Bend it Like Beckham (2002) is available to rent, buy and stream.
England’s historic win at this year’s Women’s Euros has had an immense impact on the women’s game in the UK. Everyone from ESPN to grassroots coaches are heralding the victory as the dawn of a new era in the life of the sport.
But it’s worth remembering that progress is not always a straight line. Now is not the first time that it has been cool to be a girl who plays football or at least one who takes an interest. The nineties saw the game go through a resurgence in popularity and cultural relevance, in no small part thanks to the Ferguson-led renaissance of Man United. Couple that with the rise of the ladette, and there was no shortage of sports-minded girls in media. From Sporty Spice to the Leicester-City-supporting Kenny in Rose Impey’s Sleepover Club books, the footie-mad tomboy found herself in the middle of a significant cultural moment. Thus, a natural product of this zeitgeist was Bend It Like Beckham.
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Directed by Gurinder Chadha, the film follows Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra), a West London teenager who longs to pursue her passion for football against the wishes of her conservative parents, Sukhi and Mohaan (Shaheen Khan and Anupam Kher). Early in the summer, after she finishes her A-Levels, Jess is spotted running rings around the lads in her local park by Jules Paxton (Keira Knightley). Jules then recruits her to join the semi-pro Hounslow Harriers team and opens Jess’ eyes to the possibility of a career as a professional player.
The post-feminist attitudes of the 2000s, in keeping with the twenty-year nostalgia cycle, have been re-evaluated in recent years. In this respect, Bend It Like Beckham seems to subvert the received wisdom of the time that women had won the war against misogyny. All they had to do was sit back, consume the spoils and “have it all.”
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This is not a straightforward proposition for Jess and Jules when their aspirations start pushing against their families’ ideas of acceptable femininity. Jess’ struggle to reconcile her longing for individual fulfilment with her parents’ desire for her to adhere to their idea of a conventional gender role is the driving engine of the film. Jules’ parents might not actively obstruct her participation in football, but they have more in common with Jess’ parents than initially thought. Both of their mothers are terrified of the possibility that their daughters’ love of football might lead to them failing to secure a male partner. The only one more afraid of them not being interested in men is the movie itself.
There has been a persistent rumour that Bend It Like Beckham was initially conceived as a queer romance between Jess and Jules, the source of which appears to be a comment made by Nisha Ganatra, an out lesbian filmmaker. Ganatra, identified in the 2003 AfterEllen Report as a friend of Chadha, is reported to have claimed while speaking at the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image that Chadha “chickened out” of this original plan for fear of offending audiences.
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Regardless, this is one of those pop culture theories that could have just as quickly evolved due to the audiences’ perspectives on the film. Jess’ romance with Harriers’ coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) could generously be described as tepid. Unlike Jess’ older sister, Pinky (Archie Panjabi), who’s been fooling around with her now fiancé, Teetu (Kulvinder Ghir), behind their parents’ backs for years, it’s implied that Jess has never had a boyfriend before the events of the film. Supposedly, this has been part of Jess’ efforts to be the perfect Indian daughter that gets conveniently forgotten by her parents in their dismay over Jess’ football obsession. But, to paraphrase from But I’m a Cheerleader, it’s easy to refrain from seeking out a boyfriend when you’re not attracted to men, even if you don’t consciously realise it.
Movies dealing with their protagonists’ love of hobbies or careers that go against established gender norms are a mixed blessing for queer viewers, with Bend It Like Beckham and Billy Elliot being two of the best-known examples in British film. While they can effectively tap into the complicated feelings of gender, relationships, and family across the spectrum of queer identities, it can be hard to watch just how desperate they are to exorcise the spirit of queerness from their own stories.
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Jules’ excruciatingly small-minded mother, Paula (Juliet Stevenson, in a rare comedic turn), is practically ecstatic when Jules tells her that playing football and having short hair doesn’t make her a lesbian. Meanwhile, Jess’ closeted friend, Tony (Ameet Chana), ends the movie in an unacknowledged deadlock after Jess rejects his offer of marriage – an offer made to help her obtain her parent’s blessing to attend university in America on a football scholarship. There isn’t even a hint of a possibility that Tony’s family might one day accept his true self in the way Jess’ parents accept their daughter’s difference.
Still, the door may not be entirely closed on the queer possibilities for Bend it Like Beckham. The film was adapted into a musical in 2015. While the show didn’t flop, per se, its year-long run on the West End failed to leave a lasting impact, with the songs not strong enough to build up a following. But with queer teen musicals like The Prom and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie proving themselves capable of finding an audience, a reworking of the musical could, at least in theory, offer an avenue to fulfil the source material’s thwarted potential.