“I do warm. I do funny. I do emotional. I do believable.” Gurinder Chadha knows her strengths. And she’s had a directing career that makes all of those assertions hard to dispute.
Renowned for feature films such as 'Bend It Like Beckham', 'Viceroy's House' and 'Blinded by the Light', she’s probably most beloved by many at LBB HQ who count ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’ as one of the cultural highlights of their adolescence.
Although Gurinder’s first dream was to become a lorry driver, she found herself in the very different environment of a red carpet surprisingly early in life, after receiving a Bafta Nomination for her first feature, the timeless ‘Bhaji On The Beach’. Becoming a global success in Hollywood, Gurinder has always stayed true to her background growing up in West London. She held her first premiere of ‘I'm British But…’ at the Southall Community Centre.
Arguably her most famous film, 'Bend It Like Beckham' achieved global distribution, including North Korea, on an unprecedented scale and took an incredible $76.6 million at the box office. It received a BAFTA nomination for best British film, a Golden Globe nomination for best picture, a European Academy nomination for best picture and a Writer's Guild of America nomination for best original screenplay.
Her most recent film, ‘Blinded by The Light’, received critical acclaim as a feel-good classic that does not shy away from issues of race and identity politics but explores the power of music as a force of connectivity. In particular, the film shows how 'The Boss' (Bruce Springsteen), like Gurinder herself, has a knack for speaking universally, across all cultures, straight to the heart of humanity.
Last summer, Snapper Films announced that the UK production company had signed Gurinder to do advertising. And while she’s had a productive experience in the UK’s various lockdowns working on a collection of projects with four different Hollywood studios, she’s also been pitching on commercial scripts.
Given her reel and confidence, it's surprising to us and to her that she has lost out on jobs that she has pitched on. She discusses her interest in why she did not get it, stating: “Every ad is about connecting emotionally with your audience and you've got only seconds to do it. So, I don't understand why they wouldn't see that I bring such a big skill in that. I can make you turn emotionally on a button, in a scene.” We would be inclined to agree.
She knows that what she’s proven her mastery in can translate into branded projects. “One of the things I'm very lucky about - and I didn't set out for this, but it's happened - is most directors want people to have their own identity and style you can recognise,” she says. “I think you could look at any of my films and go, 'oh yeah that's made by Gurinder.' It would be nice to be able to extend that into ads, so that people go, 'that's made by the woman who did Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging!' Because it would have that sensibility, which I would say is very warm, emotional, forward thinking, witty and honest, with integrity.”
Gurinder’s been thinking a lot recently about the ads that she loves. “I think storytelling is critical in ads, if you want people to remember them,” she says, before her British self-doubt creeps into her sense of humour. “But maybe subliminal messages are just as important. Maybe it is just about showing lots of shots of a car!”
The sort of ads she wants to direct are the memorable ones. She loves TV programmes about the best commercials from history and she reflects back on what the ones that have stuck with her have done. “It's not just about selling a product, it's about connecting with you at that moment to give you a good time, to entertain you, as well as inform you for that one moment.”
Gurinder loves musical ads for that memorability factor. The Just Eat campaign featuring Snoop Dogg is a current favourite. She can tell the man himself was involved in the music. “They feel authored, don't they? The world they created was great! The big orange bed that he's on. I mean, that is an ad that I watch and never skip. Even now, they're doing it with puppets, but it still works with the puppets!”
Stuff that makes you laugh, makes you remember, argues Gurinder. And the work Specsavers have been doing, creating comedy from relatable real events, are among those she admires. It’s a shame comedy isn’t more embraced right now in advertising, she says. “The funny ads are the ones you watch! There are ads that I won't fast forward or skip because I want to see them.
“It's all about conveying messages, characters, ideas and emotions. So sometimes it's long form, sometimes it's shorter form, but it's all about connecting. And that's what advertising is.”
Although warm, believable humour is the recognisable Gurinder Chadha style, it’s been taking many different shapes recently. She doesn’t limit herself. “I'm in the business of storytelling. I tell stories,” she says. She’s been working on presenting a documentary for Channel 4. Though different from directing a feature film, that’s still storytelling. She’s also working on an animated feature with Aardman - a departure from her usual live-action approach. The exuberant, warm-hearted musical will tell the story of Bodhi, a young Indian elephant from the jungles of Kerala with a dream to be a Bollywood dancer. She doesn’t see either of these departures as any less adventurous than working in short-form filmmaking for brands. “It's all about conveying messages, characters, ideas and emotions. So sometimes it's long form, sometimes it's shorter form, but it's all about connecting. And that's what advertising is.”
Looking over her filmography, Gurinder has been a crucial part of capturing British Asian experiences and giving them a place at the heart of mainstream culture. Advertising is talking a lot about representation these days, she notes, “but when it comes to women and women of colour, I wonder how open the industry actually is. I just take representation in my stride, but it is nice to see on screens.” She notices the small acts of diverse casting but points out that she often catches the same Indian actor across multiple ads. I always notice Sikhs in the back of an ad and there've been a lot more Sikh people in the crowds. That's good. There's a fantastic little Insta and Twitter page called 'Look! A Singh!'
They have a brilliant logo of a little turban and a man's eyes. And anytime you see a Sikh on TV, people take a snap of it and post it. It's great!”
She’ll happily talk about the joy of seeing more South Asian faces in ads. “I think that people are a bit timid around race, worried that things will offend,” she says. “But I would push that and say make it funny, take these characters and push them a bit”.
“Of late, I have seen so many ads with Black people in them, Asian, Chinese – I've seen a lot of on-screen representation, definitely. I wonder if more of those ads were being made or conceived by people of colour, who might be a bit bolder in using humour or wit –- I think they'd end up much more memorable.”
More representation doesn’t have to mean less fun. In fact, if it’s done in the way Gurinder’s films present a diverse cast of characters, surely it will be more fun. And although she’s got plenty of irons in the fire outside of branded work, she would consider more jobs than you might assume. “I've got to relate to the product,” she says. “I've got to see what the ad is trying to do. I would never do an ad with a sleek car and a girl draped all over it, for example.” But if she has the chance to shape culture through an ad, like the legendary Budweiser ‘Wassup’
, she’s on board. “One of the most influential ads,” she calls it. “Everyone still does that, picks up the phone and says it. You want to become part of the cultural vernacular with an ad. I would say that's something that I like the idea of. I make movies that last forever and want to do that with ads. Why not create a scenario or character that is memorable so that you remember it fondly? And the by-product is that you then look at the brand differently when you see it.”
Gurinder will wait for the perfect opportunity to do that for a brand. In the meantime she’ll be working on some huge parts of culture, from the Aardman musical project to TV presenting and the big action movie she’s working on for a streaming platform with Jeff Kirschenbaum, the producer of all the Fast and Furious movies. She’s loving the change from her usual pace on that one, using CG to create a cinematic experience: “I [usually] use CG to get out of trouble, when I want to get rid of things in period films or to extend crowds. So I'm excited about it, I think it's great. But again, you can do action movies till the cows come home, but if there isn't a strong emotional core, you don't have a movie.”