Provost's Film Series
November 14, 2003
Loss and Inspiration
A word-of-mouth hit in England, Bend It Like Beckham had its origins on a bleak day in 1996, shortly after a weak penalty kick eliminated England from the European Cup. "I came out of the pub and there were grown men sitting on the pavements crying," director Gurinder Chadha recalls. "I thought, wow, wouldn't it be great to take this big, male testosterone-filled world that grabbed the nation and put an Indian girl at the heart of it?" By 1999, when the Rose Bowl was filled with young men and women excited about watching Mia Hamm and her American teammates play in the finals of the Women's World Cup, Chadha knew there was an audience ready for a "girl power" film about the world's most popular sport.
On one level, Bend It Like Beckham can be described as a conventional culture-clash story about an immigrant family trying to cling to their traditional ways, even as their children rush to assimilate in the new society. The main character, Jessminder Bjamra ("Jess"), struggles to sustain her dream of playing soccer for England while her parents endeavor to hold her to the traditional expectations of their Punjabi Indian culture. The film follows the comic formulas of an older generation at odds with the quest for self-discovery in the young, and as usual the story tips its hat to teenage feistiness and independence. After all, David Beckham, the star midfielder from Manchester United (since traded to FC Barcelona), is famous not only for bending a soccer ball around the defense's wall, but also for bending a few social proprieties. And in some respects, it is his wife Victoria ("Posh Spice") who is the spirit of this story. Director Chadha cited the Spice Girls' buoyant, "in-your-face" femininity as an inspiration.
In another respect, the familiar immigrant tale and coming-of-age formula take some new twists. "What I wanted to show," Chadha observes, "was that the diasporic culture, of a second and third generation, is increasingly a predominant culture." That second-and-third-generation theme has already been explored with considerable subtlety by many Indian-American writers, notably Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies. Chadha’s film is also a tale about globalization. This is not simply a story about England and India—eventually an Irish coach (and love interest), a German dance club, and an American Catholic university figure into the mix. Jess's parents are Sikh refugees from Uganda, right next to Kenya, where the director was born. Far more than the lure of British culture, what challenges the parents' values is the highly-commercialized, international youth culture. And soccer, the world's best marketed game, provides the right entry card to global citizenship, even as futbol on the pitch can still be defined by regional, tribal and national loyalties.
Layers and Values
Viewers debate whether the film simply rehearses old conventions or whether it brings to the familiar coming-of-age fairy-tale new layers of significance about the lives of women and modern youth. Racial slurs on the playing field, fears of homosexuality in the locker room, and tensions between athletic commitment and college education set the story apart from the usual sports flick. It is easy to root for Jess, a free-spirited, energetic but loving daughter as she strives to find her place and triumph over the odds. At the same time, it is interesting to reflect on what values in this sports parable finally do triumph.
Those values do intimate something about the virtues and possibilities for the young in a global economy and interconnected world. The film clearly takes aim at racism in multicultural London. One mother repeatedly refers to Jess by her Indian name, Jessminder, as if she can avoid admitting that this is a British young woman raised in West London society. But is something else lost in the film's idealization of compromise, evident in the East-West dance hybrids as well as the father's slow realization that preserving family tradition requires some concessions to new culture and youthful dreams? Does religious conviction simply become part of the "color" of one's culture, an aesthetic feature of an older world, less relevant in the second and third generations? Or can it chart one's way in an increasingly multicultural world? Bend It Like Beckham is an irresistible crowd-pleaser, and in that respect it may be easy to dismiss it for not probing deeply into sociological questions. But that very mainstream appeal also invites us to consider what ideals the film’s growing audiences stand up and cheer for. There may be a tale about globalization right there.
After a few early years in Kenya, Gurinder Chadha was raised in the London region of Southall, where much of the film was shot. She worked for several years as a radio reporter for the BBC, directed a few documentaries, and formed her own film company in 1990. Beckham is her third feature film, following Bhaji on the Beach (1993) and What's Cooking (2000). The latter film, which depicts the intersecting lives of African-Americans, Latinos, Jews and Vietnamese in the United States preparing for a Thanksgiving dinner, explores some of the multigenerational and multicultural themes that would come to fore in Beckham. In addition to directing, she wrote the script with her husband Paul Mayeda Berges and Gulit Bindra. Chadha is venturing further into the issues of cultural fusion with her next project, an adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for a setting in northern India.