title>Rendering The "Inter"

Rendering The "Inter"

Michael Cicetti '05, Northwestern University)

[This essay was originally written for English 365, Postcolonial Theory and Literature, by one of Jillana Enteen's students in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University.]

Gurinder Chadha, is distinguished as the first Asian women ever to direct a full length film, Bhaji On The Beach. She was born in South Africa and is of Indian ancestry. Her motivation in entering the film industry was to change the way minority immigrant groups were represented in British media. Before the early 1980's, ethnic communities in British film were portrayed as crime-ridden and essentially invisible. At the time, non-European Britons found solidarity and a new politics of resistance under the identity term "Black-British" ("New Ethnicities," Hall, 166) Politically, the term "Black" acted as a framework based upon the building of an experience that unified across ethnic and cultural differences. However, through the white-aesthetic discourse, Blackness became a static stereotype. Black intellectuals realized their British cultural identity could be reconstructed in their own image and organized workshops like the Black Audio Film Collective, where Chadha learned her directorial skills. ("British Cinema of The '90s," Murphy, 110.) As a director, she has worked to reverse the hegemonic representation of marginalized Britons, and social minorities around the world.

The objective of this essay is to demonstrate the empowering effects of Homi K. Bhaba's "Third Space" in cultural production, through analyzing the films of Gurinder Chadha. In his essay Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences, Bhabha asserts the Third Space is a, "precondition for the articulation of cultural difference." (209) When writers utilize this "inter" space, they allow their audience to overcome the exoticism of cultural diversity and to recognize cultural difference. Bhabha's designation of the Third Space and the "process of enunciation," (206) specifically refers to linguistics. However, filmmakers have also recognized the ability of an "inter" space to rehistoricize and re-appropriate meaning to groups often stereotyped in film. In New Ethnicities, Stewart Hall presents how to responsibly represent a Black-British subject, by adding ethnic dimensions of class, gender and sexuality. Although Hall does not use the term "Third Space," his method of cultural production is parallel to Bhaba's linguistic "process of enunciation." Hall's suggestion to ethnically layer a subject is based upon placing the subject within in a "zone of occult instability" (209).

More specifically, this paper will examine the discrepancy in the ability of Chadha's work to express cultural difference. Chadha's first film, Bhaji On The Beach, is very successful in creating meaning out of difference, or as Chadha states, "those margins that can't be categorized, that can't be read easily" (Koshy, "Turning Color," par. 6). However, her second film What's Cooking?, falls into the trap of portraying cultural difference as multiculturalism. The disparity between Bhaji and What's Cooking? demonstrates the following: a film's ability to express cultural difference is dependent upon whether the audience can interact within an "inter" space, which is the precondition for cultural dialogue.

Bhabha states the Third Space cannot in itself be represented. It is the locus of all cultural interaction; the space within which hybridity occurs. Bhaji and What's Cooking? are films which bring us directly to the Third Space through looking at trans-cultural exchanges. Bhaji focus on Indians in British diaspora and What's Cooking? looks at the minority groups of San Francisco.

Bhabha suggests if we look at examples of hybridity, we can distinguish the "process of signification" through which cultures differentiate. Understanding this process allows audiences to give new meaning to the static signs and symbols in society. Unfortunately, What's Cooking? only manages to utilize hybridity as a means of expressing cultural diversity, and not cultural difference.

The distinction between "diversity" and "difference" is subtle yet substantial, in order to understand how marginal groups are represented in film. Bhabha explains cultural diversity is, "the recognition of pre-given cultural 'contents' and customs" (206). Historically, films have tended to concentrate on cultural diversity, essentializing the Other's culture as an "epistemological object" (206) Bhabha claims cultural difference is more difficult to represent, because it requires the writer or artist to question our understanding of established identities; it contradicts the manner in which identity is historically constructed. Cultural difference does not rely upon a range of fixed objects, but concentrates on how these objects speak, or came to be recognized. The term addresses the process through we understand other cultures, thereby, acknowledging the "homogenizing effects of cultural symbols and icons" (206)

In determining why one film expresses cultural difference better than the other, the question should not be, "Does Chadha succeed or fail at establishing a Third Space?" The Third Space always exists, however, it is not always recognizable. The critical question is, "How does Chadha render the Third Space so that the audience can interact within it?"

