Carolyne Culver watches a film aimed at dispelling a myth or two
“Anyone can cook aloo gobi, but who can bend it like Beckham?” From this bizarre strap line emerges a comedy drama about women’s football that kicks many celluloid efforts about the men’s game into touch. The tale of a British Asian teenager who outclasses her male counterparts in the park and has a shrine to David Beckham in her bedroom, Bend It Like Beckham takes two British obsessions – football and race – and produces a pacey comedy-drama that takes the women’s game seriously.
Despite being packed with top quality actors including Juliet Stevenson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, it’s newcomer Parminder Nagra who shines through as Jess. Living in a suburban semi in Hounslow, Jess is spotted playing football with the lads in the park, and offered a place in the Hounslow Harriers women’s team.
Resisting conformity to her parent’s Indian ideals of marriage and home-keeping – and peer pressure from her marriage-obsessed sister Pinky – Jess breaks gender and race taboos to play up front for the Harriers. The drama focuses on the improving fortunes of the Harriers and Jess’s battle to reconcile respect for her family’s wishes with her desire to play football. Her fellow striker Jules (Keira Knightley) idolises US women’s star Mia Hamm and dreams of playing professionally in the United States.
When Jules is not dreaming of the fields of glory, she’s dreaming about women’s team coach Joe (Rhys Meyers). But he’s got other ideas – and sets his sights on his new protégée Jess. Thankfully, the bizarre love triangle is very much a second string plotline, and isn’t allowed to reduce the film to a moralistic narrative about a woman’s true place being on her man’s arm rather than on the pitch.
Plenty of gender stereotypes are presented: Jess’s traditional Indian mother urging her to don apron and make the perfect chapatti; her fashion conscious sister desperate to get married; and Jules’s mother Paula (Stevenson), who attends a football match in an outfit more suitable for Ascot and reminds her football-mad daughter that “Sporty Spice is the only one without a fella!” But Jess succeeds in repelling all efforts to make her conform.
Bend It... marks the feature film debut of former All Saints singer-songwriter Shaznay Lewis – who forewent the opportunity to display her assets in the Dave Stewart/All Saints flop Honest. Lewis stars as a member of the Hounslow Harriers squad, alongside players from QPR, Slough and the Arsenal Academy. The presence of experienced footballers, plus some decent coaching for the actors, means the football scenes are more authentic than those in most films about the men’s game.
Football choreographer Simon Clifford, who consulted on There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble, worked on the film, and a specially designed camera means most of the football scenes are shot at a low angle and reflect the pace of the game: a refreshing change to the high-angled shots used in many football films.
Light-hearted but not frivolous, this film addresses serious issues about how second- and third-generation British Asian youth reconcile respect for their families’ traditional customs, and strong moral framework, with indulging the freedoms and exploiting the opportunities enjoyed by their white peers.
It is refreshing that the film does this without concluding that any variant of conformity is the only way to be happy and, indeed, shows that happiness can be found via strict adherence to tradition. Jess’s sister’s traditional Indian wedding is portrayed as a colourful and vibrant spectacle – far from the joyless shackling of two reluctant individuals that many people associate with arranged marriage.
This is director and co-script writer Gurinder Chadha’s third feature. Her debut, Bhaji on the Beach, won a BAFTA nomination for Best British Film in 1994. Chadha explains Beckham’s influence on the film’s title: “In many ways, Beckham is the perfect catch for an Indian mother. He loves his wife, he has a son, he is also a good father and he’s changed the meaning of what we used to consider the traditional macho footballer.”
Bend It... was inspired by the fervour surrounding the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. “I went to my local pub to watch the games and was amazed to see grown men crying on the pavements of Camden when England went out,” Chadha said. “I’d only ever seen the country like this when Lady Diana died. I had got the football bug and thought: wouldn’t it be great to take all this energy, and put two girls in the middle of it all?”
From WSC 183 May 2002. What was happening this month