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Bend It Like Beckham

Director: Gurinder Chadha
Cast: Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Anupam Kher, Archie Kher, Shaheen Khan, Ameet Chana

(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 31 Dec 1969; 2002)

What Your Parents Don't Know

Jesminder Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) loves David Beckham. Her bedroom is a veritable shrine to the Manchester United star. As she gazes up at her wall, she can focus on any one of a number of Beck pix—posing in action or at ease, the fashionably appointed husband of Posh Spice, or, as Jess’ mother describes him, “this skinhead boy.”


But Jess, the British-born daughter of orthodox Sikh parents, is not just doting on Becks for his good looks. Rather, she’s a footballer herself, and admires his athletic skills in particular. “Nobody can bend it like Beckham,” she beams, referring to his extraordinary ability to warp space in order to get the ball to the goal. She takes every opportunity she can to play, usually in the park near her home in a London suburb, away from her parents’ watchful gaze. They have other plans for her, that she’ll complete school, learn to prepare a full Punjabi dinner, and marry a proper Indian suitor.


This is the plan already in place for Jess’ older sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi), who is engaged to marry within weeks. Pinky, however, is also not adhering exactly to parental expectations and drawing from her immediate environment. And, she has her own secret: she and her beau have been enjoying habitual, if rushed, trysts in his car. The sisters agree not to tell on one another; it’s not a crisis they spend much time discussing, but a routine practice, a way to get along in a world where expectations and desires invariably conflict. They’ve grown up crossing cultural borders on a daily basis, and see such negotiations—and deceits—as nothing special. Their parents can’t understand, being from another time and place. And so, they take to heart the advice offered by Jess’ best friend Tony (Ameet Chana): “What your parents don’t know won’t hurt them.”


If Jess and Pinky take such code-switching for granted, their father (Anupam Kher) has different perspective. Well intentioned and generous, he’s most often left to bridge the gaps between his daughters and their more traditionally minded mother (Shaheen Khan), massaging all anxieties so everyone feels attended. He frames his concern with Jess’ ambitions by his own experience as a young and eager footballer arriving in England, by way of Uganda, with his wife. When he attempted to play on a white team, they harassed him with racist comments. Since then, he’s kept to his own community, appreciating his daughters’ next-generational sense of freedom and prerogative, but hardly imagining it for himself. For her part, Jess’ mother doesn’t want her exposing her legs “to complete strangers.”


Lucky as well as resourceful, Jess does, of course, find a way to play, for the Hounslow Harriers, the girls’ auxiliary of a local football club. In the locker room, she finds herself schooling the white girls on what it means to be her: “Indian girls aren’t supposed to play football,” she explains. “That’s a bit backwards,” observes one of her teammates. Jess knows exactly what it is: “It’s just culture, that’s all.”


Jess’ navigations of “culture” take up most of the film’s energy (along with some jaunty football game montages). Bend It Like Beckham takes Jess’ perspective seriously, treating her as a girl with a complicated experience, understandable ambitions, and messy emotional responses to restrictions that will be familiar, in various ways, to viewers her age as well as those who remember what it was like to be that age. While the film includes some standard issue contrivances and coincidences, it also puts them to good use, an investigation of the ways that expectations and assumptions shape experiences, particularly, girls’ experiences.


Such representations of girls are, in fact, not so standard: too many recent cross-cultural girl movies—the ones with worldwide distribution—feature vivacious Yanks setting the staid British or Euro culture on its ear (see Princess Diaries or the upcoming What a Girl Wants) or star the Olsen twins, doing what they do. Writer-director Gurinder Chadha grants her girl characters complexity and self-understanding (at the same time, the adults in Bend It Like Beckham are more broadly, less persuasively drawn).


While Jess’s interactions with Pinky reveal a specific sisterly pattern of conflict and conciliation, the primary means to get at Jess’ evolving consciousness is her friendship with Harriers teammate Jules (Keira Knightley). The girls have lots in common: Jules also has parent issues: her earthy father (Frank Harper) loves to kick the ball around with her in the backyard, but her fidgety mother (Juliet Stevenson) frets that such activities are unladylike. And, like Jess, Jules looks forward to a future that includes football: Jules hopes to make it to university in the States, on a soccer scholarship; her bedroom walls are plastered with pictures of Mia Hamm.


The girls develop a fast friendship, through which the film explores the differences in their respective backgrounds, and most deftly, the ways they navigate their parents’ rather typical fears—of other cultures and changing times. Several crises emerge when Pinky’s future in-laws spot Jess and Jules on a street corner, displaying more affection publicly than is seemly: the wedding is called off, Jules’ mom fears she’s a baby lesbian, and Jess’ parents (believing short-haired Jules is male), think Jess is intimate with a white boy. Another issue arises concerning Jess’ actual affection for a white boy, the Harriers’ adorably sensitive, Irish-born coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).


All of these conflicts come to a head in a colorful finale that crosscuts between a final football match and Pinky’s traditional wedding. The cultures continue to clash, but in ways that are increasingly responsive to one another.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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