NRI Week: Bend it Like Beckham, A Story for Girls

Everyone should watch this movie. It’s available for rent or purchase on basically every streaming service, and believe me you will want to purchase it.

If this were an Indian movie, the lesson would be “give up your dreams, respect your parents, they know what is best and your life is ultimately owed to them”. But it’s an NRI movie, and so the lesson that is stated explicitly over and over again is “you can’t live your life for other people, be free”. Our heroine loves and respects her parents and her culture, but that doesn’t mean she owes them her whole life. Isn’t that refreshing? Not just for a girl to be allowed to live for herself, but for any child to be allowed to live for themselves rather than be told over and over that they must live for their parents.

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Can we also take a little moment for racism? Parminder was amazing as the lead character in this film, and then the best job she was offered was as a member of the ensemble in an American TV show. Kiera Knightly was the supporting character, and now she is Kiera Knightly. I love both actresses equally and think they are equally talented, but why couldn’t Parminder have gotten some of the options Kiera was given? Especially since she was 10 years older and an actual experienced actress at the time the film released?

This is the essential danger of moving overseas that Indian films drum out over and over again, if you live abroad your children will be “corrupted”. And this movie shows that corruption, age mates from other cultures saying “arranged marriages? Like, you don’t get to date? That’s weird!” Your best friends who love you say “You can’t be happy with the life your parents chose, rebel, be yourself”. Other non-desi adults offering you freedom, not bothering to check with your parents first if this is right or wrong because you are a grown adult. Being free to walk around the city without the police stopping you and asking where your parents are, being free to buy things on your own, being free to wear whatever clothes you want once you are outside of the house. And being free as part of a great community of “corrupted” children, siblings and cousins and friends who all serve as fellow conspirators, who ally as the second generation against the first. Who believe that there is nothing wrong in reaching for happiness and doing what is allowed in this new country, even if it would not be allowed in the old country.

In an Indian film, this is the horror story. This is what makes you feel good about staying in India, lets you feel that your culture is superior to the corrupted west. But this is a film from that corrupted west, and it takes the side of the corrupted child and says that it is not fair to expect her (or him) to live as though they are still in India when they are not Indian, not any more. They are British (or American or Canadian or Australian) and this is what it is like here.

Indian films sometimes show that same conspiracy of children against adults, a grasp for freedom and happiness against the parents. But in India, the adults are the majority. Their perspective is supported by the police, by your teachers, by popular culture, by the whole country. You have to fight and hide from everyone if you want to do something as simple as hold hands with your boyfriend, or wear shorts in public, or be a girl who plays sports. Overseas, you just have to hide from your parents and their friends. Everyone else is there to support you. Or at least just doesn’t care to get involved.

Remember all the stuff Ranveer and Alia had to go through just to be together? They still dated, but with the constant risk of being locked in their rooms, forbidden from classes, or simply caught together. Overseas, they could simply have met up after work or on campus or anywhere else outside the ethnic enclave and no one would care.

When I first saw this movie, I had watched maybe 3 Indian movies. Watching it this time, after having been immersed in Indian films and culture for a decade and a half, I see so much more. The things that Gurinder Chadha is saying, which to my American ears sounded normal and non-revolutionary, are revolutionary, are crazy things to say about and to the second generation immigrant children community. And the thing is, she is clearly talking to that community.

This is not an Indian film by any means, the structure and style is distinctly wryly British. But Chadha includes little moments, like having our heroine Parminder Nagra bring out a tray of tea the first time her coach Jonathan Rhys Meyers visits their house in the same kind of shot we would normally see in a “bride meeting” film sequence. Or the slow build of Parminder and Kiera Knightly meeting each other that imitates the build of the central couples meeting in Dil To Pagal Hai or DDLJ. Or the dramatic airport ending. She isn’t spoofing those tropes, it’s more delicate than that, she is saying “this is the language you are familiar with, and I am using it so that you will see how it can be used in a different way.” What if the first meeting is about pursuing your destiny of a career, not a marriage? What if the most important destined connection is with your female best friend, not a lover? What if the happy ending to that airport run is for you to leave and pursue your dreams and know that love can wait?

The cast is part of that feeling of “a new story in a new place, but with little treasures leading you back”. Parminder Nagra’s real life is so similar to her character’s that her real stories were added to the film (like burning herself while trying to cook alone at night with her parents both working long immigrant hours). She was the child of working class Sikh parents, skipped University and ran off to pursue her dreams. And then Anupam Kher plays a different version of the loving NRI father he has played in so many Hindi films. The whole cast is a mixture like that, up and coming young British Indians for the younger generation and older Indian-Indian actors for the older. And my favorite little Easter egg, which feels like it must be more of a secret nod and tribute than true casting to the character, Zohra Sehgal playing an old auntie who gets two lines. Zohra is a living legend, one of the founders of the Indian People’s Theater in Bombay, a former member of Uday Shankar’s dance troupe, an actress in dozens of Hindi films, and one of the first brown faces on British television. She is worth far more than two lines and the background of a few scenes, but at the same time seeing her face immediately brings up such powerful emotions of the past coming forward into the present that her merely being there in scenes adds something to them. And that’s a little gift Chadha put in for the people who are so familiar with Zohra, whether from her Indian films or her BBC work, that all they need is to see her face to have it all coming flooding into them.

