Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 03 July 2006
Source 20th Century Fox DVD
During its initial release in 2002, Gurinder Chadha’s film Bend It Like Beckham created a small stir at the box-office despite the fear that its title was essentially meaningless to North American movie audiences. At the time, David Beckham was England’s equivalent of Michael Jordan, though “Becks” probably enjoyed a more devoted female following. Unfortunately, all of this mattered little to North American movie audiences, as very few knew or cared who David Beckham was, and even fewer were interested in a film that carried his name but that he didn’t actually appear in. Yet though Bend It Like Beckham involved the other version of football, took place in England, surrounded itself in East-Indian culture, and centered itself on an adolescent Punjabi girl, it was able to generate a modest profit thanks to the positive reception of various mainstream critics.
Bend It Like Beckham starts off at a brisk pace, with rapid editing and various camera speeds, and seeks to imitate the tempo of a football game. The film opens with footage of Beckham taking control of a Manchester United game, as various commentators remark that he is “maturing” and “dominating”, but “needs support.” After Beckham sends a ball across the field, we view a small, young, East-Indian girl, named Jesminder Bhamra score a goal. As the crowd celebrates a victory, the commentators in the studio discuss how the young girl named Jess is the new savior for British football. Oddly, the panel turns to Jess’ mother for a final opinion. Rather than embrace her child’s success or be proud of her daughter’s accomplishments, Mrs. Bhamra is ashamed that her daughter is wasting time playing a sport while wearing skimpy shorts. We quickly realize that we have actually been watching one of Jess’ daydreams, which has unfortunately turned into an embarrassing nightmare. In reality, Mrs. Bhamra interrupts the Man U match Jess is intently watching by turning off the television and ordering Jess to help her older sister, Pinky, shop for an upcoming engagement. Within Chadha’s frame, Mrs. Bhamra literally shoves Beckham’s image off the screen, by opening Jess’ door and displacing a poster of the midfielder. It’s obvious that Pinky’s wedding is the family’s first priority and as we soon realize that, in a Punjabi family, it is the children’s duty to honor their family’s wishes. Instantaneously, we understand Jess’ central struggle to balance her family commitments with the sport she loves.
Even though I grew up in somewhat different culture, as Chadha takes us on an energetic tour of modern East-Indian culture, with immigrant parents and first-generation children, I must say that the situations, dialogue, and imagery feel tremendously authentic, whether it is colorful group gatherings or regular family conversation. Whenever Mrs. Bhamra grumbles that her children are “too spoiled,” or complains that Jess has “played enough” and turned “dark in the sun,” or scolds her children for potentially bringing “shame on my family,” I frequently recalled memories to my own childhood, if not flashbacks to the previous week. Indeed the entire notion of hiding your activities from your parents in order to enjoy what Western children regard as everyday activities and events feels entirely too familiar. Thus, while all viewers can probably relate to Jess’ predicament and her decision to rebel against her family’s wishes on some level, Jess’ need to keep her achievement in, and obsession with, football a secret is probably more easily identifiable for a foreigner.
Chadha’s film attempts to repeatedly confront traditional social norms, whether they are cultural or gender barriers. Though far less radical than its inherent potential, the mild nature of Bend It Like Beckham does allow the film to tackle a variety of stereotypes in front of a far larger audience. The most prominent battle is between a defiant daughter and her family’s strict rule. While the plot exhibits this struggle by having Jess’ alliances continually shift from her football club to her family, Chadha also illustrates the tension visually by including a rather surreal moment during a football contest where Jess envisions the women in her family, dressed in formal fashions, forming the opposition’s defensive wall during her free kick and pleading with Jess in slow-motion via their facial expressions to return to her traditional duties. Though the film initially makes her parent’s Sikh culture appear overly rigid, as Jess’ father gains a greater understanding of his daughter’s athletic talents, we realize that the family is also capable of being flexible when it is in their daughter’s best interest.
Due to her position as a visible minority, Jess briefly becomes the target of racism. During an important match towards the end of the film, Jess endures a spiteful form of racism involving an aggressive altercation with an opposing player who calls her a “Paki” that results in her receiving a red card, hence being ejected from the game and putting an unnecessary burden on her teammates. Presumably, the incident is incited by the fact that the opposing player is somewhat jealous that Jess is so uniquely gifted at football. The incident mirrors the treatment Jess’ father received when he arrived in England and was banned from playing cricket despite his remarkable skills. Mr. Bhamra informs us that he “never complained” when “those bloody English cricket players threw [him] out of their club, like a dog.” The incident Mr. Bhamra experienced heavily influences his final decision to allow Jess to continue pursuing football, as he admits that his vows to “never play again” and to be content with accepting life’s situations were actually mistakes that only caused personal suffering which he wishes to spare his daughter from. As Mr. Bhamra states, he doesn’t believe “anyone has the right of stopping [Jess]” from chasing her dream to play professionally.
Of course, racist attitudes are not only limited to the Caucasian majority. Bend It Like Beckham also presents an honest display of the racist attitudes that prevail in many minority cultures. The film’s main example of the racism by minorities towards Caucasians is the tension between Jess’ family and her coach, Joe. As she spends more time at the football club, an attraction develops between Jess and Joe. Not surprising, considering their severe customs, the Bhamra parents forbid this union between their daughter and her Caucasian coach, mostly out of fear that it will bring shame to the family within the Sikh community. When Jess openly admits her attraction to Joe to her older sister, Pinky frankly asks her younger sister if she really wants “to be the one that everyone stares at, at every family do, ‘cause you married the English bloke?” In an obvious mirror of common Caucasian misconceptions regarding minority cultures, when Jess corrects Pinky by informing her that Joe is Irish, Pinky responds that “there’ll all the bloody same to them, innit?” Of course, Joe continues to involve himself with the Bhamra family due to his enthusiasm over Jess’ ability and skill, often attempting to campaign to her father on her behalf. Wisely, during any discussion with Mr. Bhamra, Joe understands his boundaries and remains polite, courteous, and deeply respectful of the Sikh culture that he is attempting to gently pierce. Even though Jess assumes her family will not allow her a relationship with Joe, by the conclusion of the film, we watch Joe and Mr. Bhamra playing a friendly game of cricket with one another, as they are able to overcome their misconceptions of each other.
Meanwhile, Jess’ Caucasian friend Jules has a different conflict with her parents, as Chadha seeks to illustrate that the conflicts between parents and children are not only limited by culture, but are heavily influenced by a divergence in perspective between the two generations, with only some variation between East and West. While her father encourages her to play football, Jules’ mother, Paula, cannot understand her daughter’s devotion of the sport, making it clear that she would prefer her daughter be more feminine. The film routinely mentions that Jules appears rather masculine, regularly remarking about her lack of cleavage, short hair-cut, and thin frame. We are even introduced to Jules while she shops for bras with her mother, where we witness Paula plead with her humiliated daughter to purchase a more delicate bra instead of the more practical sports bras that Jules ordinarily buys. The scene serves as a contrast to the various moments throughout the film where Mrs. Bhamra complains that Jess reveals to much of body and should cover her body up to protect herself. The two scenes adequately demonstrate the views each culture holds regarding the display of female sexuality; Whereas Caucasian culture seeks to enhance the sexuality attraction of women by drawing attention to their physiques in hopes of making females more desirable and alluring, Sikh culture attempts to diminish female sexuality by hiding the female form to alleviate male fascination and enticement. Though the difference is dramatic, I would argue that the divergence is less drastic than the film presents it to be, since it also represents a variation in perspective, as East-Indian women create their magnetism through slightly different fashions.
Whether it’s the struggles of Jess or Jules that are being chronicled, it’s evident that Bend It Like Beckham effectively provides an engaging and upbeat tour of generational and cultural conflict for British youth. Its most persistent technique of conveying the friction caused by the opposing viewpoints of parents and their children is to bounce back and forth between events, whereby youthful football matches and orderly family events are shown to be in competition with one another. The technique is probably best exemplified by the cross-cutting between the Pinky’s wedding ceremony and the football club’s preparation for the championship game, though towards the end of this sequence we begin to also notice the similarity and harmony between the two events. The harmony achieved at the end of the cross-cutting seeks to show us that Jess can make her world work. Indeed, once she reaffirms her loyalty to the family by telling her father she is willing to sacrifice the opportunity to play in the championship game in order to stay and celebrate Pinky’s marriage, she is actually granted her freedom and ultimately, her happiness.
However, as successful as Bend It Like Beckham is at scoring its goals, the film remains problematic. The outcome is never in doubt due to the formulas used, and the film rather narrowly hews to Jess’ perspective. Thus, despite its hectic tempo, the film inspires a certain degree of boredom after awhile since nothing is in jeopardy. The boredom is also a function of Chadha’s incessant repetition of the same generational and cultural clash. Essentially the film sets up one scenario for Jess to repeat endlessly, whereby she makes a decision to deceive her parents (usually about her participation in football), is caught because of carelessness, which causes an argument with her family, and must resolve herself to accepting the wishes of her family and sacrifice her own potential happiness‚Ä¶ until Jess decides to deceive her parents again.
Another troubling aspect is the attention lavished upon Caucasian idols in a film that is supposedly providing a positive picture of a minority culture. The most prominent feature in Jess’ room is her gigantic poster of David Beckham, which she regularly talks to while lying in bed. Unfortunately the obvious parallel to this poster is the religious image of Guru Nanak that the rest of the family regularly speaks to during prayer. In essence, it appears that Jess has replaced devotion to Guru Nanak with worship of Beckham, especially since she seems to show such distain while her mother prays to Guru Nanak. Though I cannot condemn Jess for her lack of faith, it’s extremely offensive to watch a young East-Indian woman treating a white male celebrity as a deity, particularly when the image of Beckham, with the blue-eyes and blond hair so strongly associated to Aryan ideals, conveys a strong sense of conformity to Western-culture. Jess’ worship of Beckham also somewhat taints her relationship with Joe, since he acts very much like her savior. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Joe is often dressed in white and lit from behind to create a halo effect. Even during the films last scene, during their embrace at the airport, Jess is positioned to look up at Joe much like she stares up at her Beckham poster, while he looks down upon her, as if she is a zealot set at ease by his divinity. In effect, Joe replaces Beckham as Jess’ idol within the scene, as everyone else is distracted by the arrival of Beck and Posh at the airport, while Jess devotes her full attention to Joe.
However, the most problematic aspect of Bend It Like Beckham is also an inherent part of it central premise. Throughout the film the viewer is constantly persuaded to feel that Jess’ immense football talent would be wasted if she isn’t allowed to continue playing football. It’s just such a shame that her family will not permit her to play, considering the enormous amount of talent she has. As Mr. Bhamra states during the resolution of the film’s climax, Jess is “brilliant” at football and he doesn’t believe “anyone has the right of stopping her.” Unfortunately, the film has made the wrong argument in support of a young woman’s right to choose her own destiny. The entire scenario shouldn’t be dependent on how talented Jess is, considering this limits the criteria for a young woman to be granted her independence by her family. Instead, the viewer should ask how the outcome would change if Jess wasn’t a “brilliant” soccer player. Regrettably, the film isn’t even willing to take us to the unspoken conclusion of this fantastic voyage, as we never see how Jess and Jules deal with the idea that they might not ever see another minute of meaningful competition again, considering they may not be good enough to play at the next level. It would be at this point that an actual weighty dilemma could be explored, as both athlete and family would have to reevaluate whether their decisions were worth the risk and struggle. Sadly, Bend It Like Beckham isn’t the type of film that would ever seriously consider exploring this type of decision for an athlete in any degree of depth, since it chooses sugarcoated fantasy over the rather harsh reality of sport. Hence it remains only an endearing minor-league prospect within a genre that desperately desires a professional-caliber player.