What makes this film different from the other East versus West comedies is the all consuming passion that is football. Outside of North America, David Beckham is an instantly recognisable figure, the Captain of the English National Football Team. The movie title refers to Beckham’s special talent when it comes to taking free kicks, the idea being to bend the ball over a wall of opposing players, and dip it into the goal before the keeper has a chance to see it coming. Beckham is an icon who has the aura of a pop-star. Women love him, men want to be him. Occasionally, this gets reversed, which is where the story begins.
Jesminder ‘Jes’ Bhamra, beautifully played by Parminder K. Nagra, is a young Indian girl who idolises David Beckham. Jes wants nothing more than to emulate him on the football field. She has the raw ability to become a professional player, but there’s one big problem: Jes comes from an orthodox British Sikh family, where the girls are brought up under a strict, if well intentioned, regime. Jes’s father wants her to go to university and become a doctor. Her mother wants her to learn how to cook traditional Indian dishes, then marry a good Sikh boy. Jes has other ideas, and after a successful trial, sneaks off to join the Hounslow Harriers women’s soccer team.
Much of the comedy is derived from the reverse prejudice of the fiercely insular Bhamra family, who are all but oblivious to Western society. Luckily, the script never gets bogged down with tired stereotypes or rabid anti-PC tropes. Anupam Kher, as Jes’s father, is not a man who is blinded by his faith, or to reality. He loves his daughter, and as a former cricketer whose dreams were spoiled by prejudice, understands what it is to have a sporting talent ignored. Joe, the Irish coach of Hounslow Harriers, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, is a love interest for Jes, and someone who believes in her footballing talent. Both aspects are depicted in a sensitive and realistic fashion. Instead of the usual “West is best” mentality, Joe shows courtesy to his star player’s family, and understanding for her situation.
“Who’d want a girl who plays football all day but can’t make chapatis?”
The underlying theme of culture clash is better because it is underlying, rather than politicised and angry. Instead of favouring either the Indian or the English culture, the writer shows how the two manage their uneasy coexistence. The reality of this may come as a surprise to the uninitiated, as the portrayal accurately reveals that true multiculture is uncommon. The white and black British community finds British Indian and Pakistani society impenetrable, for the simple reason that neither the Sikhs or Hindus encourage racial integration. Nor are they overly keen to mix with each other, as shown when the discussion turns toward Jes’s future husband. In reverse order, the least preferred are a white boy, a black boy and a Muslim boy. Due to the fact that political correctness gone mad means that any discussion of this issue is often wrongly branded as racist, Bend it Like Beckham is brave to show the truth. Better still, it does so in way that makes anyone with a sense of humour smile. The great advantage of having an Asian director and writer is that there can be jokes at the expense of the Sikh community without anyone calling for the movie to be banned. More subtly, it says that modern Asian society is not so po faced that it can’t see the funny side being out of step with the wider society that quite literally surrounds it.
Indian music, as featured in every Bollywood movie, takes a back seat to specially written pieces by Craig Pruess and by Sharleen Spiteri of the band Texas, plus inspirational classics such as “Move On Up” by the late Curtis Mayfield. This is a wise move, as trying to marry up Bhangra beats with a movie whose central theme is football — a game which currently has not a single Asian player in the Premiership — would have been akin to putting mustard on ice-cream.
With a running time of 1 hour, 52 minutes, Bend It Like Beckham has enough space to explore and develop all the major characters. Jes comes across as a girl who doesn’t want to reject her family or show disrespect for her culture, but is also desperate to pursue her own dreams. How this is resolved is a story of Indian cooking, cultural absurdity, family love, and an abiding desire to play what the English call ‘the beautiful game’, all done without ever becoming preachy or saccharine sweet. Even the credits are worth watching to the end, due to comic inserts. I can, therefore, heartily recommend Bend it Like Beckham as one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.
(Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2002)