British-Indian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha has many TV and film projects under her belt, but the one that really put her on the map was the 2002 comedy-drama Bend it Like Beckham. Not only her, but the film also made British star Keira Knightley an overnight sensation. Since his turn as the tomboyish Jules Paxton in Bend it Like Beckham, Knightley has starred in a host of popular and acclaimed films, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Atonement, Love Actually, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina and Imitation Game.
Bend it Like Beckham has gained huge popularity over the years because he has spoken to so many people – women of color, people of different genders and races, the Indian diaspora living mostly in Europe or the UK, and of course, to sports fans. But many years have passed since I first saw the movie on TV as it was shown on Star Movies I think. And now I can’t help but think the feature resonated with so many people because it was something that Chadha felt deeply and he said it in a fun and honest way. A film from the heart, if you will. Throughout the film, emotions are tied together in a loving embrace with genuine laugh-out-loud moments. It doesn’t happen very often.
So the story goes like this – Jasminder, or Jess (a very convincing Parminder Nagra), is an 18-year-old who loves football. But his orthodox upbringing forbids him to participate in it at any level, not even for recreational purposes in fact. Mom wants her to behave like a ‘real’ young lady, dad (Anupam Kher as sweet but firm desi dad) has a soft corner for Jess, but he doesn’t want her to go through heartbreak as he had endured after failing to make a name for himself in cricket. Jess’s father had suffered from racism and despite his bowling skills, had been expelled from the cricket club. Despite this kind of personal history as emotional baggage, Jess dares to do what she wants. So that makes Bend it Like Beckham an underdog story too. The odds are stacked against her, but Jess, with Jules de Knightley as her best friend and an empathetic, sensitive coach (Jonathan Rhys Myers), she joins a local soccer team, and SPOILER alert, she reaches the major leagues.
The allusion to Beckham in the title is a play on the particular style by which world famous footballer David Beckham gets his free kicks. The story of a young Indian girl dreaming of being as talented and/or famous as a white Englishman in sports that millions love is inspiring. But Chadha shows us that inspiration does not always have to deviate from the preaching path. You can make a movie that influences others without being loud, obvious, or overly dramatic about it. Bend it Like Beckham was quietly inspiring. And while much of the credit goes to the writing and directing department (supervised by Chadha herself), the magnificent cast is to be applauded. Each has adapted its role to the T; whether it’s Jess or Archie Panjabi as Jess’ older brother, who has his own personality and ambitions, radically different from Jess.
There have also been real-life spillovers. Do you remember that sequence where Jess, insecure and vulnerable, tells her trainer how she got a scar on her thigh? Turns out it wasn’t in the script at first, but was added because the main star Nagra actually had the scar and was conscious of wearing shorts for most of the film. Art imitating life. While the film touched on gender issues – the male-female dynamic and the roles society expected of them, there was also another case of art reflecting off-screen life. Did you know that Gurinder Chadha was the first British Asian woman to direct a feature film?
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Here’s another surprising fact about the movie. All of the father-daughter scenes in the movie are so well done and raw, like it could have been something you could tell your own dad about. Now we know why. During the filming of Bend it Like Beckham, Chadha was mourning the death of her father who had just passed away. Chadha had previously spoken about it in a conversation with The Guardian. “When he died there was this real sense of loss and tragedy, but at the same time there was a sense of appreciation. It made me very impatient with people messing up life. It was an epiphany. And I didn’t know it at the time, but when I was doing Beckham, I was totally in mourning. That’s why this movie is so emotional and so raw, especially the scenes with the father. is a film that was made in mourning, and that makes the whole experience slightly bittersweet, because how could a film that radiated so much genuine joy have been made while the creator was going through such loss? turns out that life works in strange and mysterious ways.
Bend it Like Beckham was a surprise hit upon release, earning praise from critics as well as moviegoers.