A Rom-Com with a Difference: Blending Bollywood and Beckham (Bend it Like Beckham, 2002)

It is no revolutionary statement to suggest that the teenage rom coms of the early 2000s are reminisced upon with a bubble of luminescent nostalgia. The likes of How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days and Bridget Jones’ Diary dominated the early noughties with a light-hearted but rather clichéd charm. Yet, what Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham brings to the table is far more than a senseless outburst of juvenile triviality. Instead, Chadha deals with a powerful tale of hybrid identity, generational conflict and the unadulterated feeling of true belonging. It is a story rife with ambition and drive rather than just adolescent lust, following the ordinary life of Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra (played by Parminder Nagra), a British-Asian teenager harbouring a forbidden talent for football. 

Having only watched this film in the last few months, I have to admit I was expecting the typical clichéd tale of boy-meets-girl; an underwhelming yet familiar prospect in line with films of the same genre. Perhaps what distances this film from the stereotype is its semiautobiographical nature and the memories Chadha drew upon in creating her protagonist’s story. The director openly speaks about her experiences as a British director of Indian origin and seeks to interweave elements of both cultures into her work. The religious exclusion of the Bhamra family is commented upon in relation to Jess’ interest in football and her coach, Joe, to which her mother warns of the existing marginalisation of Hindu communities in modern Britain. Montage sequences serve to the same effect, portraying the constant and chaotic balance of Jess’ double life in a series of humorous parallels. Littered with instances of heart-warming sincerity, the film possesses an authenticity which is rare in the world of modern romantic comedies.

Jess finds herself in a difficult situation, limited not only by the blatant disregard for female athletes but also the cultural practices of her Indian family. Most prominently in the pivotal contrasting of Jess’ success in the football championship and her sister’s Punjabi wedding, the equally rousing joys trigger a moment of powerful solidarity. For South Asians in particular, the film stirred a unique experience of recognition. Chadha not only celebrates this Diaspora, but positions the tale within a plethora of interlacing subplots.

“It’s a film about identity and the multiple identities that we all have, you know, it’s not just about race. It’s also about gender, it’s also about sexuality.”

The film premiered in the shadow of the approaching World Cup, at a time when the women’s football scene was regarded as little more than a recreational pastime. Chadha’s commentary provided an essential piece of viewing on the dynamics of gendered expectation. The relationship between Jess and her teammate Jules (played by Keira Knightley) offers up a progressive take on female friendship for its time. They bond over a shared desire to critique the gender canon, both battling for a new independence in revolt of their parents’ closed expectations. Generational authority is a construct which both helps and hinders these young girls as they navigate the typical concerns of teenagehood, yet Chadha’s directing remains rooted in the fundamental importance of a supportive and accepting family.

It is no wonder that Bend it Like Beckham has achieved such success in the world of British filmmaking. Its legacy rightfully remains as a film which celebrates ethnic diversity and the importance of women’s sport, rejecting the common misconceptions of both. The film marks a turning point for British cinema, providing a multi-faceted angle on the British Asian experience. Chadha set in motion a moment of representation and rightful validation for misunderstood communities, encouraging many women to feel seen for the very first time. For this reason, I feel that it is important to recognise its cultural impact 20 years later.

Maya Fernandes

Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube // Bend It Like Beckham (2002) ORIGINAL TRAILER – Unseen Trailers

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