20 years ago, “Bend It Like Beckham” changed the way millions of girls saw themselves

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes a comment for CBC Sports. For more information on CBC Opinion Departmentwatch this FAQ.

“What family would want a bride who can run all day in football but not be able to make round trips?” – Mrs. Bamra. (This column contains spoilers, but if you have not yet seen this movie, watch it now.)

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Bend it like BeckhamOne of the most impressive films of all time, in my opinion, turns 20 today. It changed forever the discussion about Brown girls and sports, and the representation of South Asia on the big screen and behind the camera.

While we are in an era with dark skin, starring from South Asia in some of the most popular TV series (eg season two of Bridgerton on Netflix), this iconic line by the fantastic Bhamra lady is as shocking and topical as many of the other themes covered in the main film. Mrs. Bhamra is one of the most enjoyable characters that director Gurinder Chadha has brought to life with this beautiful and important story, in which so many young girls have seen – and still see – themselves being reflected in the film.

Two decades ago Bend it like Beckham told the story of Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra, a girl who loves Manchester United from a traditional Sikh family who plays soccer for fun in the local park and then is invited to join a group of girls. As the film unfolds, she falls in love with her coach, Joe, which leads to tension with her teammate and girlfriend, Juliette “Jules” Paxton.

It combines issues of interracial relationships and dynamic power and of course presents the development of a character like Jess, played perfectly by Parminder Nagra, who unfortunately appears very rarely on screen since then as a central figure.

I’m proud to be self-proclaimed Bend it like Beckham scholar. I have written about the importance of this film in graduate school (I got an ‘A’ on paper), I interviewed Tsanta when the music version of the movie hit Toronto, and I’m going on to speak for the importance of this film on many levels: as a footballer, as a daughter from South Asia and as a tribal female sports journalist in the mainstream media.

The most compassionate response to this film by marginalized young women is that they see aspects of themselves that they have never seen anywhere else on screen. This in combination with the stories of young women in places where they should not be while struggling with their identity and their future is what knocks on the door.

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The eternal demands faced by so many South Asian girls are seldom met in Western movies: can you please put your dreams on hold and fulfill your family obligations and cultural expectations? Can you not fall in love with this activity or this person? Can you comply with what is expected of you? Even young women who are not Indian feel these questions and these pressures.

Culture writer Stacy Lee Kwong wrote on Instagram that even though she is not Punjabi, the British “or even a little sporty” this movie made her feel like she was seen. “Two decades later, it is still valid,” Kwong wrote.

Bend it like Beckham interrogates many aspects of the two protagonists’ lives, but as the spotlight shines on Jess, he asks us to look at everything from the experiences of immigrant families, socio-economic inequalities, systemic racism, LGBTIQ acceptance to the wider community and of course , sexism in sports.

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There is a reason that Sporty Spice is the only one that does not have a boyfriend!“- Paula Paxton, Juliette’s mother.

Bend it like Beckham shows the ways in which sexism and misogyny in sports are not limited to South Asian communities, but also prevail in white, middle-class families, as we see with Jules, played by Kiera Knightley.

Paula desperately wants Jules to follow the social rules of femininity, while Jules would rather break a ball in the back of the net. Like Jess, their mothers are the ones who question their passion for football as opposed to their dads, who try to support them in different ways. This further explores the ways in which women often support patriarchal systems and do not let their daughters thrive, a very delicate matter, but one that Chadha carefully explores.

I remember the day I first saw this movie. It was early summer 2002 and I was at a theater in Yonge and Bloor with my cousin Nadia. I had left my son and my newborn daughter with their grandparents and went to the cinema for a few hours. I remember crying at one point when Jess was cleaning her soccer socks as tears rolled down her cheeks because she was torn between what she loves: football and family chores. I’m still crying during this scene. Not to mention that the image was upgraded from the absolutely great soundtrack I hear on the Spotify soundtrack and I have a CD in the car.

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I laughed heartily at the witty singles Mrs. Bamra beats on her daughters and I liked the way the family dances with joy at Pinky’s wedding and I laughed at Mrs. Paxton’s seriousness and swing. The most incredible scene for me was as Tony leads Jess to the final race, she tries to untie her beautiful sari and change her vanity case. I still remember the excitement of the excitement I felt watching. I have changed from a kit in a similar way, trying not to crumple my shalwar kameez or my beautiful lingas and pull out my jewelry so carefully. The most important crossroads of my life – community and football – was there for everyone to understand. I still get it in my head when I think about it.

Representation is important

My heart was warmed by the familiar scenes of hot tea served on Corell dishes, and the conversations and noises from a beloved and bustling Indian house or scenes filmed in Southall, a lively London, Pakistani, vibrant neighborhood. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

But it was not only the good that resonated with me, it was also the most difficult parts of life that the film depicts. The first time I was racistly abused was on a soccer field during a match. I was 12 years old. And just like Jess, I retaliated and was punished, but the perpetrator was not. These moments can be turbulent, but seeing what happened to me more than a decade earlier that was portrayed on the big screen for the masses changed the way I thought about sharing my own experiences through storytelling. I carry this in my work until today.

During my 2019 interview with Chadha about Burn everything podcast, I asked her if she felt that there was sufficient representation of the South Asian experience in cinema and the mainstream media.

“It’s not enough. Not for me,” he said. “I mean, I just do not see enough movies for our experience, I just do not see them out there. Obviously, there are some very bad movies, you know. I’ve seen people try to copy what I’ve done but do not pay enough attention to it and try “to make it authentic, true and good, you know. But I have to say I have not really seen it.”

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Chadha knows this movie is not just a blockbuster product but a game changer. It inspired generations of female footballers and also created an important stage for Tony, Jess’s best friend, which resonated around the world. Twenty years ago we did not see many movies that dealt with issues related to racist gay characters. It’s one of many ways Bend it like Beckham he thought ahead of his time and recognized the reality of the community he portrayed.

We know that representation is very important. And that the audience has shot so much of this film. Since its premiere, Bend it like Beckham has not only inspired a group of academic work but a plethora of narrative pieces about why it matters so much. Major stores like ΚΤΚ, espnWand Huffington Post have offered perspectives from both racial women and racist non-binary people on the film and its significance. Reliable football website All about XISteph Yang gave a fancy schedule for Jess and Jules after they left for the University of California. For The AtlanticRajpreet Heir said why Jess’s story mattered so much. GalDem, a UK-based magazine of racial women writers presented an extensive oral history of the film written by Neelam Tailor. There are many more. The BBC’s Miriam Walker-Khan has made an entire documentary about the film that will be screened this weekend.

The key aspect of how Bend it like Beckham has remained iconic for 20 years not only the brilliant characters, the memorable dialogues and the moving story, but the way the film has connected and influenced different communities around the world. Tsanta is bold and does not apologize for his importance in the world and rightly so.

Possibility and power in the stories of Jess and Jules allow us to dream and succeed. We can be athletes and mothers and strong women. We can be loved and loved and supported and remain independent.

As we continue to fight racism, sexism and homophobia in sport, uncontrolled abuse in women’s football and the exclusion of racial women in so many parts of society, Bend it like Beckham it continues to remind us to fight for what we want: to fight for what is fair and for what we deserve. As Mr. Bhamra says so beautifully: “I want him to fight and I want him to win.”

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