In Bhaji, the Third Space is approached through looking at the daily interactions of eight Indian women, who take a day trip to Blackpool, a town on the ocean. The film addresses immigration, racism, and sexism. However, there is not a singular theme. The audience has a subtle awareness of the Third Space; it is located at the margins. They have the freedom to enter the "inter" from whatever dimension most affects them, whether it be race, gender, class etc. In Bhaji, it is as if the Third Space is a manifestation of what Chadha calls, "those margins that can't be categorized, that can't be read easily" (Koshy, "Turning Color," par. 8.)

In contrast, What's Cooking? presents the Third Space through four different ethnic families as they celebrate Thanksgiving: the Williams (African-American), the Nguyens (Vietnamese), the Seeligs (Jewish) and the Avilas (Latino). In Bhaji, it would be impossible for the audience to determine the single most important issue facing British-Indian women. Yet, in What's Cooking?, each ethnic group is designated a political argument. The blacks debate affirmative action, the Jews confront homophobia, the Latinos struggle with machismo or sexism, and the Vietnamese deal with youth violence. The Third Space is illustrated in broad anecdotal strokes, preventing the audience from relating to the space on a personal level; it is placed at a definitive center. An appropriate metaphor for the role of the Third Space in What's Cooking? would be the "American melting pot."

The essential difference between the films is that the audience discovers the Third Space in Bhaji, whereas, the space overwhelms them in What's Cooking?. Bhaji allows the audience to immerse themselves into the "inter" on their personal terms. The unfocused, marginal quality gives the audience room to walk around within the space. In What's Cooking? the Third Space is the only space. Thanksgiving, which is a non-ethnic holiday, has such a strong homoginizing force, that it makes everything one huge finite plane of diversity.

According to Bhaha, cultural diversity gives rise to, "anodyne liberal notions of multiculturalism, culture exchange or culture of humanity" (206). Chadha's motivation for What's Cooking? is admirable. Her husband Paul Berges explains, "We both wanted to do a film that would open up notions of 'American-ness' in the same way that Gurinder's film 'Bhaji on the Beach' expanded our view of 'English-ness'" (NAATA Interview 2000) Unfortunately, the audience leaves the piece thinking, "Aren't we all just the same?" Chadha, herself, explains, "For me the whole point of the film is that the four families mirror each other and as you become emotionally invested you forget about where they come from - you stop seeing difference and realize they all want the same thing." (NAATA Interview 2000) The Third Space in What's Cooking? is problematic because it functions as a mirror. All the different groups are reflected like each other. There is no not a cultural dialogue between the signifiers, the symbols and images, because they are the same.

A director should represent the Third Space by creating a "play" between the symbols and images. The conversation between the signifiers carries the meaning of cultural difference. Therefore, the process of rendering the Third-Space in film is similar to Derrida's notion of diffÈrance. Derrida discusses diffÈrance as the play between two signs or signifiers. They both differ, opening a space for what they represent, as well as defer, and open a temporal dimension. Bhabha explains it is, "the 'inter' - the cutting edge of transition and negotiation, the in-between, the space of entre that Derrida has opened up in writing itself - that carries the burden of the meaning of culture" ("Cultural Diversity and Differences," 209).

Stewart Hall relates Derrida's linguistic diffÈrance to film, by demanding subjects by ethnically placed within dimensions of race, class, gender, sexuality and history. Hall argues that a subject's "outside" or mimetic means of representation, only has meaning if the mimetic is constructed within the discursive. ("New Ethnicities," 165) In other words, meaning can only be established through a deferred difference to the mimetic form of representation. Hall describes this "difference" as the, " 'difference' which is positional, conditional, and conjunctoral, close to Derrida's notion of diffÈrance" (169). DiffÈrance occurs in the gap where the signifiers are both attracted and opposed to each other. There is an element of ambi-valence, or two powers, between them.

In Bhaji, the relationship between Asha and Ambrose, demonstrates Chadha's ambivalent method of rendering the Third Space. Ambrose is an elderly British actor who helps Asha find her way around Blackpool. Some of his statements echo imperialist sentiments. For example he tells Asha, "You've kept hold of your traditions, proud, exotic... and beautiful." At the same time, his kind, chivalrous, nature makes him a very likable man. To Asha's surprise, Ambrose has played roles in Indian movies. At one point, Asha fantasizes she is in a romantic Bollywood movie with Ambrose, frolicking in a garden. She is awakened when she imagines the dark stage-makeup streaming down Ambrose's white face. Asha's dream makes the audience question which cultural group is mimicking the other. There is a certain expectation on the part of the audience for Ambrose to be a symbol of imperialism. Ambrose's character blurs the colonized versus colonizer binary, allowing the audience to acknowledge the "homogenizing effects of cultural symbols and icons" (Bhabha, 207)

What's Cooking? opens with the Star Bangled Banner playing, as the camera focuses in on an advertisement for Turkeys. The add is like a Norman Rockwell painting of the ideal "American" Thanksgiving. The image is effective because it makes the audience wonder, "Is this really what the typical American family looks like?" However, the approach is too contrived. The Rockwell stereotype plays on the audiences' preconception of a WASP family. The result is that the audience already sees the argument of the film coming, before it begins. They expect the film to counter the idealized WASP family with an anti-Rockwell, ethnic family. In effect, one stereotype can only be countered by another and the ambivalence of the Third Space is lost.

