Ever since the smash hit The Full Monty burst onto the scene in 1997, British cinema cemented its reputation as the go-to place for feel-good but still substantial films, which still deal with real-life issues with sensitivity and wit. Bend It Like Beckham is a true gem of British cinema, and continues in this grand tradition of thought-provoking films with heart.
The film follows Jess Bhamra, a young British-Punjabi woman, played by Parminder Nagra, who discovers women’s soccer and decides to try and go pro, overcoming her parents’ concerns and growing up a little on the way there. As well as depicting life in suburban London in a very realistic way, the film also explores the then little-known world of professional women’s soccer. It’s funny and charming, and very much worth a watch.
A Surprise Hit Turned Cult Classic
While playing soccer in her local park, Jess meets Jules, played by Keira Knightly, who tries to persuade her Jess try out for the local women’s soccer team. Though she has little trouble getting in, staying on the team and telling her parents about it proves more difficult. The film follows Jess as she tries to balance the demands of family life and the expectations of her strict parents with being a young woman who wants to experience life to the fully.
There are some lovely moments, most notably when Jess escapes the house to meet Jules and buy her own soccer cleats. She runs down the street in excitement to Curtis Mayfield’s Move on Up, and we feel it too. The film opened in 2002 in the UK and 2003 in the US. With an estimated budget of £3,500,159, it took less than that in its opening weekend, but has since become a cult classic. The film launched the careers of both lead actresses, with Keira Knightly going on to star in Pirates of the Caribbean, and Parminder Nagra working on Shakespeare for Channel 4 and appearing regularly on ER. The film also features famous Indian actor and producer Anupam Kher, and British-Asian actor Archie Panjabi, best known for her role in The Good Wife.
The Exciting World of Women’s Soccer
As well as the geographical setting, which shows refreshingly non-clichéd images of London – much in the way that Guy Richie also does – the film is also set within the world of women’s soccer. Though Jess and Jules aren’t pros, they do play matches in a league, travel to play other teams and are very serious about the game. In the film, Jules wears number 9 when she plays with the Hounslow Harriers. This is a reference to Mia Hamm, one of the most famous Women’s World Cup players. Though her name might not be that familiar, the visibility of international women’s leagues has increased hugely since 2002.
With increased visibility comes a whole range of initiatives to bring new players to the profession. According to a recent US survey, 60% of parents see investment in young women’s soccer as a way to gain university scholarships. This is the path Jess and Jules want to take. What we don’t see in the film, are recent developments in social media that help to promote the game even further. A great example of this is Ronaldo Nazario’s and Neymar Jr’s #raiseit social media campaign, which encourages both women and men to post videos of their soccer/football skills online. Like in the poker move of raising an opponent’s bet, they have to “raise” or outdo the tricks on other videos they watch, created both by professionals and amateurs. In fact, in the US, where we all know that soccer is not as popular as in the Old Continent, it has been growing steadily and according to official TV viewing figures, the Women’s World Cup finals managed to beat the NBA finals in terms of viewership in the US and also reached 750 million viewers globally, says FIFA.
Families and Relationships
Gurinder Chadha has said that Bend It Like Beckham is about showing young women that they don’t have to conform to what’s expected of them. The film does investigate this aspect of the lives of both Jules and Jess. Chadha, and her co-writers Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges look carefully at intergenerational conflict, while infusing the whole thing with wit and real emotion. And there is a lot of comedy, some fantastically silly. Jules’ mother, played by Juliet Lewis, is desperate for her daughter to be more “feminine” – cue hilarious trip to a lingerie store. But behind the silliness we can see the anxiety of a mother who is unsure about her daughter’s future, and is not afraid to step into an unfamiliar world to give her what she considers chances at a better future.
The beauty of the script is that it seems to be on the side of both the young women and their parents, showing the difficulties in relationships and discovering your identity, irrespective of the culture you find yourself in. Though it’s not the main focus, the film does address even more serious social issues, as Jess’ father recounts how he was not allowed to join his local cricket team when he first moved to London, and his treatment by colleagues at work. This gives his anxieties about Jess’ future a real basis, and brings the whole group’s lives, loves and concerns into sharper focus.
The title of the film refers to bending a ball, or kicking it into the net in a curving trajectory, but director and screenwriter Gurinder Chadha has likened this action to the way women often have to bend the rules to achieve what they want. This relates to Jess’ trajectory, from an ambitious young woman from a London Sikh family to… well, let’s not spoil the end. The film itself has had a life beyond the screen. It’s been turned into a musical, and the film itself was nominated for a Best British Film BAFTA in 2003. It also had the honour of being the first Western film to shown on TV in North Korea in 2010. Bend It Like Beckham achieves what the best British films so often do – it charms you into thinking carefully about relationships, about peoples’ lives, and leaves you grinning from ear to ear.