Updated: Jan 16
The 2002 comedy ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, starring Parminder Nagra, Anupam Kher and Keira Knightley and was a pivotal movie for many of us in the South Asian diaspora, especially for South Asian women. For those of you who have not seen it – and you should – the movie follows the life of Jesminder “Jess” Kaur Bhamra, a young Indian Punjabi-British girl who struggles to convince her traditional parents to allow her to follow her dreams to become a professional footballer. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, it explores the family and societal expectations predominant in Desi culture that many of us are familiar with, marriage, career and family image.
For many of us, this movie was the first time we had ever seen South Asians represented accurately on screen, and even more, the experiences of South Asian women. I first saw it when I was 13. I was the only Pakistani in my year, and one of a handful of in my entire school. I was so used to seeing the same western faces and stories that I didn’t really think much of it. Even though I was not particularly athletic like Jess is in this film, ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ was still the first time that I saw someone that looked like me onscreen, and not to mention, who dreaded having to eat daal every day. Unlike Jess I never experienced outright racism as a kid growing up in primarily white spaces, but I did know of the alienation that came with being one of the few South Asians in the room.
As South Asians, especially part of the diaspora, we only ever saw ourselves represented onscreen a handful of times and they were usually the side characters put there for comic relief (this is not even counting the even scarcer non-Indian representation) so we usually take what we can get. ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ was a refreshing change of pace that focused on the individual life and future career aspirations of Jess and that didn’t serve to ridicule or make light of her cultural background.
In 2020, we are seeing the film industry starting to move in a more inclusive direction. People of colour want to see stories that they know and recognise reflected onscreen. The success of movies like ‘Black Panther’, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, and the anticipation of the upcoming ‘Ms. Marvel’ series clearly show that, contrary to popular belief, POC stories can do well and be enjoyed by everyone – regardless of their background.
The question now is, does the movie still hold up? I would say so. The movie still captures the essence of the Desi diaspora experience, through the lens of a South Asian woman. It navigates the irritation of the ‘What Will People Think’ mentality, the double standards between boys and girls and the pressure to get married early. However, the movie is not without its faults. Like many other 2000s female led movies, there is a sense of ‘I’m not like other girls’ to Jess’s character – something for which she is praised for. She is presented in a positive light for not wanting to get married when compared to her more traditional sister who wants to get married and settle down. There’s also the blatant homophobia, played for laughs, from Juliette’s (Keira Knightley) family and the discrimination towards other South Asians that is (still) considered normal.
It’s not the perfect movie, but it’s a fantastic starting point for accurate representation for South Asian women onscreen.
‘Bend It Like Beckham’ is available to watch on Amazon Prime.