It’s hard to believe that it’s been 14 years since Bend It Like Beckham, the football comedy that introduced Parminda Nagra and Keira Knightley to an international audience, was released. Hitting the peak of David Beckham’s fame as a footballer with Manchester United, Bend It Like Beckham is a sweet, funny film about culture clashes, female friendship and a smart script that never talked down to its audience, mostly thanks to the brilliant writer and director Gurinder Chadha.
Bend It Like Beckham tells the story of two very different girls who are both obsessed with football. Jess (Parminder Nagra) is a teenage Sikh from London who is forbidden from playing football because she’s female and because her father has experienced prejudice in the past, and Jules (Keira Knightley) is a brash tomboy whose mother is disappointed in how little she enjoys ‘girly’ things. When Jules spots Jess playing football in a park, she recruits Jess into the local women’s football team, coached by Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). However, Jess’s parents still disapprove and, even as she proves herself a star player, she has to decide between duty and her dreams. Meanwhile, both Jules and Jess are interested in Joe, and their strong friendship is threatened by romantic rivalry. When the final clashes with Jess’s sister’s wedding, she is forced to choose.
There are rumours that Chadha’s original intention with Bend It Like Beckham was to have Jules and Jess get together at the end, but it was removed as too controversial. It’s easy to believe, as the chemistry between Nagra and Knightley is electrifying, and even without a romantic relationship, they portray a strong, supportive friendship that is pretty inspiring, especially when they strive to understand the cultural circumstances each of them has been brought up into. It is perhaps a shame that we never got to see the two of them in a different kind of relationship, but then again, one of the major stereotypes Jules faces is the assumption that she must be gay because she’s athletic and a tomboy. As it is, Chadha explores the challenges facing LGBTQ+ people in the Punjabi Sikh community through Jess’s secretly gay best friend Tony.
Even today, women’s sports teams are often seen as inferior to men’s and aren’t broadcast anywhere near as widely in the media. With the rise of female-dominated sports like Roller Derby, this is slowly changing, but a lot of the same stereotypes remain. Jess and Jules might have had a much easier time convincing their families and friends that they should be allowed to play if they could have cited a female football star alongside David Beckham.
Bend It Like Beckham takes on a lot of big issues – cultural differences and integration, gender politics and LGBTQ+ issues – but it always does it with a charming smile and wonderfully-observed characters. Chadha has proven herself an expert at creating stories about culture clashes starring female characters who refuse to be defined by other people – Bhaji on the Beach, Bride and Prejudice and Mistress of Spices. Bend It Like Beckham is all of that and more, with great performances, a diverse cast and social commentary wrapped up in snappy lines and heartwarming friendship.
Find Bend It Like Beckham in the DVD LOBBY at 791.43.
If you liked this…
Try Anita and Me by Meera Syal (BOOK ZONE 823.91), another example of a funny and touching comedy about a friendship between characters from different cultural backgrounds. Meena is an aspiring writer who’s keenly aware of how much easier things are for white writers and forms a friendship with an outspoken girl called Anita. Their friendship is put to the test when Anita starts going out with someone who is racist, though.
Check out more of Chadha’s work in Bhaji On the Beach (DVD LOBBY 791.43), in which a group of Punjabi women of different ages come together for a celebration in Blackpool. Inter-generational tensions cause conflict, and Chadha follows each of the women’s stories with humour and compassion as they encounter events that will change their lives.
Pick up Pride and Penalties by Chris Higgins (QUICK READS 823.91), about a teenage girl who wants to play rugby more than anything but is overshadowed by her sports star brother. Secrets abound in this light-hearted and amusing novel in the same vein as Bend It Like Beckham.
U.S. Embassy London (2013) Chadha at International Women’s Day 2013. [photograph] Accessible at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGurinder_Chadha_2013.jpg (Accessed on: 26/05/16)