Bend It Like Beckham was a low budget movie filmed in 2002 in London. Main character Jess, lives in London with her strict Indian parents. She loves playing soccer but isn’t allowed to play in a team (even though she’s 18) as it goes against her traditional Indian customs. When playing for fun one day, her impressive skills are seen by Jules, who then convinces Jess to play for her semi-pro team. Jess spends the rest of the movie using elaborate excuses to hide her matches from her family.
Although the film itself is British in its setting, theme and audience, it deals with immigrant integration in a country with a religious-like devotion to soccer, which is a cultural aspect to Britain that viewers need to make sense of (Schwartz, 2018). ‘Chadha’s plot weaves together seemingly divergent narratives of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality into one coherent story line’ (Giardina, 2003).
The cultural hybridisation in Bend It Like Beckham resonates with many individuals that feel that they don’t quiet belong in neither their race or their location. In 2007 Rajpreet Heir explains that ’After watching Bend It Like Beckham in my last few days in England, I came to realise that transiency was, in some ways, a gift. In the absence of a place that reflected who I was, perhaps I could make my own’.
The film shows Jess creating her own formula to balance her Indian heritage and her obsession with soccer. ‘When she’s in the kitchen with her mom, Jess is practicing knee-ups with a cabbage, and when hanging laundry, she bends the ball around the clothes. At once conforming to her cultural heritage and aligning herself with the most British of British sports. Chadha takes what could have been an abstract, internalised dilemma and translates it to the screen in a visually engaging way that also prompts empathy’ (Heir, 2017).
Before the release of the film, cultural proximity was a concern when executives at Fox Searchlight expressed that Americans wouldn’t know who David Beckham was, and wouldn’t understand what it meant to “bend” a soccer ball (Schwartz, 2018). Ironically this was relative to the creator of the film, Gurinder Chadhawho is a Indian women living in England. During her course of writing the film, she struggled using the correct ‘football jargon’ and would leave blank spaces in the script for her British co-workers to fill in (Schwartz, 2018).
Cultural empathy is also touched on throughout the film when Joe relates to Jess by explaining that he is Irish. ‘The character Joe was originally English however after Jess complains that someone called her a Paki, and Joe just shouted back, ‘Listen, I’m f*cking Irish and what’s your problem?’ It made sense that the Irish being a minority in England as well, Joe would have an empathy with Jess on that level. The director just loved that, so Irish he remained’ (Schwartz, 2018). ‘We conclude that intense forms of ethnic identity and socialisation appear to be formed in social contexts in which the minority ethnic trait is mostly ”threatened” either directly by the actions of the majority group (e.g., through explicit acts of rejection or harassment), or indirectly simply by being exposed to the interaction with the majority norm of behaviour in mixed neighbourhood (Bisin et al,, 2006).
By displaying two cultures belonging to different ends of the global North and South divide, Bend It Like Beckham offers an optimistic message of cultural wholeness (Heir, 2017).
Schwartz, D 2018, ’18 Winning Facts About Bend It Like Beckham’, Mental Floss, accessed 20 August 2019.
Giardina, M.D., 2003. “Bending it like Beckham” in the global popular: Stylish hybridity, performativity, and the politics of representation. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 27(1), pp.65-82.
Heir, R 2017, ‘Bend It Like Beckham and the Art of Balancing Cultures’, The Atlantic, accessed 20 August 2019.
Bisin, A., Patacchini, E., Verdier, T. and Zenou, Y., 2006. ‘Bend it Like Beckham’: Identity, Socialization and Assimilation. Centre for Economic Policy Research.
Words by Erin Waugh
Image by Women X-blog