The Women Who Don’t Bend in ‘Bend It Like Beckham’
The film contains a pantheon of archetypes, all of them represented in these Indian Panjabi women.
For years, I only knew how to watch a diaspora film sprawled out on someone’s couch. At family gatherings we tripped into the TV rooms, pulled these indie films out of their special boxes with their grainy printer-paper covers, and watched them with our feet dangling. They were usually bootleg copies passed down the line from a cousin with a camcorder until they reached us, the kids craving some kind of outside-world recognition. Even then we knew how rare it was to see people who looked like us in movies.
Diaspora films (herein referring to films by and about the South Asian global diaspora, originating in places like the UK, the US, Canada, and others) are often small, confined in budget and ambitious in story. Their plots veer between genres, cherry-picking tropes from the fish-out-of-water story to the postcolonial narrative to the immigration diary to the sprawling polyphonic multigenerational saga. When I was growing up, they typically premiered to small audiences in indie theaters, then were transformed, magically, into DVDs rented out at the local Indian grocery store or waiting on a neglected library shelf. And when you begged to put them on, your mother would turn it over in her hands bemused that you would pick up this strange film with its nameless cast and ridiculous title like American Desi. It’s like they were always waiting for you. Like they were being saved for the people who got it.
It wasn’t until Bend It Like Beckham that I saw one on a cinema screen.
Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 film about Hounslow girl Jess Bhamra rebelling against her family’s cultural expectations to play for her local women’s soccer team was a lightning strike. It topped the box offices in its native UK for three weekends following its release. Reviewers praised it as an “ethnic sports movie” and a “perfect coming-of-age comedy.” The film overlaid genres in familiar ways but then added that crucial element that set it apart––it focused on a British Asian character.
There was, at the time, an expected minstrality in these types of films, a careful performance of stereotypes that wouldn’t alienate an uninitiated audience. “Can there be an Indian comedy without a wedding?” Roger Ebert unabashedly wrote in his review. “All ethnic comedies feature scenes that make you want to leave the theater and immediately start eating, and ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ may inspire some of its fans to make Indian friends simply so they can be invited over for dinner.”
It can’t be overstated how important (if I’m allowed to use that frustrating and limiting word here) Bend It Like Beckham was and still is for girls like me—a woman-driven narrative about having dreams and earning the chance to pursue them was rare anywhere but was completely missing for South Asian women. But when a film hits the mainstream, it’s not just girls like me who watch it. Reading these early reviews, I’m painfully reminded that representation, as always, means different things for different audiences.
I saw Bend It Like Beckham at the Aquarius Theater in downtown Palo Alto, which showed films just beyond the American mainstream. I was twelve or thirteen and awkward in my body. It was just about the age when restlessness takes over. The shapelessness. The nebulousness. The bridge from middle school into high school required self-definition––interests, abilities, ethnicity, college goals, quirks. I was shifting constantly. My sense of self was in flux. And I was molding myself to a series of personalities, friend groups, and labels. Trying everything on, hoping to find the right self that would settle in with a satisfying click. Oddness was not a currency then. Indianness was an unshiftable thing. My sense of self at the time was almost completely determined by the amalgam of traits I had collected off of my favorite book and TV show characters.
I’m painfully reminded that representation, as always, means different things for different audiences.
After seeing Bend It,I happily poured myself into the mold of heroine Jess, played by Parminder Nagra. She was sporty and a tomboy, so I was going to be too. I was going to eschew all femininity. And for the entirety of freshman year I wore sports bras at all times, despite being barely a B cup. Never anything lacy or more comfortable. I even wore them to sleep, so scared I was of the way my body was changing under me. I wanted all signs of burgeoning womanhood and the strange sexuality that would follow it to be strapped down and out of sight.
At the start of freshman year, fueled by my Bend It Like Beckham aspirations to stand out and fit in in the prescribed ways, I tried out for the girl’s soccer team. I didn’t make it. In simple terms, I was crushed. I had been promised a cubbyhole for all my insecurities, and now that was gone. I had to make my own way. This is the strangeness of representation: It looks like a promise, but it’s an empty one.
The film opens with a daydream sequence—Jess is imagining herself scoring the winning goal for England alongside superstar David Beckham—which is immediately interrupted by her mother calling her to help her sister Pinky pick up outfits for her upcoming wedding. Pinky, played by the always-revelatory Archie Panjabi, enthusiastically cuts a course through the shopping district, while Jess trudges along. They run into Pinky’s snide, sticky-sweet, pink-clad girlfriends, who form a chorus around her in the shoe store, showing off their blonde highlights and blue contacts.
By grounding the story in a shopping sequence—these superficial temples of femininity—the first five minutes of the film have set up the “not like other girls” motif it strains against for the rest of the run time. Jess is juxtaposed with Pinky and her friends. She has soccer dreams. She wants to play professionally. She wants a life outside of Hounslow. Pinky is single-minded about getting married and relishes entering trad wifehood. At twelve or thirteen, I was at the precipice of deciding what kind of woman I was going to be. The film offered me two options: sporty or girly. Mel C or Emma Bunton. And it was clear which one it wanted me to pick.
