Bend It Like Beckham

Written by:
Nigam Nuggehalli
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Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it like Beckham, like Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, introduces a world audience to Indian perspectives on dating, marriage and societal duties. Both Nair and Chadha play on Indian stereotypes of arranged marriages, muddled parents, and loud music, but do so in a way that furthers rather than impedes an understanding of such Indian cliches; these films have the power to make the audience laugh with the characters rather than at them.

Bend it like Beckham refers to the uncanny ability of British soccer superstar David Beckham to curve the football past the defenders and towards the goalpost. Because of this ability, and also, owing in no small measure to his good looks, Beckham has millions of fans, among them a young Indian girl in London called Jesminder or Jess (Parminder Nagra). Jess, unlike other Indian girls in this film’s universe, prefers to play soccer rather than make chapattis at home. In the park near her house, she participates with a rowdy group of boys who play rough-shod soccer. Not to fear, for Jess is skillful enough to hold her own and “bollocks” to anyone who wants to act fresh with her; she rams the football into his crotch. At home, she is as demure as only Indian girls in movies can be, folding her hands and saying Sasriyakal (hello in Punjabi) to her big bosomed aunts all of whom seem to have hidden cell phones in the folds of their saris.

This double life is common knowledge to most first generation Indians, who have either learnt to live happily in their different avatars or become a little neurotic adjusting the two. The latter has happened so frequently that first generation Indians have earned the unkind sobriquet ABCDs, or American Born Confused Desis (Desi refers to anyone from the Indian subcontinent), or as they would be called in Britain, BBCDs.

Bend it like Beckham introduces more complications in the typical life of a British Born Confused Desi, in this case, Jess. Her interest in soccer takes her to an all-woman soccer team, but she hides this fact from her parents, who she knows will strongly disapprove. Her double life gets even more complicated when she falls in love with her Irish coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). This alliance is, of course, a big no-no with her parents who want her to marry a nice Punjabi boy, preferably with a job that does not entail coaching eleven screaming teenage girls. In one of several such funny but genuine moments in the film, Jess indicates that marrying an Irish man is not as bad as marrying a Muslim (Jess comes from a Sikh family who brought their prejudices with them when immigrating to England).

Jess’s mother, played by Shaheen Khan, is typecast as the conservative and shrill Indian mother; a terror to her daughter and a shrew to her husband. The father, Indian audiences would be pleasantly surprised to find, is played by the veteran Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, who is sometimes known to give over-the-top performances. Fortunately, for the film as well as the fictional narrative, Kher gives a restrained performance as a father who is concerned about rather than outraged by his daughter’s peccadilloes.

The role of Jess asks for a tomboy, someone who is comfortable in shorts and t-shirt, and ribbing with the boys. Nagra manages this effortlessly while also looking demure and charming in her Indian costumes. In one scene, she changes from a sari to soccer shorts so quickly that her transition from a traditional home-bound woman to a kick-butt female jock looks all the more miraculous.

Unlike other films on expatriate Indians and their offspring, like the campy and ethnic Indian focused American Desi, ABCD, and American Chai, Bend it like Beckham works at various levels. The formulaic underdog–wins-at-the-end sports story has been nicely interspersed with the friendly but crotchety Indian family rituals to give a warm and fuzzy feeling to the movie, palatable to all kinds of audiences. But Indian audiences will have plenty of in-jokes to laugh at, the kind that every immigrant culture develops in its interaction with an alien world. Particular mention should be made of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, whose severe photograph looks down at the inhabitants of the living room in the Jess household. When Joe comes to visit, his timorous look at the seemingly disapproving picture of Guru Nanak is one of the funnier moments of the film.

Coincidentally, the three most influential directors of expatriate Indian cinema today, Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta (Earth) and Gurinder Chadha are of Punjabi origin. The fabled region of Punjab lies in the north of India and is equally well-known for its fun-loving culture and turbulent past (clashes between Hindus and Muslims). Because of their provenance, films made by these directors are a little skewed in their perspective on Indian culture, concentrating for the most part on Punjabi rituals (like the religious figures and the dancing in Bend it like Beckham)–customs that are followed by not more than ten percent of the Indian population. Nevertheless, Bend it like Beckham also shows some universal features of Indian family life such as the disproportionate number of aunts and uncles at weddings, and the intrusive yet naive role of Indian parents.

The resolution of Jess’ dilemma is never in doubt, for the fun in, and the fortunes of, Bend it like Beckham depend on how one gets there. With its flamboyantly choreographed wedding dances interspersed with rousing soccer games, it’s a joyous ride all the way, peopled with somewhat caricatured characters who nevertheless transcend their roles.

– Nigam Nuggehalli

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