I remember my pre-teen self comfortably lounging on my uncle’s futon in Dubai, along with my mother and sister as he popped in a pirated DVD of Bend It Like Beckham (BLB) after the movie had come out. With no idea of what the film was about, both my sister and I were basically just looking forward to watching David Beckham. This was the time when the Beckham craze was perhaps at its peak; the time when he still adorned his infamous devil red number 7 jersey.
I’d go on to see that film 12 times in the span of two weeks because of my sister, and even purchase the music CD’s (for some reason), more for the dialogues that were interspersed between each song.
Gurinder Chadha’s film took everyone by surprise. Filmed on a relatively small budget, it earned over $76.5 million against its $6 million budget. But what was it about this film that resonated with my sister, and countless other people across the world and continues to hold its iconic position today?
“My film is about bending the rules to get what you want instead of breaking the rules.” – Gurinder Chadha
The beauty of Chadha’s film was that it charted out more than just the tale of Punjabi-Sikh immigrant Jesminder (Jess). Her devotion to the game and Beckham took her on a quest to become a professional footballer, often finding it at heads with her inherited culture, traditions and religion. Jess’ relatability lay in the balance of her heritage and parents, with her own search for an identity – on and off the football field – as the child of immigrants. Throw in some catchy tunes, nosey aunties, a wedding and you’ve got a pretty stellar representation of the Indian diaspora.
Even today in 2018, such a film would be rare – a female-driven film with a football-playing woman of colour, written and directed by a woman of colour. BLB was a trailblazer in inclusivity and diversity, way ahead of its time – a sports film with a cultural twist that addresses traditional gender roles, women in professions and industries that are dominated by men and patriarchy. These aspects make the film even more relevant in today’s age when these conversations have been brought to the forefront at a macro level.
If BLB was made and released in this age of cinema it would be a lauded simply for meeting multiple requirements of being a true ‘girl power’ movie (for lack of a better word). Although the director herself doesn’t feel that such a film would even be made today. “I personally don’t think Bend it like Beckham would get made in today’s climate in the film industry. I think it would be seen as a maverick, isolated film [with] no reason for prequels, sequels or all the rest of it,” she said in an interview with Screen Daily. She added, “When you say it’s about a kid of colour in a situation, people immediately say: ‘Oh, it’s someone of colour, it’s not universal’. It immediately becomes ghettoised, niche and people perceive that people around the world won’t want to see it.”
Returning home all those years ago, having watched the film and pumped up to give football a shot ourselves, my sister and I joined the team in our school. As did a number of other girls who it seemed had just been through the same movie watching-inspirational experience. While we failed at pulling off the same moves as Jess (not for a lack of trying), looking back now, it was that inspiration, the feeling that we could too perhaps do the same thing and reach great heights is the core of BLB’s legacy, at least for this writer.
It’s the classic story of an underdog who, here, isn’t just bending the football but also the rules and conventions of her family. It may have been a feel-good commercial film, there are still times where I’ve found myself, and a few others, still making references to that film and jokes about “juicy, juicy mangoes.”
The female voices in this film are powerful and individualistic. I think we’ve all found ourselves in similar conundrums as the lead character at some point in our lives – on one hand, her sister is pumped about her upcoming wedding, whereas Jess goes and buys football studs with the money her mum gave her for wedding sandals. Do we follow our passion, at the risk of upsetting those close to us? Or follow what our parents have set out for us, with all the best of intentions? Jess doesn’t give up on her sports dreams for her love interest in the film, instead, tells HIM to wait for her return. If nothing else, she was the positive role model that we needed when we were pre-teens and continues to be so while we’re still breaking away from the size zeroes and airbrushed glamour queens of today.
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