I wondered whether Gurinder Chadha was making a statement or trying to be ironic when she wanted to meet in a posh curry-house above the Soho Theatre, in central London. It was a bit too much like her films: British-Asian fusion, with a load of actors. This, after all, is the British director who has established herself as a major purveyor of Asian life in the West.
Yet, important though the racial theme is in Chadha's films, it's the gender of the main protagonist in the trend, and the director's status as a commercially successful British director, that set her works apart. In Bhaji on the Beach, a bus-load of Asian women on a day trip to Blackpool challenge the stereotype of the subservient veiled Asian woman. What's Cooking? is set in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving, around the traditionally female domain of the dinner table. And, audaciously, the director has a girl dreaming of a career as a footballer in the international box-office smash hit Bend It Like Beckham.
Her latest film, Bride and Prejudice, is her most ambitious to date. Chadha has taken Jane Austen's quintessentially English novel and fuelled it with Bollywood kitsch, transplanting the romance (with Fitzwilliam Darcy becoming plain Will Darcy) from 1790s England to 2004 India. Although Bride contains many of the clichés of the Hindi cinematic diaspora - most notably, the protagonists burst into song and dance at the drop of a turban - the histrionics and over-dramatisation of Bollywood have been replaced by a more subdued Western acting sensibility.
The director, recovering from an energy-zapping illness brought on by stress, orders a hot water with lemon and explains why she approached Jane Austen with a bhangra beat: "The whole film is an experiment. We talk about a British Asian, British Punjabi, Indo-Brit, East and West, multicultural, whatever - everyone talks about these terms, but the film is a very detailed analysis of what that actually means. It is a discourse played out in terms of cinema language."
Cinematically, the re-creation of the British Asian experience had its pivotal moment in 1985 with the Hanif Kureishi-scripted My Beautiful Laundrette. Henceforth, the Asian rather than the Afro-Caribbean experience became the major race story in British film. The clash over religion, marriage and cultural heritage is fertile ground for the Romeo and Juliet forbidden-love story that has appeared in some form in My Son the Fanatic, East is East, Bend It Like Beckham and lately Ae Fond Kiss. These movies inevitably end with an Asian character falling into the arms of a white English counterpart: they seem designed as much with an eye to not alienating potential audiences than showing the Asian second-generation experience.
Motivated by Chadha rolling her eyes despairingly at the mention of Ken Loach's Ae Fond Kiss, I put it to the director that essentially the British Asian experience on film has usually been told in a one-dimensional way - and that she herself has at times been guilty of that.
Chadha counters with energetic fervour: "I really detest this notion of all Asian films being the same experience, because they are all very different. Hanif Kureishi's films are very different from where I come from; they might have brown people in them, but his perception of the community and his experience of them is vastly different from mine.
"He has a very disenfranchised view of his Indian-ness and his Asian-ness, because he has not lived it the same way as me. I'm very different from Hanif's middle-class literary Pakistani father, English mother; very different from the experience of Ayub Khan Din [East is East] up north. I don't think there is a film made in England that shows the same experience that I have, but I can say that to you - and cannot always say that to white people because they don't recognise the differences."
Our conversation has become like banter between friends who respect each other's points without always fully agreeing with them. It is difficult not to like Chadha, whose views are like her films: insightful, mildly provocative and conveyed with a light-hearted gentleness. She says: "I went to see East is East, and I was laughing away until the whole arranged-marriage thing started happening. There were a couple of English girls in front of me, and one of them said, 'That is really disgusting what they do. They force them to marry these really backward ugly girls; it's disgusting.'
"As soon as I heard that my whole world came crashing down, because I was filtering all that stuff about what white people would think of it, and as soon as that woman said that in front of me, then suddenly the whole movie just took on a different tone for me, and then I thought, 'Oh no, this is 10 steps backwards.'"
The Kenyan-born director, who was brought up in Southall, Middlesex and watched the films of Yash Chopra, Raj Kapoor and Manoj Kumar, does not want to offend any traditions. "I did not want to take the piss out of Bollywood, it is far too easy to do that. There are plenty of examples of that happening, and the fact is that there is a lot wrong with these films. They are formulaic, and a lot of them are absolute crap, but then so are Hollywood films."
Bollywood's unprecedented success from the late 1990s, which saw films open in the West End and reach the top five of Britain's weekly box-office charts, was followed by several desultory attempts to capitalise on the fad. Chadha looks aghast at mention of The Guru, Bollywood/ Hollywood and Bollywood Queen, and then says: "I don't think that they did justice to the Hindi cinema that I grew up with, or the British Asian stories that I understand, the realities of the stories that I understand. They were not textured in the way that I would like them to be. The same is true of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Bombay Dreams."
An awareness of the sensibilities of her audience, and of world politics, influenced several important decisions in the making of Bride and Prejudice. "I did not want Darcy to be English, because of the connotations of the Raj and also because of Colin Firth and his performance in the BBC television adaptation. I did not want to put that pressure on a British actor. Also, because of the Iraq war, it was good for me to make him American, as Americans feel like they rule the world."
Chadha quickly adds: "Or that, at least, is what Darcy thinks in the film. In the novel, the conflict between them is that Darcy is upper class and she is middle class, and I changed it to him being from America, the supposedly civilised world, and she is from India, part of the supposedly uncivilised developing world."
The analogy met with the approval of the Jane Austen Society when the film was screened at the annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath. Chadha introduced the film by reminding the audience that it was "inspired by" the novel rather than an adaptation. Still, she was not surprised when literary fans said that she had really captured Austen's world. "Growing up, Pride and Prejudice was my favourite book, and it seemed to me that Jane Austen, like David Beckham, was an English icon who was ripe for subversion. Once I had set up the idea that the Bennets would become the Bakshis from Amritsar, it was easy to adapt the novel.
