Original US release date: March 12, 2003
Production budget: $5,640,000
Worldwide gross: $76,583,333
I have scars that are still healing. I’ve been a full-time teacher since essentially 2003. Before I taught at the college where I am currently a professor, I worked at a boarding school for over seven years. I left there in 2010 and it closed down exactly five years and two days after that, but in the time that it existed, those in charge controlled both the students and faculty through a system of fear, intimidation, and guilt. Individualism was stifled. Dissenting voices were quashed. If someone proved to be gaining too much traction and began to present a problem for the efforts of the board to maintain their illusion and control – if doubt in their methods was firmly planted in the campus population – the guilty party was systematically discredited and often excommunicated.
Being there has left scars on many. It has scarred a copious amount of the former students. It has scarred many of the former employees. I’m one of them. I didn’t realize what was happening at the time, but the influence they attempted to exert still has a hold on me and affects me to this day. As a result – in an effort to protect myself on numerous levels – I have put up walls in the years since leaving. I do my current job the best I can but when I leave campus, I disengage. I have trouble allowing myself to connect to others. Because I remember. And I don’t want to put myself in that situation again.
There are many who were there who are feeling the lasting effects to a far greater degree than I am. I got off relatively easily compared to others. But I saw these very themes and ideas represented in Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham. The movie is a bit of an odd duck and the themes are dealt with mostly through a lighthearted, comedic approach, and in a completely different context, but they’re definitely there.
In the film, Parminder Nagra plays “Jess” (short for Jesminder) the daughter of Indian Sikh parents. Her family adheres very strictly to all Sikh traditions, yet Jess has grown up in a modern (2003) Britain, whose values and practices forcefully clash with those of her religion. More than anything, Jess wants to play football (or “soccer” to us Americans. I’ll be referring to it as “football” from here on out.). In spite of her parents’ frustrations, Jess is a huge fan of David Beckham and is greatly inspired by him, to the point that she joins a local girls’ team at the behest of Keira Knightley’s Jules, her teammate. Jess’s parents object so strongly that she must keep it a secret from them. And her secrets don’t end there.
Cosmetically, the film doesn’t feel like is has a budget of over $5 million. In fact, I got a consistent vibe that I was watching something that was produced in the eighties, both in terms of the production value and the stylistic sensibilities. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but the entire production feels . . . well . . . cheap. The contrast is blown out, the voice dubbing is poorly synced, the shots are too quick and close to give the performances room to breathe and, while the three main cast members are solid enough (Nagra, Knightley, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers), much of the supporting cast are genuinely weak actors, coming off as hammy and over-the-top.
But when one digs underneath the surface, what is uncovered is a film long ahead of its time. Bend it Like Beckham addresses female empowerment, freedom in the face of religious oppression, and tolerance towards others of different upbringings, origins, and sexual orientations. Long before these were all daily topics of conversation, this little British comedy was tackling all of them head-on. And, on paper, creatively, the film does an excellent job with all of it. Some may roll their eyes when Jess and Jules quarrel over the affections of Rhys Meyers’s Joe, but that issue ends up leading directly to conflict between Jess and her family over traditional relationships within their own religion and upbringing. With the institution of marriage being such a pillar of Sikhism, I was fine with that particular point f contention between Jess and Jules as it does nothing to elevate Joe above the women and instead serves Jess’s quest for independence.
Jess struggles with that quest, however, to the very end and most likely beyond. She has essentially been indoctrinated by her family and her religion and taking a stance in direct opposition to either feels inherently wrong to her, even if she knows better in her head. She actually feels like she owes them her loyalty, when in fact all she owes is to herself. She owes herself the freedom to live her own life. But she never truly gets those thoughts and feelings of guilt out of her head, and I can understand that. I can’t understand it from the same perspective, or even to the same degree. But there are still things that are fully acceptable that I feel are not, simply because I had it drilled into my head for so long by a controlling and insecure institution. On some level, I feel her pain. Nagra conveys this internal conflict perfectly and Chadha (along with his co-writers) shows a clear comprehension of the baby steps that are required to overcome that which has been ingrained so deeply.
If we’re looking at the film objectively, Bend it Like Beckham strives to be a better film than it formally is. The more technical and cosmetic components of the filmmaking are certainly subpar and never allow the movie to present itself as the quality contender that it knows it can be. But creatively and artistically, Chadha and company succeed on every level, with a thoughtful, insightful narrative that was ahead of the societal curve by nearly a full decade. Ultimately, I can forgive the film’s glaring flaws in favor of its prescient cultural relevance and its willingness to speak to those who didn’t have too many people to talk to, even as recently as 2003. As with most “sports” movies, the film isn’t truly about football, but rather about what the football brings out in Jess and, vicariously, the viewer.
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