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Before 'Bend It Like Beckham,' Its Director Made This LA Thanksgiving Movie

Tension at a family meal in What's Cooking?
(Courtesy of Warner Bros.)
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The 2000 Thanksgiving dramedy What's Cooking? flew under the radar, making $1.6 million worldwide. What's Cooking (not to be confused with this PBS segment with cooking anthropomorphic lions) tells a distinctly L.A. Thanksgiving story, set in the Fairfax district — the scene is set with shots of local landmarks, from Canter's Deli to the Farmers Market.

The movie follows families with different traditions for celebrating the holiday — Jewish, Latino, African American, and Vietnamese American — but it was directed by a Brit.

"Most people don't realize that I directed it, because it's so American," said director Gurinder Chadha.

Chadha, who would go on to direct movies like Bend It Like Beckham and the Bruce Springsteen-through-the-eyes-of-the-British-working-class film Blinded By The Light, was inspired when she came to Los Angeles with her L.A. native husband.

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"I was seeing all kinds of people in the real city that I didn't see on the cinema screen," Chadha said.

A still from a family dinner scene in "What's Cooking?"
(Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

At the time she came up with the idea for What's Cooking, she was being offered a wide variety of projects — but she was feeling unsure about what she was being offered.

"I said, 'Well, look. If they want me to make a film in America, let me make a film that I can relate to, that I see,'" Chadha said.

She described it as a very British look at Los Angeles. Early on, the movie is driven by conflict over the small conversations that make up a holiday gathering. The Indian English director found the city to be incredibly diverse.

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"I mean, I kept looking at the Mexican American community, kept thinking they were Indian — and realized that Columbus made the same mistake," Chadha said.

Like Blinded By the Light, she co-wrote What's Cooking with her husband Paul, putting their own experiences into the story. A big part of that came from her L.A. in-laws and the three Thanksgivings they would celebrate each year.

"We had a very posh kind of Thanksgiving with my husband's dad, which was always a Martha Stewart kind of affair," Chadha said. "And then down at Paul's Japanese American side of his family, they'd have a big old Turkey and all the traditional trimmings, but also sushi. And then Paul's mum, who was a principal and teacher all her life, her and all her friends would have their own Thanksgiving, where everyone did a kind of potluck."

Those experiences showed Chadha how important the holiday tradition was, even though it wasn't something from her own culture. She wanted to show the city in the way she perceived it when she first arrived here.

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A poster for What's Cooking?
(Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

The movie ranges from comedy over a father explaining the merits and dangers of a hot tub, to dramatic moments around a gun found under a brother's bed. But the family relationships tie it all together, along with a moment that brings the neighborhood families together.

Chadha sees threads that extended from What's Cooking all the way through to Blinded By The Light.

"I think all my movies, really, are about putting out there people that you don't normally see on the screen," Chadha said. "And doing it in a way that is very open, and affectionate, and subverting the stereotype."

She loves telling stories viewed through culture, with different generations having different values, who have to work things out, Chadha said. What's Cooking was one of her most ambitious projects, with 25 different characters in an intimate family film.

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"That was tough, but we did get through an awful lot of turkey — so my husband was very happy about that," Chadha said.

Actress Alfre Woodard, left, points to director Gurinder Chadha, center, and fellow actress Julianna Margulies at the premiere of their film What's Cooking? at the Sundance Film Festival.
(Douglas C. Pizac/AP)

The film has a deep cast, with actors you know from numerous other projects, from Alfre Woodard to Julianna Margulies. Chadha credited an agent they worked with who represented the four female leads, so when the opportunity for them to work together came along, that agent helped put it together.

Chadha had wanted to use the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" at the end of the movie to add to the SoCal vibe and put a bow on everything — but with the film's small budget, she was told that would be impossible. So she was advised to write to Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson directly.

"I wrote a letter about who I am, and what I was trying to show with my movie — the diversity of what L.A. is, as I see it, but all within this special family holiday, and how s--- happens in all families," Chadha said.

She sent it by fax, not expecting to hear much — but got a response almost immediately.

"And the word was that Brian says he loves the idea — go for it," Chadha said. "So we got the Beach Boys track at very competitive rates."

Chadha plans to keep exploring different ways of telling these diverse stories, varying up the genre while keeping some of the same themes throughout.

Along with What's Cooking, she thinks you should watch Blinded By The Light for Thanksgiving, too.

"It's actually a great film to watch on Thanksgiving, because it is all about forgiveness and giving thanks for what you have," Chadha said. "He says 'nobody wins, unless we all win,' and what a great statement, I think."

What's Cooking? is available on DVD and digital, and you can currently stream it on Tubi for free, as well as Vudu and IMDb TV. Blinded By the Light is available on DVD and digital now.

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