By: Shailee Koranne
Bend It Like Beckham, the 2002 cultural crossover hit film written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, is one of the most popular movies depicting the life of a diasporic brown person. The film turned fifteen in April and is as well-liked as ever. Centred on British-Indian teen Jess Bhamra who dreams of being a soccer player as great as David Beckham, the story humorously captures the nuances of Indian families in the diaspora. It is full of signals of diasporic life: quips made in a hybrid language of English and Punjabi, mentions of Indian food, and frequent references to airplanes and airports. A lighthearted and comedic film about intermingling British and Indian culture might have been just what was needed at the time to ease tension and promote cultural integration, especially given the lack of Indian-directed mainstream work on the topic.
As a child, I loved the cultural references made by and about Indians in Bend It Like Beckham—I never thought I would see anything like that in a film. On the surface, I felt represented, and there was nothing a young Shailee living in the diaspora needed more than seeing herself represented. I thought I was Jess; we both had overbearing parents, cool white friends, and crushes on white boys. That was when I was 11 years old. Now, it’s been 10 years since I saw the film for the first time, and 15 years since its release, and I’ve noticed so much wrong with it. Bend It Like Beckham portrays the relationship between white and brown people in England in a pacified manner and continually paints women as the enemy, ultimately making the story both racially inaccurate and deeply misogynistic. I loved the film when I was younger, but it has not stood the test of time.
Throughout the movie, Indian music plays overtop of sad or uncomfortable scenes, and English music plays overtop of happy or inspiring scenes. I didn’t notice this when I was younger, and as subtle as it may seem, the use of music in the movie aligns itself with an overwhelming message of assimilation. Hell, a photo of David Beckham hangs in Jess’ bedroom, her safe haven, not antithetical to the photo of Guru Nanak in her religious parents’ living room, where so many arguments take place. That might not have been a conscious decision made by the production designers, but it speaks volumes to the whiteness = good, brownness = bad message in Bend It Like Beckham.
Even as a child, I remember being put off by the jarring line spoken by Joe, the handsome white coach of Jess’ soccer team, in response to her being verbally harassed and being called a “Paki”; Joe attempts to equate the anti-brown racism felt by Jess to prejudice he felt as an Irish person, saying “Of course I know what that feels like. I’m Irish.”
I know, Pinky. I know.
Keeping in mind that the 9/11 attacks happened not even one year prior to Bend It Like Beckham’s theatrical release, and the spike in worldwide Islamophobic anti-brown violence that followed, there is no way Joe or any other Irish person would know how Jess felt. In fact, in 2002, the year that Bend It Like Beckham was released, racial prejudice was still high. Pushing a ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative is just as dangerous as denying the existence of pervasive, everyday racism; both Jess and Joe try to tell Jess’ parents again and again that things are changing in England, and yet in 2017 brown people in Europe and North America still suffer at the hands of Islamophobia and xenophobia. It would have been more truthful and productive was if Joe acknowledged that he didn’t know what Jess was going through, and pledged to use his position of privilege to help in whatever way he could. However, he did not speak up when Jess was given a red card for confronting the person who called her a Paki, choosing instead to yell at her after the incident in the changing room in front of all her teammates, a vulnerable place where Jess literally bares all. And yet, Jess cries as Joe holds her in an understanding embrace after dismissing her unique experience with racism.
Putting aside its problematic audience-placating depiction of race relations, a much more subtle and equally sinister flaw of Bend It Like Beckham is a very prevalent villainization of women. The movie makes it seem as though Jess’ barriers come from within her family, and from the women especially. No, it is not her community alone, but a societal stigma that is holding her back. However, the men in the film are hailed as heroes for helping shift the stigma and the blame is transferred to women.
For example, Jules’ mother insults her constantly, drawing negative criticism and assumptions about her interests, appearance, and sexuality, whereas Jules’ father comes to her rescue several times, even buying her a fancy net to practice her kicks on. It is Jess’ dad who shows a soft spot for his younger daughter’s interest in sports, letting her play an important game during his older daughter’s wedding, whereas Jess’ mother constantly badgers her about marriage, her body, and her un-Indian behaviour.
It’s Jess’ sister Pinky who rats her out for continuing to play soccer against her parents’ wishes, and Pinky’s wedding that creates a hurdle when Jess is given the chance to be scouted to play professionally. It is Pinky’s fiance’s mother who calls off her son’s wedding to Pinky, while her meek husband begrudgingly stands by.
It is Jess’ friend Tony who knight-in-shining-armour’s her by telling her family they are going to get married and go to America so Jess can keep playing soccer (keep in mind that Tony did not ask for Jess’ permission before doing so, and had ulterior motives for his action—concealing his homosexuality from his family.) It’s Joe who dares stand up to Jess’ parents. Overall, the men in the film are largely painted as the ally or the “good” parent, while the women are the judgmental gatekeepers or the “bad” parent.
All of this culminates in the climactic scene near the end of the movie when Jess is granted a free kick but must bend the ball around a wall of players; for a brief moment, she imagines the wall as all of her real-life obstacles, and we see that her obstacles are a group of women made up of Jess’ sister, mother, and aunties.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of Bend It Like Beckham is that it is simply too ambitious. It attempts to tackle many topics: racism, cultural stigma, sexism, internalized misogyny, homosexuality, marriage, interracial relationships and more. Although these topics are things that many people in the diaspora must think and live through concurrently, a run time of less than two hours is just not enough time to do them justice. In trying to address a myriad of topics, the film forgets to pay heed to the most obvious intersection—that of race and gender, felt by Jess.
The movie makes it appear as though the barriers Jess faces come from within her family, and from the women especially. It is not her community alone, but largely the systemic issues that keep women of colour from succeeding, that is holding her back. Even if Jess’ parents wholeheartedly supported her soccer career, it’s hard to believe that a brown girl would find much success in the world of pro soccer. In fact, we know it to be true that women of colour have less opportunities in professional sports.
Bend It Like Beckham was one of my favourite movies growing up. I own it on DVD and know its dialogue beginning to end. I’ve made my parents sit through it so many times. However, looking at the film now that I’m a few years older and admittedly more jaded, it sets a low bar for what brown people should be hailing as iconic moments of diasporic pop culture. Yes, we have very few options to choose from, but that does not mean we can’t assess our favourite films and TV shows with a critical eye. I want a film that makes white people confront their racism and challenges brown people to come to terms with their internalized misogyny. While Bend It Like Beckham is funny and aspires for harmony, the film as a whole ends up just like the credits sequence full-cast performance of “Hot Hot Hot” by Bina Mistry—awkward, ignorantly jaunty, and just… out of sync.