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There is all that lovely specificity, but also universality. Kiera Knightley’s character is second to Parminder’s in importance, almost a co-lead. And her life, while different from Parminder’s, has the same greater problems. Her mother wants her to be girly, to date, to live a life like her mother lived so they can relate to each other. And Kiera wants to live the life she wants. Their fights are the same as Parminder’s fights with her parents over wanting to skip university and try something outside of the Indian community. It’s about parents wanting you to do something familiar, something they understand so they can protect you. Whether you are British Indian or British-British, it’s the same thing. Even Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ character gets a touch of that, he’s successfully broken away from his parents and is happy, but misses them. Parents and children, whether British or Irish or Indian, it’s all the same thing. It’s just the details that vary.

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Parminder Nagra just finished high school and is waiting for results of her tests. Over the summer while she waits, Kiera Knightly suggests she join the local sports clubs’ girls soccer team. There’s no pay, but it is a serious amateur team with a tournament series over the summer. At the same time back home Parminder’s sister Archie Punjabi is preparing for her marriage to her longtime boyfriend, a good Indian boy. Over the course of the summer, Parminder and Kiera become best friends and then fight over the coach who Kiera has a crush on but is falling for Parminder, Jonathon Rhys Meyers. Parminder’s sister Archie Punjabi and her friends find out she is on the team and support her and help her hide it from her parents. Her parents find out, but she keeps sneaking out to games. In the background, Archie’s engagement happens then falls apart than is back on. Kiera’s parents suspect she is gay because of her close friendship with Parminder and the intensity of their bond. Finally on the day of the final match when Jonathon has arranged for an American scout to watch, Parminder has to go to her sister’s wedding. But she sneaks out with Anupam’s blessing and goes to the game and wins and is offered an American scholarship. She finally talks honestly to her parents, tells them she really wants this but she doesn’t want to lie to get it, she wants their support. Anupam gives in, says that he just wants her to be happy. At the end, she and Kiera are at the airport saying good-bye to their parents with the blessings of both sets of parents and Jonathon shows up to say good-bye and convinces Parminder to give long-distance a try. They kiss just as all the parents are distracted by a sighting of David Beckham at the airport. Over the end credits we see that Kiera and Parminder’s families are both proud of their daughters, Archie is pregnant, and Jonathon and Anupam are playing cricket together in the park.

This is ultimately a love story. But not between Parminder and Jonathon, between Parminder and Kiera and soccer. It follows all the familiar beats, the lead up to their first meeting, the parental objections, sneaking out, the break-up, the missing each other, the make-up, and then the happy airport ending. It’s rumored that in an earlier draft of the film it was explicitly a love story, but Gurinder changed it and put in the Jonathon character instead. I love Jonathon Rhys Meyers in this movie (I am a human woman, after all), but his chemistry with Parminder just can’t compare with what Parminder and Kiera have together.

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Sorry Jonathon. At least I still love you.

The film nods to this idea over and over again, from Kiera’s mother’s misunderstanding to Archie being shocked that Parminder is sneaking out not because she is in love but to meet a female friend and play soccer to Parminder and Kiera being spotted hugging on the street and the parents of Archie’s fiance assuming they are a couple. I understand why Gurinder didn’t go that way, it would have put this film into a niche where it didn’t really belong, suddenly all and only about the sexual identity of the characters rather than about everything else in their life. But I wish there was a world where the Kiera and Parminder love story could play out quietly in the background without dominating the film just as the Parminder-Jonathon love story plays out.

The whole point of the film is that no one thing should dominate a personal story. Parminder is falling in love for the first time, with a white boy. She is also starting a new freeing wonderful passionate friendship with Kiera. And she is learning that soccer can be more than the stuff of dreams, it can be her future. And none of that takes away from who she is within her family.

I noticed on this watch how carefully the relationship between Parminder and her family is drawn as a truly loving relationship. When Archie’s engagement breaks apart, Parminder is sincerely upset on her behalf and Archie turns to her for comfort. When Archie learns Parminder is sneaking out to play soccer she doesn’t understand it, but she still works to cover it up. And her parents aren’t really trying to Parminder or Archie an enormous amount. Neither of them will have an arranged marriage unless they want it, the plan for Parminder is to go to law school and pursue her dreams in professional life, Archie is already working with her own car and happily marrying the man she has been openly dating for years. These aren’t terrible regressive parents, they are loving parents who just want their daughters to be happy in a way that seems safe to them. And Archie isn’t an evil demanding older sister, she is a loving sister who is going through something equally important to Parminder’s journey.

