“Savour the NFT”: Gurinder Chadha on watching and shooting films at her favourite cinema

The director of Bend It like Beckham and Blinded by the Light reveals the pivotal role the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) played in her film education.

BFI SouthbankLucinda Rogers

▶ Gurinder Chadha will be introducing Car Wash at the BFI Southbank on Friday 21 May.

In Southall, where I grew up, there is a cinema that used to be called the Liberty.

Gurinder Chadha

My first memory of the cinema is being in there with my father when I was a baby. He absolutely loved the cinema; in Kenya he used to bunk off school and work to go. I remember Song of the South (1946) was on and I started crying because I was scared, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. He scooped me up so I was sitting in his arms and we walked to the front of the cinema. Then he tapped the screen to show me that it wasn’t real.

I remember seeing Tokyo Story (1953) at the National Film Theatre (NFT), which remains one of my favourite films. It was when I started getting interested in cinema. I sat there thinking, “There’s no way I would ever get to see this film in a local cinema,” and appreciating that I had just seen a masterpiece.

I wanted to make films that would appeal to as many people as possible to create change, and I was completely and utterly motivated by racism and prejudice.

During that time, I made a very clear distinction that I wanted to make commercial films that would appeal to as many people as possible, but show the world from my perspective. I wanted to make films that the characters who were in the film would be able to enjoy, as opposed to feel like they have to work hard to enjoy them. I wanted to make films that would appeal to as many people as possible to create change, and I was completely and utterly motivated by racism and prejudice. What was important about Tokyo Story was realising that even though I didn’t know anything about these people, I didn’t know Japanese people, I found it to have an Indian sensibility and I completely related to the characters.

With my friends I would just say on a Sunday, “Let’s just go to the NFT and see whatever’s on.” Because you knew whatever you saw was going to be worth it. It was a very important part of my film culture, and my development and understanding of global cinema, and film aesthetics.

Bride and Prejudice (2004)

I shot a scene for Bride & Prejudice (2004) in NFT1: somebody’s watching a movie and then a fight breaks out. I chose the NFT because it represents British cinema, it represents everything that I aspired to as a filmmaker of colour on the margin at that time, although now I consider myself mainstream. It always felt like the NFT represented something bigger than the sum of its parts. And it’s done a really good job of late of getting more and more different audiences in.

One of my favourite times was when I took my kids to see Bugsy Malone (1976), with Alan Parker talking afterwards. That’s the beauty of the place, that you can watch the film and then hear people talking. The way the cinema is laid out, there’s not a bum seat in the room and it is quite intimate for conversations.

Now more than ever, the role of the NFT is critical. I champion it for allowing people to still be able to see quality cinema. When it’s on at the cinema, it’s a whole different experience. You get into the world of the director, the actors, and you enjoy it on a different level. It’s an event. Savour the NFT. I grew up with that, and I hope other people get to appreciate it.

  • Gurinder Chadha was talking to Pamela Hutchinson.

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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