The 2002 film that bent the rules and remains relevant even today

It is 20 years since the iconic Bend It Like Beckham was released. It reflected change and continuity in an increasingly multicultural Britain, going on to inspire generations of Asian women footballers, and challenge stereotypes, while continuing to move audiences across the globe

By Prasun Sonwalkar

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram


Published: Thu 21 Apr 2022, 11:37 PM

Last updated: Fri 22 Apr 2022, 8:22 AM

Bending rules in traditional Asian families is not easy, something that Bournemouth-based IT contractor Shashi Shekhar Singh knows too well. Hailing from Gaya in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, he is a self-made man, overcoming many odds while finding his way through poverty to a successful career, first in Bengaluru and then in Britain. He vividly remembers the day in April 2002, when he and his family, then based in Leicester, went to see Bend It Like Beckham. It was not too long after the 9/11 attacks in New York, when repercussions were being felt by Asians in Britain. Not exactly a football fan, Shashi didn’t know much about David Beckham, but opted for that film with a strange title since no new Bollywood film had been released that week.

In the film, Parminder Nagra, who grew up in Leicester, plays the role of Jesminder ‘Jess’ Bhamra, the teenage daughter of an Indian family living in west London, who dreams of becoming a professional football player like her hero, David Beckham, but her traditional Sikh parents forbid her to play sports. Undaunted, she secretly joins the local girls team, where she strikes up a close friendship with her teammate Jules (Keira Knightley) and helps the squad —Hounslow Harriers — reach to the top of the league with her skills on the field. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, the film weaves timeless themes of identity, race, gender, sexuality, religion and immigration through the magic of football in a way that few films have. It particularly connected — still connects — with young British-Asian women who love football but are held back by roles their families expect them to perform.

Says Shashi: “I did not grow up here [in Britain], but the film still moved me so much that I was crying by the end of the film, tears of joy. It was almost like a release, a cathartic film for me. Who among us don’t know the harsh parental judgements while growing up, the restrictions, their rigid expectations to conform to cultural stereotypes? And then to see Jess navigating so many adverse situations, yet conforming to tradition while trying to pursue her passion for football, and then her father relenting and allowing her to play — it was all so familiar to me. I have seen the film many times since 2002, and every time I am moved to tears. Imagine the film’s effect on Asian women, who grow up here, face similar situations. No wonder Jess has been a role model for many.”

Capturing the cultural chaos

The film got more traction because Beckham, the legendary player best known during his career for his ability to curl or bend the football on the way to the goal, agreed to let Chadha use his name and image because he is a big fan of supporting girls’ and women’s football. One of the rare Asian productions on British film and television screens that went mainstream — including Goodness Gracious Me, Kumars at No 42, Citizen Khan, Bhaji on the Beach — the film has attained something of a cult status, grossing almost £60 million on a budget of £3.5 million. The cast included Anupam Kher, Archie Panjabi, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Preeya Kalidas, Kulvinder Gheer, and football legend-turned-broadcaster Gary Lineker, who played himself.

It is described as a romantic comedy sports film or as an inspirational culture-clash comedy, but goes much beyond due to its unlikely connection between the very British sport of football and an Asian immigrant family — and all the cultural chaos that it involves. It was reportedly screened at the 2004 Pyongyang Film Festival and broadcast on TV in North Korea in 2010, making it the first western film to be publicly screened in the country.

As Chadha said in a 2003 interview: “In Britain, it’s the most successful British-financed British movie ever and I think it’s worked so well because it’s very culturally specific to Hounslow, to West London and it talks about a world which is really mixed without going on about it, it talks about someone dealing with being Indian and English without really going on about it…(Normally) that world is shown as problems, a kind of cultural problem, or conflict, or a clash, or a racial problem, or always a problem, and this film is showing that world as just existing. And people working through those things, and coming out the other side with something positive to say. I think that’s what most people live their lives around the world now.”

Two decades later, the noted director, writer, producer recalls: “I had lost my father in an accident two years before the film. So, at that point, I was totally grieving. But I didn’t know at the time, it’s only now when I look back at the film, and I go ‘oh…it’s so emotional and so raw’. I find it hard to watch the film to be honest 
because it reminds me of my dad, and my mum to some degree… everything the dad says (in the film) is my dad. My mum’s one goal was 
that I had to make perfect Indian food: meat and veg. To this day, I don’t make chapatis … I’m traumatized.”