"I knew Amritsar, which is like Hicksville, India, because I spent time there as a student. I stayed with a family that had lots of daughters, so I knew the politics of the family from the region. Jane Austen's world completely fitted Amritsar. Amritsar 2004 is the same as 1790s Longbourn, Hertfordshire."
With the Indian location settled on, Chadha began finding parallels between the class divisions of Austen and the cultural divisions of India, which are fuelled not just by caste differences, but by the globalisation caused by air travel and the comings and goings of the so-called non-resident Indians (NRIs). "Darcy would be a rich hotelier from LA, and his best friend Bingley a British Indian. They would meet at weddings rather than dancing halls. The characters and the themes adapted so perfectly to contemporary India. A hysterical mother with four daughters to marry off? Who couldn't relate to that? The more I worked on the screenplay, the more convinced I was that Jane Austen was Indian in a previous life."
Jane Austen's Bollywood credentials have not gone unnoticed by others. In 2000, Rajiv Menon directed an adapt- ation of Sense and Sensibility titled * * Kandukondain Kandukondain. Like Bride and Prejudice, the adaptation places Austen's text into contemporary India and follows the exploits of two sisters forced from their family home after the death of their father by their stepbrother and sister-in-law. In the big city, the two sisters find jobs to support their mother and youngest daughter. They have numerous romantic trysts before eventually finding love and happiness.
Put this way, Austen sounds like she was the lost grandmother of Bollywood. Kandukondain is memorable mainly for the music of AR Rehman, the Indian composer of the musical Bombay Dreams. Yet, as well as the English author who inspired the story, there is another link between Menon's and Chadha's films - they both star the former Miss World and Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai. The actress, who sat on the jury with Quentin Tarantino at this year's Cannes Film Festival, was described by Julia Roberts as "the most beautiful woman in the world".
Finding a balance that took into consideration the different cinematic cultures of Bollywood and Hollywood proved a far tougher task than the updating of Austen's world to India. "Every element has to be a choice between how Eastern to make it and how Western it is," the director says. "Making choices was like being the captain of a ship, and it wasn't easy. If I was going to be true to both, I needed to take all the mavericks of Bollywood, as well as our cinema, and bring them together."
The genre might have taken a different direction if Chadha had succeeded in her first attempt at making a Bollywood film, in 1996. After the critical success of Bhaji on the Beach, she was approached by the Bollywood acting legend Sunny Deol to write and direct a starring vehicle for him that would mix their styles. They got as far as shooting four weeks of footage before the actor and director's differing sensibilities - and arguments - led to the plug being pulled.
That was a depressing time for Chadha. She was getting calls from Hollywood, but says: "I was too inexperienced. I did not understand the system. When someone says, 'You're brilliant, we want you, do anything,' that means, 'How can you make us money?' I'd been set up for a fall - first film is a classic, second is a disaster. That's if you can get it made."
As she directed spots for Gaytime TV to pay her rent, she came close to quitting film-making altogether. The obvious career move would have been to go back to her former job as a journalist; she learnt about film-making working for the BBC. "To this day, I consider myself a journalist before a film-maker. I used to spend all night cutting five-, six- or seven-minute packages, cutting different voices and different music, and building stories for the breakfast show. When I make films today, I apply the same principles of journalism. I always end up telling stories that have both points of view, because that is the BBC's balanced-view type of thing."
The turning point came when she met her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, a Japanese American based in Los Angeles, and they started working together on the What's Cooking? screenplay. That film, the director says, stemmed from her experience of LA, which was not the Hollywood excess of lore, but the realisation that LA wasn't the great multicultural melting point she had taken it for. Completing her second film gave the couple sufficient leverage to write Bend It Like Beckham, for which Chadha returned to her west-London roots.
The England footballer's recent travails have not gone unnoticed by Chadha. "I must admit, when all that was unravelling, I was very pleased the film had already come out on DVD. I was lucky, because originally I had a scene where the mother finds a silver lining in her daughter's hero-worship of David and says, 'Well, at least he's a good husband and father.' There were a few headlines inspired by the film. 'Bed It Like Beckham' is one I remember. Poor David."
The success of Beckham brought Chadha to the attention of the Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein, who backed Bride and Prejudice. Chadha sees the film chief as the loveable Punjabi uncle you'd see dancing at weddings, with his paunch sticking out of his shalwar kameez. As if she is trying to illustrate this point, Chadha has included an out-take of the Miramax boss in the end credits.
Weinstein has the nickname of "Scissorhands" because of his penchant for cutting pictures, and the last-minute need to re-edit Bride has indeed contributed to Chadha's illness. This time, though, Weinstein is innocent. "I've had to cut two versions, one for India and one for the West. Things that are right for us in the East are not necessarily right for us in the West. An example is Darcy singing: in the West people laughed at it, whereas in test screenings in India, the audience thought, 'That's great, he's one of us now.' So Darcy does not sing in the version here." A good thing too, as the British version is now much better, with some of the more excessive Bollywood kitsch elements toned down.
Chadha is pleased that her status as Britain's leading female director secured her next project, a big-budget, all-singing Hollywood modernisation of the classic TV show I Dream of Jeannie. Genuinely excited at the prospect of working in the Hollywood system and moving away from race themes, she says the film will tell the back story of a female warrior forced to become a genie when she refuses to be married to a king in Arabia. Despite her protestations, Chadha is Indian at heart, and she just can't help having arranged marriages in her movies.