What has become clear to me, dozens of rewatches later, is that this dichotomy is a too-simple reading of the film.
The film contains a pantheon of archetypes, all of them represented in these Indian Punjabi women: the get-around girls, the aunties, and the elders. Jess’s mother, watchful and judgemental, tells us she’s scared of her daughter becoming divorced, marrying a boy with blue hair, and wearing short skirts. Her overcarefulness looks like love and despair. The tailor who takes Jess’s measurements and makes fun of her modesty promises to turn her breasts, in one of the most quotable lines in the film, into “juicy juicy mangoes.” She revels in femininity, tradition, and embarrassing the younger ones. The middle-aged women who populate the B-roll and the backgrounds jog in their salwar kameez, stuff samosas, and chat happily. They tease Jess about her future husband and report on her to her mother.
This film is populated by women who present flaws, motivations, and complexity. They are part of the scenery and the film’s main players. The men who appear are incidental. They take up little time and story. This is a film about South Asian women, in all their many forms.
But, to me now, the centerpieces of the story are the women the film defines Jess against––the brown girls in pink. These women, Meena, Bubbly, and Monica (played by Pooja Shah, Paven Virk, and Preeya Kalidas, respectively), are the scantily dressed women who look down their noses at Pinky and over the tops of their frosted pink sunglasses at boys, and they are completely seductive. They steal the few scenes they’re in. As a tween, I was repelled by them, because the film mocked them, but I also wanted to be them. With their wanton sexuality and their profanity as they sat pitch-side, plot-side, to Jess, they were dazzling—all push-up bras and low-cut tops, smacking gum and catty comments. They were disobedient and rough-edged in a way that Jess couldn’t be. They were simply more fun to watch.
The hallmark of that ever-shifting tweenhood period is discomfort in the body. Being a child still but having fast-maturing body parts and sudden sexual responsibilities takes a different shape when you’re Indian.
Being a child still but having fast-maturing body parts and sudden sexual responsibilities takes a different shape when you’re Indian.
The double-edged sword of femaleness is on display in the movie: The same aunties who crow about the sexual appetites of their husbands are the ones telling Jess’s mother that they saw her making out with an English boy. It makes sense how Jess would be uncomfortable when the tailor wants to make her sari blouse fitted, or when she’s around her teammates stripping down in the locker rooms, but would still be expected to find a husband. In those scenes, she is too familiar to me.
My embarrassment for her is firsthand. When I was a kid eyeing the two-piece swimsuit the white neighbor girl wore at the complex pool even though we were both too young to fill one out, my mother told me promptly that if I wore a bikini she would disown me. She didn’t usually rely on no-nonsense scare tactics, so this one I remembered. Years of shopping in the men’s part of the store for roomy, body-covering T-shirts later, she finally told me I might as well wear a skimpy swimsuit because soon I’d have children and be too fat to enjoy it. Body shame is home-grown and spoon-fed.
I am loath to ever say we “need” a character because she shows us the possibility for people like her. It does a disservice to the creators and the audience both. But I can say, if we need Jess to show us alternatives for brown girls, we need the girls in pink too. Their oozing sexuality. Their pride in their bodies. Their haughtiness and rudeness. If Jess works within the system to change the rules, we need girls who don’t care about the system at all.
Scarcity of representation convinces us that the characters we get must stretch and pull themselves out of shape to envelop the full spectrum of experience. Diaspora films and TV shows have spawned a cottage industry of hot takes and essays, like this one, that pick apart the aspects of these shows that don’t reflect the writers’ experiences. And it should be said that these criticisms largely fall on women-driven narratives, like Netflix’s Never Have I Ever. Star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan was even pushed to tweet about the criticism she was receiving for playing the character Devi.
This is what scarcity does. When all you have is one girl kicking a soccer ball to stand against torrents of on-screen stereotyping, it’s easy to pin your hopes to her, even if she’s just a shill for second-wave feminist writing. But Bend It Like Beckham wasn’t just about Jess; it was about the world she occupied and the people she interacted with daily. The unholy trinity of Meena, Bubbly, and Monica and the un-prudish, aspiring wife Pinky give us more layers. Even Jess’s mother, who most often acts as a foil to the hero’s journey, has complexity about her. When we zoom out, we get a more complete picture of womanhood. We have more archetypes to play with.
When I was talking about this column to a friend, we discussed our favorite scenes—the ones that stood out to us after twenty years of rewatches. Without a doubt, I said, mine was the wedding montage near the end of the movie. It felt so lived-in. It was glamorous, but it was also unvarnished, taking place at a community hall with scenes that swung through the public, fluorescent bathrooms. The people milling around might have been extras, or maybe just friends and family of the production crew. Real-life British Punjabi bhangra band B21 is the wedding band. It is effectively archival footage of the early 2000s in West London. It wasn’t an exhibition for voyeurs; it looked like our weddings. Whatever Ebert said, the wedding wasn’t for viewers like him. It was for us, the people who get it.