Chadha's ability to render a gap, where the signifiers can play, is strongly affected by the settings she chooses. In Bhaji, the suburbs and Blackpool are places filled with ethnic and cultural tension. There is overt racism. For example, a swastika is spray painted on the side of a local business and the racist Blackpool restaurant owner calls the women, "Bloody heathens!" But the women are also marginalized in a less obvious way. For example, when they first get to Blackpool, Chadha uses a long film segment, where the white Britons all stare at the eight women walking down the street. Hints of exoticism on the boardwalk, heighten the sense of the women's "Otherness." For example, workers dress up as Middle-Eastern Arabs and turban-wearing snake charmers. Differences in cultural sexuality are explored when the women visit Manhattan's, which is male strip club. Pushpa, the eldest Indian woman, surprises the audience when she agrees to dance with a man in a thong. In Bhaji, the cultural spaces Chadha chooses are ideal for initiating behaviors which challenge stereotypes. There is a strong sense two cultures meeting each other.

In contrast, the cultural spaces used in What's Cooking? prevent the audience from recognizing cultural differences, because all four ethnic groups are clumped together in a little diversity microcosm. For example, the first scene occurs on a public bus where there is an interracial couple kissing, two Indian women gossiping, and two Africans in full ethnic dress. The second major scene occurs at the local grocery store. The camera flashes from one family to another, as they are buying food. This theme of interracial mixing is revisited again at an elementary school Thanksgiving pageant and then at the airport.

The diversity bubble metaphor, is intensified by the fact that all of the families live within a couple blocks of each other. However, Chadha fails to utilize the incredible potential of families physical living arrangement. At the end of the film all of the families come out into the street because they hear a gun shot come from the Nguyen house. However, the audience only sees an overhead shot of the families shaking hands. No dialogue is expressed between the families. In the final scene, the camera pans from one backyard to another, and the audience hears "Wouldn't It Be Nice" playing in the background. The Beach Boy's lyrics, "wouldn't it be nice to live together... In the kind of world where we belong", are sung like an anthem for cultural diversity. The song demonstrates how the delineation of the Third Space in What's Cooking? is too calculated and finite.

Perhaps the most significant factor which altered Chadha's rendering of the Third Space was a shift in audience. For Bhaji, Chadha wanted to created a film that was, "immediately accessible to members of [her] community (working-class Asians in Southall)" (Koshy, "Turning Color," par. 21) In contrast, What's Cooking? was produced for an American audience and was immediately selected to open the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Ironically, even though Bhaji was intended for such a specific community, it has a tremendous global appeal. Chadha, herself was surprised by the film's popularity. In one interview she comments,

Although I initially spoke about the film as being about Britain and contemporary Britons seen through Asians eyes. I realized that people were relating to my work in other urban centers.... places like New York, Los Angeles, Hawii, Paris, New Zealand and parts of Germany" (par. 13) Audiences are drawn to Bhaji because it allows them to enter an alien territory of cultural interaction. The "inter," empowers them to question the meaning of cultural symbols and transcend historically constructed definitions of identity. Bhaba best describes the beauty of the Third-Space as an experience where, "we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves." [209]

Related materials

Sources Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. The Commitment To Theory: "Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences." The Postcolonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995.

Bhaji On The Beach. Dir. Gurinder Chadha. UPI, 1993.

Hall, Stewart. "New Ethnicities." Black British Cultural Studies. Ed.Baker, Diawara and Lindeborg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Murphy, Robert, ed. British Cinema of The 90's. London: British Film Institute (BFI) Publishing, 2000.

National Asian Americans Telecommunications Association. "Filmakers Corner: Gurinder Chadha and Paul Berges (November/October 2000)." Online. March 1, 2002.

What's Cooking? Dir. Gurinder Chadha. Trimark Pictures, 2000.

United Kingdom Gurinder Chadha