[30 September 2003]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Gurinder Chadha: I have to admit I still listen to Wham.
Paul Mayeda Berges: That’s embarrassing.
Gurinder Chadha: It’s not embarrassing! Classics!
—Audio commentary, Bend It Like Beckham
It’s not every day a movie on DVD comes with instructions on how to make aloo gobi. But for Bend It Like Beckham writer-director Gurinder Chadha and her aunties (several of whom appear in the film as well), this feature is both clever and apt. On one level, the film is all about the mixing of ingredients, as sports, particularly a global phenomenon like football (or, soccer, as it’s called in the States) bring together cultures and generations. On another level, the film’s interest in aloo gobi is more literal, as Jesminder Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) is expected to learn to perform in the kitchen for her (future) husband, and forget all about her own passion and ambition, to play football like David Beckham.
The film is an energetically upbeat affair, which means that Jess’ ambition will eventually win out over her parents’ protests, and lead her to the U.S., where she earns a university scholarship and a chance to play football (or soccer, as it’s called in the States) professionally. As Chahda says on commentary track for Fox’s DVD, she was moved to make the film after going to the Women’s World Cup in 1999, at the Rose Bowl. “It was just this sense of power and achievement, to see all these girls, doing so well in a world that I had hitherto only seen as a man’s world. And that’s why I wanted to make this film… to have other people experience the joy that I experienced in watching these girls take these skills and put them out there in such a fantastic professional way.”
While the real life version of this experience is now endangered in the U.S., with WUSA funding collapsed and the game’s superstars looking for employment elsewhere in the world, Bend It Like Beckham looks on the sport with contagious enthusiasm.
Fox’s DVD includes 10 deleted or extended scenes; a music video with outtakes; and a “Making of” documentary, for which a narrator gushes that actors from across the globe “came together to paint Gurinder’s vision of multicultural Britain in the 21st century,” actor Anupam Kher says the film was “very cheekily written,” and participants recall the terrific time they had on set. For the commentary track, Chadha and co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges reminisce about the shoot and writing process with great joy: Chadha exults, “I love the trees in that shot, I love all the trees in this part!” or, when Berges, spotting Chadha’s cameo, jokes, “We saved a lot of money on extras with Gurinder and her family.”
Repeatedly, the makers’ exuberance matches the film’s. They’re enchanted by their soundtrack choices (by Mel C, Basement Jaxx, Malkit Singh, Bally Sagoo, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Victoria Beckham, among others, as well as a cover of Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady” by one of Chadha’s relatives [she notes they couldn’t afford the original]); as Chadha laughs, it’s like “having my own mixtape.” They also consider technical aspects (a camera that travels along the ground, using handlebars, showing the “ball’s point of view,” or even “someone’s foot’s point of view”), and Chadha’s desire that her actors “make the characters their own. It’s very important, as a director, that you give them their space, to bring themselves to the part.”
It’s not hard to imagine intersections between Nagra and Jess. The film opens on high school student Jess’ worship of David Beckham, as she dreams her way into a match by his side, and she plays so well that he congratulates her and sports reporters remark her brilliance. Her bedroom is a veritable shrine to the then Manchester United star (now, of course, he’s moved on to Real Madrid). 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.”
The British-born daughter of orthodox Sikh parents, she’s not doting on Becks for his good looks. She’s a footballer herself, and aspires to be like him. “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 formula and coincidence, it puts them to good use, toward 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 culture on its ear or star the Olsen twins, doing what they do. 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, even aside from their simultaneous crushes on their Irish-born coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). 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.
As Chadha observes on the commentary track, “I like the way we’ve dealt with the whole lesbian thing, you know, by not kind of focusing on it enormously in a kind of problematic way, but by taking the Mickey a little bit… I think by addressing it like this, with Juliet being concerned that her daughter’s a lesbian because she’s into football, which she sees as a man’s game, it’s a very good way of showing you how ridiculous the idea is. It’s not that football’s a man’s game and it’s very macho, it’s just that girls have decided to make you re-look at what being feminine is.” And Indian and British, white and brown and black, queer and straight. It’s all in the mix.