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Currently in its seventh month, Videology’s Independent Women is a monthly screening series bringing you underrated, overlooked, “Why haven’t I seen this?!” films directed by women. This month, they’re bringing you the cross-cultural, coming-of-age flick, Bend It Like Beckham.  

It’s not hard to rewatch Bend it Like Beckham and see the charm that swept audiences off their feet in 2002. The film tells the story of Jess (Parminder Nagra) as she navigates her passion for football, her parents’ expectations, and the difficulties of being a British Sikh in modern day London. Though writer/director Gurinder Chadha (Bride & Prejudice, Bhaji on the Beachhad no experience writing soccer stories, she was able to create a nuanced tale that explores the camaraderie of the game, as well as cultural  conflicts. One of the most well crafted elements of the story is its detailing of true modernity in Britain. As Jess tries to balance her family’s traditional image of womanhood with her love of soccer, her friend Jules (Keira Knightley) grapples with her “lack of femininity” as perceived by her mother. The main antagonists of the film are Mr. and Mrs. Bhamra (Anupam Kher and Shaheen Khan, respectively), but not due to any malicious intent or classic “parents don’t understand” setup. In fact their perspective is quite sensible. It’s just outdated to their daughter’s desires. They want her to marry an Indian boy and go to college, but she just wants to play football.

One of the things that has held up quite well, over the past fifteen years, is the film’s depiction and acceptance of sexuality. Whether it’s the “lesbian athlete” stereotype imposed on Jess or her sister’s sneaky (and untraditional) premarital relations, throughout the movie, characters discuss the hidden cultural aspects of sexuality. However, this extends past Jess’s traditional Punjabi Sikh upbringing. In fact, due to her short her and slender build, Jules is also assumed to be either a man or a lesbian, which leads to a few comical misunderstandings. On the other hand, one of Jess’s male friends is revealed to be closeted, which is only a problem due to cultural expectations for him to get married. Director Gurinder Chadha balances a lot of cultural nuance without being extremely heavy-handed, condemning neither side for their actions. Instead, she looks for that grey area of compromise between the old and new.

It’s worth noting that Bend it Like Beckham offers an in-depth exploration of the prejudices embedded in British society, a personal element for the director due to her own Punjabi background. Jess is an outsider. Her heritage makes her an outsider in her city and her sex makes her an outsider in sports. Though she plays on a multicultural female team, she’s notably the only Punjabi woman. Feeding off of this fact, an opposing team calls her “Paki” to instigate a fight in the middle of a match. At one point, her father talks about the discrimination he met as a cricket player back in his youth, using it as an argument against Jess playing soccer. Throughout the film, these little side roads show a darker underbelly to British culture, but to Chadha’s credit, the characters are able to make progressions in their thinking, showing subtle character transformations.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Chadha stated “The idea (of the film) was to empower young women to say, ‘You don’t have to follow the convention of what is expected of you.’” That message rang quite true with audiences across the world, and just like that, Bend it Like Beckham became a sensation. It grossed $76 million on a $6 million dollar budget. It launched the career of Keira Knightley and brought David Beckham into the American consciousness. It was even the only Western movie to be screened over television broadcast in North Korea. Fifteen years later, it’s still a power film about finding your inner strength and being a strong woman, regardless of what that definition means. The performances from Knightley and Nagra are wonderful and the direction by Chadha is the perfect blend of charming and dramatic. At its heart, Bend it Like Beckham is more important not for its messages on sports, but for its focus on female empowerment and the desire to take risks against the rigidity of culture.

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