This week, British film director Gurinder Chadha, who produced, wrote and directed the 2002 film Bend Like Beckhamreflected in the film’s cultural and legacy impact over the two decades since its release.
In an interview with the BBC, Chadha recalled the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City, and described the film as a “great healing moment” for the world.
“I think it had a huge impact on how the film was received globally,” he said. “I think the world was quite shocked and devastated by that, and this is a plain film that tries to make people understand what it’s like to be different.”
Describing any piece of art, especially a sports-themed romantic comedy, as something that could heal the world in the aftermath of a globally traumatic event like 9/11 runs the risk of coming across as overbearing, to say the least. But in the case of Bend Like Beckham, that, if anything, actually underestimates the significance of the film. And the clearest evidence of that is how, despite a huge success at the box office and among critics, there hasn’t been anything like it since.
What makes Bend Like Beckham one of the best movies of all time?
It’s a relatively straightforward story: Jess, a high school student living in West London, is a master of soccer, but due to a combination of pressure from a more traditional Punjabi family and a lack of opportunity for female athletes, she can only flaunt it. skills among friends in the local park. She was discovered by another soccer player who signed her up for the local amateur women’s team, the Hounslow Harriers, causing a conflict of culture, family, and love.
The brilliance of the film (really Chadha’s brilliance) is how it weaves a story where each thread and individual character deserves a stand-alone feature.
This could be a film about the struggles of female soccer players.
It could have been a film about clashes between first and second generation migrants.
It could be a film about race relations in England in the early 2000s.
It could have been a film about a (slightly spooky) love triangle between a coach and his two star players.
This film is all these things, with a sophisticated subplot, (almost) perfect casting, one of the greatest film soundtracks of all time and a climactic ending sequence that juxtaposes the beauty of a traditional Punjabi wedding with the excitement of winning a soccer final.
Bend Like Beckham make a new breakthrough in terms of representation
When I come out of the cinema after watching Bend Like Beckham for the first time (on my 12th birthday), I experienced something I couldn’t articulate well until much later. It was such a rush to see people like me and my family on screen. For South Asians living in the West, Punjabis in particular, this is the first time we see our culture in contemporary stories that reflect our real lives.
For a Punjabi-Australian Muslim child living in a predominantly white conservative city in the NSW region after 9/11, it is shocking and very reassuring to see people who dress and talk like my family in a hot film. received by audiences from various backgrounds.
Chadha’s aim of making the film to try and “make people understand what it’s like to be different”, especially in a world as divided by hatred as ours during the War on Terror, resonates with generations of the migrant community.
Bend Like Beckham it’s not just about the South Asian diaspora, it’s for them. This film is packed full of Punjabi language and cultural references which are not explained or subtitled. Nothing detracts from the overall story or impact of the film, but it’s a loving nod to those of us watching who feel connected to this global community.
I can guarantee that no one else in my cinema in 2002 knew what “aloo gobi” or “gora” was, but references to Punjabi food and culture feel like a wink from Chadha to someone like me. “I know this movie is for everyone, but I saw you – and it’s especially for us,” she said.
Everything from name instigation (“Jesminder” becomes “Jess”), pressure from parents to become respected white-collar professionals, and examinations of racism in sport are all themes that feel like they were ripped from the diaries of second-generation South Asian children. lives in the UK, Australia, Canada, USA and New Zealand.
As much as we support Jess, we understand her parents’ reluctance to accept her desire to become a soccer player is not only based on outdated conservative stereotypes, but also the fear that she will be let down by others. a society that doesn’t respect her for who she is – a tan woman trying to play a professional sport. Fast forward 20 years and consider, is it wrong?
As if Bend Like Beckham yet laden with social commentary, it also manages to touch on sexuality and how it relates to migrant identity, which not only feels radical for 2002 but is a theme that remains underexplored in pop culture.
The best soundtrack of all time
Talking about pop culture, no talking about Bend Like Beckham complete without heaping praise on the film’s soundtrack. The selection of songs, which Chadha says was on his playlist at the time, echoes the cultural thematic fabric we see on screen.
Blondie, Mel C, Basement Jaxx and Victoria Beckham sit down with iconic Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, bhangra beats from B21 and Bally Sagoo and Punjab’s answer to Do Conga, Gaddi Rail.
If all that doesn’t sound fun enough, throw the all-time Texas banger inner smile, No Dorma and Curtis Mayfield’s Move Up (I like to imagine that Kanye West is watching Bend Like Beckham when he decided to taste Mayfield for his hit Touch the sky), and without a doubt you have the best soundtrack of all time.
The film was released around the same time as the modern bhangra revival that began in the UK in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Just a few years before Panjabi MC had recorded Mundian to Bach Ke for his 1998 album Legalized.
After Bend Like Beckham bringing Punjabi culture to the fore, the song was released as a standalone single a few months later. It sold millions of copies worldwide and was remixed by Jay-Z.
Chadha has somehow managed to inject Punjabi culture into the worlds of professional football and Brooklyn hip-hop.
Inheritance from Bend Like Beckham
Considering the film’s tremendous critical and commercial success, Hollywood’s failure to capitalize on the cultural and social conversations it taps into becomes all the more obvious.
The only bankable star that came out of the film was the white one. Keira Knightley (also possibly the worst actor in film) goes on to lead the role in Caribbean Pirates, True Love and Pride & Prejudice.
The next most successful actor from Bend Like Beckham was Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who played coach, Joe, who went on to star in the big-budget action film franchise and TV shows including Mission: Impossible III, Tudor andVikings.
Meanwhile, the film’s main – and best – actor, Parminder Nagra, turned to direct-to-TV films for several years before landing a recurring role in IS and SHIELD agent. A fine career, sure, but far from the blockbuster success of Knightley and Rhys Meyers.
A film like this in 2002 was seen as a rare oddity rather than something to emulate. That slowly changed with the rise of actors like Dev Patel and Mindy Kaling, but the fact that it took two decades to get to this point is still an indictment of how mainstream cinema is disconnected from the realities of life for millions of people around the world. world.
In fact, it was Chadha himself who told the most of these kinds of stories. He followed Bend Like Beckham very silly and fun Bride & Grooma Bollywood reimagining of Austen.
In 2019, he released Dazzled by the light, a film based on the life of Pakistani-British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor and his love for Bruce Springsteen. Parallel with Bend Like Beckham clear, though the film’s setting in the 1980s allows Chadha to explore the rise of the far right and provides sharp parallels to our present moment.
But we can’t keep relying on Chadha to carry the flag, she has already done more than her fair share. The real legacy of Bend Like Beckham is proving that films about women’s race, class, family, love, and sports can be fun, thought-provoking, and make a lot of money.
It is past time for us to have more of them.
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