Almost two decades old, and Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham is still one of the most iconic films, exploring a plethora of social topics very much ahead of its time. And for me personally, it navigates through both British and the Indian and Sikh culture and lifestyle. Whilst the coming-of-age comedy’s focus is undeniably football, with a secondary plot of romance between Jess and her coach Joe; other subplots surrounding marriage, culture and navigating community integration resonate with the audience, even if the film itself does not explicitly mean to tackle and reflect upon these themes in a serious manner.
So much of this film is identifiable to Indian and Sikh communities, even if it seems almost a parody of itself. From calling anyone your family is vaguely familiar with, “aunty” and “uncle”, to the mother’s wish for her daughters to prepare roti and marry into a nice Indian family. Even the anglicisation of names, where protagonist Jesminder is known as "Jess".
The beauty of Bend it Like Beckham is that it is brimming with the internal juxtapositions of navigating living in a Sikh household, set against the apparent liberation outside the home which ironically is sought through secrecy. Even on a superficial level, the ground floor of the Bhamra house has pictures depicting religious symbolism when hidden away upstairs, Jess’ room is covered with pictures of her own idol, David Beckham.
As an English Literature undergraduate, I take great pride in over-analysing, however I do believe that Bend it Like Beckham consciously revolves around the word “bend” in more than the literal reference to Beckham’s technique of scoring free kicks. Whilst there is of course the moment where Jess is up against scoring a free kick for her team, the significance of it is so much deeper.
All the characters within the film have to bend in ways, whether this be in bending their own rules, hopes and aspirations or bending cultural expectations and practices. Crucially it is bending, not breaking, as a way of manoeuvring through life. If life and its expectations are characterised by a straight road, a certain path where one can see every big event from birth to death, then this film challenges this attitude which from personal experience is so prominent in Sikh and Indian households.
"When cultures seem at odds with each other it can feel lonely, and almost a betrayal to one’s parents, heritage and culture to pick and choose."
The hopes and expectations of Jess’ parents are challenged at every turn, and despite the almost caricature traits that I have mentioned, Chadha does not create an older generation that is the out-of-touch or unfeeling tyrants. Instead, there are moments of deep sympathy for the parental figures in an interesting scene of place reversal; the girls cook and wear traditional Indian dress in the kitchen, while Mum and Dad hold one another in Jess’ bedroom, surrounded by the glaring reminders of her inspiration which led her to sneak off out of the country to play football. It is a poignant scene, and whilst not emotionally raw, it humanises their position. Confused, they question why the materialistic goods that they had worked hard to buy for the girls – a car, a computer – are not enough. They do not challenge their expectations for their girls to follow cultural practice which for them, is unquestionable.
Whilst the juxtapositions begin so superficially, Chadha delicately demonstrates small moments of the two sides of Jess that she struggles to marry: practicing with a cabbage in the kitchen and kicking the ball around the clothes she is hanging out to dry. Chadha exemplifies in these two, seemingly insignificant, moments the abstract dilemma that is so hidden and unique to immigrant children in a succinct and empathetic manner.
By demonstrating Jess in so many traditional situations – especially in those in which she is uncomfortable, such as her sister’s wedding – alongside moments where she is able to express her biggest passion, Bend it Like Beckham is ambitious in depicting the creation and navigation of a hybrid identity which is both empowering and frustrating. When cultures seem at odds with each other it can feel lonely, and almost a betrayal to one’s parents, heritage and culture to pick and choose. But in absence of a firm and definable place that I naturally would slot into, very much like Jess, I had, and still have, the opportunity to create my own.
It is nothing short of a fluid identity that no doubt will change as the years go by. I see myself in much of Jess’ frustration at the expectation of her Sikh culture and Indian heritage. Notably, her desire to go to America to pursue football results in her friend Tony faking a marriage proposal on the terms that she should be able to go off to university to study before they marry to ensure she is able to go. Her frustrations are evident as she challenges this façade within minutes, highlighting the hypocrisy of needing the prospect of marriage to grant her any more freedom, despite it being very much part of her inherited culture.
Yet, whilst Jess rebels in the most recognisable ways (refusing to wear Indian clothes and getting out of her cooking duties) she is understanding of her parents – and eventually, they of her.
The slow but seismic shift in attitudes from young and old demonstrate how the film’s values run deep. For Jess, football is not merely a form of rebellion from her Indian culture, but she proves that it can be actively maintained and cherished in ways her parents would never have thought of.
*Featured Image: The Atlantic