumcision and note who's Jewish on TV.
Production designer Stuart Blatt recreated his Jewish mother's mustard-gold kitchen for the Seeligs, while actor Maury Chaykin played the Jewish dad as his own, recently deceased father. Chadha, who insisted that real, edible food be present for every take (the cast went through 35 turkeys), discovered that she liked kugel.
She also discovered some real similarities between Jewish and Punjabi families: "Everything is about marriage, babies and family," she says. "And interfering relatives."
The revelation proves the point she's trying to make in "What's Cooking?": "That difference isn't so different," she insists.
"What's Cooking?" opens today in L.A.