My Manchester United history is admittedly a little fuzzy, but I don’t think of Mr Beckham as a poster boy for challenging gender roles within certain cultures and religions. He lends his name and likeness (albeit briefly in stock footage and smiling poster form) to the film because of his innate ability to curl a ball, in other words ‘bending it’. The heroine of the film, Jesminder Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) does her own sort of bending too but far from simply learning to emulate her favourite footballer, her story is a surprisingly considered view of a girl challenging the social and cultural norms or her upbringing.
Bend It Like Beckham follows Jesminder Bhamra, an 18-year-old Indian girl from a family of Punjabi Sikhs living in West London. Jess is mad about football and clearly possesses talent but she’s only ever played in the park until a chance meeting with the feisty Jules (Keira Knightley) introduces her to the local girls football team. This is not exactly what her family expects from her as a young woman and this conflict of interest generates more than a little household tension.
I went into this film thinking that it would be a standard coming-of-age tale, complete with a lead that rises up the ranks of the sport. Scenes of football action are obviously present, and they have a refreshing amateur feel to them, but football is merely the framework for a story that deals with challenging conventions. Bend It Like Beckham is ambitious as it touches on friendship, family, tradition, gender roles, homosexuality and religion. Ok, so it doesn’t plumb the depths of each of these but they are all present, weaving an interesting tapestry that is Jess’s world.
It has been said that one of the great taboos is religion, and its presence and portrayal in cinema has arguably not been in the best light (although that’s probably a subject for another blog post – opinions are plentiful and varied!). What can be said for Bend It Like Beckham is that it’s never disrespectful, poking fun in all the right places. There’s a reverence in the humour that is reflected in Jess’s character too, and that’s down to writer-director Gurinder Chadha clearly playing to her strengths and drawing on her own background for some authentic family drama. I’m well aware that this film was made around 12 years ago but the dialogue especially makes it feel dated with plenty of moments to make you cringe. Were the early 2000’s really like that?
For all its ambition and topical nature, Bend It Like Beckham is still quite plain and only sporadically enjoyable. It starts well enough but unfortunately still feels the need to go for a Hollywood-style ending that ties up all the loose ends along with the weak romantic thread, and ultimately it doesn’t do justice to all the interesting elements of society and culture that it wants to address.