Olympic Movie Festival: ‘Bend It Like Beckham,’ Revisited

With the Olympics coming up, questions of gender are already in the air, from sponsorship for American weightlifter Sarah Robles, to the presence of out soccer star Megan Rapinoe on the Olympic women’s team. With that in mind, my friend Chloe Angyal‘s going to spend some time over the next few weeks considering movies about women and sports, beginning today with Bend It Like Beckham. An editor at Feministing, Chloe hails from Sydney, Australia, works out of New York, and is writing her ridiculously awesome thesis on romantic comedies. Please welcome her.

By Chloe Angyal

I re-watched this movie for the first time in a long time in May, a few days after the American Women’s Professional Soccer league announced that it was shutting down permanently. It was a disheartening and ironic backdrop to a movie that concludes with the two heroines flying away to America to play NCAA soccer, with the hope that they’ll be able to play professionally in the States after that. WUSA, which they hope to play in, would be dead by the time they graduated, having only lasted three years. And WPS didn’t even survive that long. America, it seems, just can’t muster the interest, or the money, to sustain professional women’s soccer. Nonetheless, Bend it Like Beckham remains one of the best movies about women and sport to be made in the last fifteen years.

Bend it Like Beckham was Gurinder Chadha’s first movie (I’ll be writing about her second, Stick It, a little later), and one of the most striking things about it is how finely and lovingly it draws this subculture, without making any concessions to viewers who aren’t familiar with it. There’s no didactic “these are the rules of being an Indian girl” scene the way there’s a “these are the rules of rugby” scene in Invictus, for example. They don’t slow down the dialogue or go easy on the argot; had there been big studio involvement, this almost certainly would have happened. There’s a sense that you’re being allowed inside a closed and close-knit culture, and it’s sink or swim. Fortunately, it’s also hilarious – and like I said, the subtitles really help.

The main characters, Jules (Keira Knightley) and Jess (Parminder Nagra) both have parents who think that playing football makes them bad or at least deviant women, but for very different reasons. Jules’s mother is worried that “No boy’s gonna wanna go out with a girl who’s got bigger muscles than him,” and points out that “there’s a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one of them without a fella.” Later, she becomes convinced that soccer is turning her daughter into a lesbian. Jules’s father, on the other hand, is glad that Jules is focused on football: “If she’s more interested in playing football right now than chasing boys, well quite frankly I’m over the moon about that.” For Jules’s parents, football is the antithesis of and the antidote to boys. Jess’s mother, on the other hand, says that she doesn’t want her daughter “running around half naked in front of men.” And Jess’s father agrees, telling her that she “must start behaving like a proper woman.”

One of the things I love most about Bend it Like Beckham is Jess’s friendship with Tony (Ameet Chana). They come from the same culture – -first generation British and raised in strict and rather insular Indian subculture. They share a love for football, obviously, and though Tony’s passion for sports doesn’t make him a “bad” Indian man, the fact that he’s gay means that he understands what it feels like he’s not conforming to gender expectations. Of all the characters in the movie, Tony best understands the bind in which Jess finds herself. And he’s watching her negotiate this dilemma, admiring her courage and in some cases her capacity to deceive for the sake of her own happiness, as he tries to figure out how to negotiate his own cultural and gender minefield. I also like that, although he’s gay, that doesn’t disqualify him as a romantic option–-or at least, as a marriage option–-the way it might in an American teen movie about two white soccer players. In fact, when Tony asks for permission to marry Jess, it seems like a serviceable solution to their problems. But once again, Jess leads the way for him, mustering the courage to tell her parents the truth about her life. We’re left to hope that he’ll eventually be able to follow her example.

Bend it Like Beckham takes plenty of jabs at the other Indian girls that Jess and her sister Pinky mingle with, depicting them as shallow, bitchy, “slags,” and frankly I could do without that. And while it does its best to present Pinky and Jess as polar opposites, with Pinky leaning more to the superficial, sexually active side of the spectrum, it nonetheless depicts Pinky (Archie Panjabi) as an entirely three-dimensional and sympathetic woman. By the end of the movie, you’re left with the feeling that Pinky’s more traditional path and Jess’s unusual one are equally valid, just different. Perhaps the best example of this is the moment that always makes me cry (always, every time, without fail), when Jess is lifted up by her triumphant teammates and the image is juxtaposed with Pinky, in her red wedding sari, being lifted up by her new husband, as “Nessun Dorma” plays. The sisters are different, but they’re equal, and we’re overjoyed as viewers that each of them has chosen the path that’s right for them.