For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re throwing it all the way back to 16 years ago and celebrating the legacy of “Bend it Like Beckham.”
Gurinder Chadha’s beloved film “Bend it Like Beckham” is one of the few movies of the early 2000s that caused a paradigm shift for the South Asian diaspora. The film featured an Anglo-Indian woman, played by Parminder Nagra, as the lead. It focused on her unique career aspirations (professional football!), her traditional family (who would scold her about how “your rotis need to be round!”), and her complicated love life (falling for a white dude!)
From the moment the film was released in Britain in 2002, the movie resonated with audiences, particularly so with South Asian women in the diaspora, who could finally see themselves represented in a blockbuster film. It broke the mold of stereotypical desi representation by embracing our archetypes in order to shatter them.
The movie had the honor of being quite the rarity and garnered instant buzz when it was released in the United States in early 2003. It joined the ranks of Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay,” “Mississippi Masala,” and “Monsoon Wedding.” Chadha herself had made “Bhaji on the Beach” in 1993. However, “Bend it Like Beckham” stood out because while it carried with it conventional norms of a South Asian family like strict parents who are experts at emotional blackmail, it also appealed to the growing modernism in the diaspora.
Nagra’s Jess was a woman tied down by her culture, which she loved, but she also wished to go beyond it. The movie starts with an exaggerated dream in which Jess’s mother is shaming her for showing off her legs on national TV. Later on, when Jess joins the Hounslow Harriers girls team, she’s ashamed of coming on the field because she has to wear shorts. Her parents end up lecturing her, with her mother pointing out that her skin has gotten even darker and her father politely saying she’s not a ‘proper woman.’
It’s little things like this that make “Bend it Like Beckham” just so relatable. That and their fine use of lots of Punjabi music to amplify crucial moments in the film.
As a director, Chadha does such a good job of ensuring her film appeals not only to the South Asians but to a global audience. Keira Knightley who plays Jess’s best friend and teammate, also has a mother who doesn’t want her to play football. (And dare I say that I doubt I’m the only one who thought the Jess-Jules relationship should have moved beyond being merely platonic?)
Juliette wants to help and tells Jess she cannot give in, but she struggles to realize how different their lives and families are. While discussing Jess’s situation with the team, the two friends realize that discouraging young women and girls from playing sports it’s not limited to being an “Indian thing.” It’s a problem almost all women athletes face, regardless of background. After all, how many people actually go out to support and celebrate their own diverse women’s football team?
In the end, because this is a romantic comedy, things tie up in a neat bow for Jess. Despite ups and downs in her friendship with Jules due to a love triangle with their team’s coach Joe, both of them head to California with college scholarships to play on a renowned team. Her parents even come around and accept her decision to play the sport and to be with Joe. And her sister Pinky, whose courtship and wedding festivities proved to be a colorful backdrop to the story, is expecting a baby.
“Bend it Like Beckham” worked because director Chadha and the actors were top notch. In the 16 years since the film has been out, they’ve continued doing powerful things in pop culture.
Post “Bend it Like Beckham,” Chadha’s films include Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan starrers “Bride and Prejudice” and “Mistress of Spices,” the Manish Dayal film “Viceroy’s House.” Her upcoming film is based on British-Indian journalist Sarfaaz Manzoor’s autobiography and it’s called “Blinded by the Light.”
Nagra is exemplary in her role as Jess Bhamra, bringing the character’s passion for football to life in full force. Her performance led her to get bigger roles in American TV, starting with a series regular role on the popular medical drama “ER” as Dr. Neela Rasgotra, a role she played for six years. Since then, she’s appeared on several hit shows like “Agents of Shield,” “The Blacklist,” “13 Reasons Why,” “Psych,” and “Alcatraz.”
Panjabi played Jess’s older, glamorous sister Pinky. She’s gone on to star in big-screen hits like “A Mighty Heart,” “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” and “San Andreas.” Her most notable role, however, is playing the badass, bisexual private investigator Kalinda Sharma on the CBS drama “The Good Wife.” She won an Emmy award for it in 2010. She’s also appeared in shows like “Brooklyn 99,” “Blindspot,” and “Next of Kin.”
Kher, who played Jess’s father Mohan, had been working his magic in both Bollywood and Hollywood long before “Bend it Like Beckham” came along. But the film’s success helped him cement his place as a crossover star. He’s appeared in “Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Boy With the Topknot,” “Sense8,” “The Mistress of Spices,” “The Other End of the Line,” “The Big Sick,” to name a few international projects. Starting this fall, he’ll play Dr. Vijay Kapoor in the new NBC drama “New Amsterdam.”
Khan played Jess’s mother Sukhi to perfection in the film. Since then, she’s starred in “Provoked,” “Mistress of Spices,” “Americanizing Shelley.” Khan is also a fixture on several British television shows like “In The Club,” “Casualty,” and “Apple Tree House.”
You can throw it back to “Bend it Like Beckham,” which is available to rent and stream on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube.