In a poignant sequence from the film, Mr. Bhamra (Anupam Kher) discourages his daughter Jess (Parminder Nagra) from pursuing football in England because of his own experience of facing racism in English cricket years ago. Even though Bend It Like Beckham was released in 2002, it remains British-Indian director Gurinder Chadha's most relevant film to date because of its progressive portrayal of identity and femininity.
All Jess Bhamra (our protagonist) wants to do is talk to the David Beckham poster on her wall and play football with boys in the park. When Jules (Keira Knightley) notices her skills, she invites Jess to join the Hounslow Harriers, an all-girls football team coached by Joe (Jonathan Rhys Myers). But since Jess is British-Indian and of Sikh ethnicity, she needs to be more than a football prodigy to follow her dreams. She needs to be adept at lying to her parents, enlist her sister's help when sneaking out to matches, and constantly juggle between her double life without offending the extensive network of her Indian relatives.
Jess is constantly chided by her mother, Mrs. Bhamra (Shaheen Khan), who is disappointed with Jess' lack of interest in learning how to cook, her tomboyish sense of dress and her growing interest in playing football with "half-naked boys" in the park. It doesn't help that Jess' older sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi) is the perfect Indian girl – feminine, homely and engaged-to-be-married to an Indian man. In several ways, Jess and Pinky are portrayed as being on the opposite ends of the femininity spectrum. The film uses their characters to show who is the 'ideal' Indian girl and who is an outlier. When Pinky wants clothes to be tight at her chest, Jess wants them loose. When Pinky is chasing boys, Jess is chasing a ball. When Pinky buys high-heels, Jess finds joy in football shoes, and unfortunately for Jess, most women around her are also like Pinky.
Jess has not known women like herself until she meets Jules. Jules' English mother also struggles to relate to her daughter. She tries to get Jules interested in make-up, pretty clothes and boys, but all Jules wants to do is buy sports bras and play football. There is a small subplot in the film where Jules' mother thinks Jules is dating Jess. This of course leads to hilarious confusion, and an altercation at Pinky's wedding where she accuses Jess of being lesbian. At this point an older Indian relative (cameo by Zohra Sehgal) hilariously exclaims "Lesbian? Her birthday is in March. I thought she was a Pisces." Perhaps, what the film wants to portray here is that Jules' mother can only make sense of her daughter's 'un-feminine' preferences by assigning a different sexual identity to her. Because according to her (and society at large), you can't be into sports and boys at the same time.
Jess is also far from being perfect and goes through somewhat of a character arc in the film. In several sequences, Jess considers herself a 'better' woman because she wasn't chasing boys and remains uninterested in her appearance. She thinks of women who find men attractive and wear revealing clothes as 'slags' (British slang for promiscuous women), and is quite influenced by her conservative upbringing. She has accepted the fact that she will also someday marry an Indian man who is "not White, Black or Muslim." The film constantly tries to push the boundaries of what characters themselves think when they think of what is and isn't 'Indian'. Jess is forced to rethink her beliefs and what kind of man she can be with when she falls for her Irish football coach. She goes as far as to ask her sister's advice on how to introduce a gora (North Indian slang for a white man, gori for woman) to their parents. Reiterations of what is suitable for the 'other' English people but not for people of Indian descent is a common theme in the film. When her best friend Tony comes out to her, she just remarks "but you're Indian", as if being a certain ethnicity precludes you from being homosexual. It could might as well be a remark of concern because even though she is accepting of him, she knows he will face difficult circumstances in the future because of his family. Jess and Tony have a remarkably supportive friendship in the film and it shines through in many conversations and events.
During a locker-room conversation between Jess and her football teammates, Jules points out how it is not just Indian girls who don't have support to pursue sports – few people come out to support their team as well and Joe getting to coach a girls' team is not considered prestigious enough by people around him. The film touches upon the intersections of gender and ethnicity and how it becomes a potent tool to limit women's freedom – especially in diaspora communities.
The film beautifully uses Indian music to showcase universal emotions that its characters are going through. A personal favourite is the superimposition of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's 'Tere Bin Nahi Lagda Dil Mera Dholna' on a montage of parallel sadness that Pinky and Jess are going through. Pinky's engagement has fallen through because of a misunderstanding and Jess has got into a fight with Jules.
I first saw this film years ago as a pre-teen in India, where the Hindi-dubbed version of Bend It was released as Football Shootball Hai Rabba! (roughly translates to All This Football, Oh God!). I saw it multiple times, not just because it was funny and entertaining but also because it read like an endearing fairytale of a girl who gets to break the limits imposed on her to follow her dreams, all while finding love, friendship and acceptance in the process. Watching it in the original English as an adult has given me new insight on what it says about Indian culture in the diaspora and the performance of femininity. When her sister's wedding falls on the same day as the final of an important football tournament, Jess is faced with a tough choice between supporting her family and playing for her team. I now understand that Jess never wanted to 'break free' of her parents and culture, she was attempting to forge a new identity where both – her family and her love for football – could fit seamlessly. As Mr. Bhamra insightfully pointed out, Jess would only be able to enjoy her sister's wedding if she first goes out and kicks the ball. This creation of a hybrid identity is what makes this film relevant and eminently watchable to this day.