A commentary on Britain’s multiculturalism

The 20th anniversary of the film’s release last week was marked by an outpouring of nostalgia and recollections of its impact on primetime television in documentaries and features, besides a large number of tweets and posts on social media. According to a BBC documentary by Miriam Walker-Khan, the film was inspired by former Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright. When Chadha saw a photograph of Wright wearing a Union Jack, it made her think about what Britishness really meant in the late 1990s, and she decided to write a film about the “evolving concept of Britishness”. The 
film has since been the focus of much academic research on multiculturalism, racism, 
sports and minority communities, and integration in Britain.

Toronto-based sports journalist Shireen Ahmed writes: “I pride myself on being a self-declared Bend It Like Beckham scholar…The most visceral response to this film from marginalised young women is that they see aspects of themselves they have never seen anywhere else on screen… The eternal requests faced by so many South Asian girls are rarely addressed in films for Western audiences: can you please put your dreams on hold and fulfill your family obligations and cultural expectations? Can you not fall in love with that activity or that person? Can you conform to what is expected of you? Even non-Indian young women feel these questions and these pressures… The core aspect of how Bend It Like Beckham has remained iconic for 20 years is not only the brilliant 
characters, memorable dialogues, and moving storyline, it is the way the film has connected and impacted different communities all over the world.”

Chadha drew situations and dialogues from real life. The film has some memorable quotes that reflect Britain’s multicultural reality, which includes the popularity of Indian cuisine:

— “Anyone can cook aloo gobi but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”

— “Don’t tell me. The offside rule is when the French mustard has to be between the teriyaki sauce and the sea salt.”

— “What family would want a daughter-in-law who can run around kicking football all day but can’t make round chapatis?”

— “I didn’t ask to be good at football, Guru Nanak must have blessed me.”

Women’s football in Britain

When the film was released, women’s football was not a professional sport in Britain; it was rarely covered on television. Now there is FA Women’s Super League featuring clubs with some Asian players, also attracting players from the United States and elsewhere. Besides, England is hosting the 2022 UEFA European Women’s Football Championship this year. The Football Association says the number of women and girls playing football in England has now reached 3.4 million, reaching its target to double participation in three years. The number of Asian women footballers at the top level is still nowhere near representative — the few include Kaljit Atwal, Rosie Kmita, Simran Jhamat, Layla Banaras, Kira Rai, and Millie Chandarana — but from the time when there were no players from the community, today they play in the Super League, besides coaches like Yasmin Hussain and Ali Speechly.

Speechly recalls how she felt when she saw the film when she was 19: “Oh my God, this is me. This is me on screen. She (Jess) found her people, maybe I could find my people. It is quite an important and emotional part of my football story. I love it.” Hussain’s story is similar to that of Jess. She was also passionate about football while growing up in Manchester in the 1990s. She initially played with boys, and wanted to join a women’s team, but there was no such team then. She gave up, but trained as a coach five years ago, reluctant to abandon “the only thing that gives me joy”. Now a prominent coach in east London, she coaches Frenford & MSA, a new team of 80 female players playing in a grassroots league, many of whom are of south Asian heritage.

Keen to give other girls the opportunities she never had, Hussain tells a local daily: 
“Women’s football is going in a good direction. I think girls find it easier to talk to me. I’m grateful they see me as someone who represents them, as a woman who represents them.” 
She also has her husband Nasim’s support: “He’s so supportive. When I used to play, I’d always come home in such a good mood. He would say ‘you seem so much happier, it’s really nice to have you around the house’.”

How the movie still remains relevant today

The film continues to resonate in Leicester, lead actor Nagra’s hometown, where she grew up after her Sikh parents migrated in the 1960s from Punjab.

The town with a large population of Asian origin is often held up as an example of the success of Britain’s policies of multiculturalism. Several fans of the film told the local media of its impact. For Mohammed Seedat, “It was mind-blowing seeing an Asian from Leicester become an international star. It made me really proud to be from Leicester and it helped to break — and confirm — so many stereotypes people have about us”, while Anisha Mistry, who was 10 when the film was released, says: “Diversity and inclusion is so important. And it’s good to have female role models and representation in mainstream media, not just in Bollywood. It helped people to understand our culture and how themes like family are important — and how some would be willing to give up their own dreams. But in the end, it was nice that she got the support from her family to follow her dream and smash it.”

But the outpouring of positive recollections included some critical voices, particularly on social media. Twitter user Neha 
Madhok wrote: “As much as I celebrate Bend It Like Beckham, I still remember what my 
dad said as we walked out of the cinema: 
‘Jules, she will be famous. Jess will not’. Keira Knightley’s career was launched by a queer coded desi film. That’s white supremacy in 
action”, which prompted several responses, 
including: “The opportunities that Keira Knightley got is [sic] due to privilege and it’s unfair in Parminder Nagra’s case as her performance in Bend It Like Beckham was amazing. Parminder deserved more from the film 
and TV industry.”

More news from