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I love their conversation after Archie’s wedding where Archie just wants to be sure this is what Parminder really really wants. She doesn’t understand it, but she believes Parminder when she says that soccer is her dream.

Kiera’s relationship with her parents is drawn with equal care. It isn’t a simple matter of “confirm to gender roles, grrr!” Kiera is so close with her father because they share interests and her mother feels left out, which is a natural feeling to have when you can’t seem to connect with your child. She is confident and sure of herself because she is living in a world she knows, her father served as her introduction to soccer and it feels like her birthright. Yes, she has to fight for it because she is a girl, but she know she has the right to fight. Only, one of the people she is fighting is her mother who just wants a little space in her life for something they can share. In another movie their moment of connection would come from Kiera finally needing her mother and understanding how “girl things are important too”. But in this film, it is the mother’s job to find a way to reach out. She dresses up like she is going to Ascot for a little local soccer game, she is still girly, but the point is that she is going to the game. That’s what matters, even if she is doing it in her own way.

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This is what a real person looks like, someone who isn’t defined by any one box. Parminder and Kiera are daughters and sisters and friends and lovers and students and soccer plays and girls and all of those things go into one person at the same time. Everyone in their life (besides each other) keeps trying to limit them to just one side, Parminder as only a dutiful daughter, or only a sister (when Archie gets frustrated by how her needs are interfering with Archie’s), or even only a friend (when Kiera wants Parminder to leave Jonathon and honor their friendship), or only a lover (when Kiera’s mother can only see her relationship with Parminder in romantic terms). Heck, perfect Jonathon does it too, his reaction to Parminder getting the scholarship is “now we can date because I’m not your coach any more!”

One of my favorite moments of the film, which I had forgotten, is that during the penultimate match, while Kiera and Parminder are still fighting, they work together to score two goals. They are friends, yes, and this friendship is the whole basis of their new life. But they are also teammates and soccer players, and they can be in a fight and still play together.

There are also the series of locker room scenes. Each player only gets a few lines of dialogue, but it is enough to see they aren’t the same. There isn’t a single “type” to any of them, they all love soccer but that doesn’t define who they are.

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Heck, there is a small moment during the bar scene in Germany when Jonathon jokingly refers to Parminder and Kiera as “you British” versus himself as Irish. And it’s true. Parminder has an Indian heritage, but she is British too like Kiera while Jonathon is Irish. All of this identities slip and slide place to place. And in the end, it is Kiera and Parminder who are most the same, both girls, both soccer players, both fighting their families, both from small houses in the London suburbs (I think, there’s all this class and geography stuff that I know is going over my head), even both Beckham fans. And that’s why they end together, going through the gate at the airport to their new future. Two woman breaking a new path for themselves because they don’t fit on any of the established roads.

(and then they kiss. Nah, that’s just in my headcanon. But in my head canon, get them to a California college campus sharing a room and it will be a couple of months before they figure out what’s really going on between them. Poor Jonathon and his lovely little romance that was just a subconscious beard and security blanket for them)

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9 thoughts on “NRI Week: Bend it Like Beckham, A Story for Girls

  1. Agree that this is a wonderful movie and totally holds up. One of my favorite Parminder moments is when she’s called downstairs to a living room full of serious grown-ups and accused of being seen making out with a boy, and she says “Me? Kissing a boy? Are you mad?” Her delivery is perfect, not angry just what on earth is wrong with you people. Agreed also that there’s something way unfair with the difference in career trajectories that came out of that film for her and Keira.

    Thank you for pointing out all the usual plot devices and how Chadha subverts them! That’s so true and I hadn’t picked up on it.

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    • P.S. This is a story of girls and would be great for girls, but my sons also liked it, as a soccer and family movie. I know I’m being literal, just saying!

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      • Oh, you are definitely right! I guess that goes back to my idea that the characters can’t be defined. They also can’t be defined by gender. The two heroines are girls, but also soccer plays and loving children to their parents and all the rest of it which you can relate to whether or not you are a girl.

        On Wed, Aug 14, 2019 at 9:38 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • My favorite Parminder moment, and I know it isn’t hard to act out but it makes me so happy, is her big smile when she runs to join the first practice. It’s so totally full of joy and optimism. Oh, and there’s also a small moment when she is rejecting Jonathon and she reaches out and kind of pats his zipper strap and it’s so perfect for “I really love you, but no”.

      On Wed, Aug 14, 2019 at 9:36 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I agree with you on the movie, but I strongly disagree with you on how this movie is presenting things in a way that is radically different from Indian movies. Before the likes of Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra, Hindi film was fairly big on young people rebelling against the older generation. Even now it is true of most movies that are not “all about loving your parents”. You gave the example of Gully Boy, but even in that movie there are scenes of them meeting freely outside their area. Zoya’s other movie Dil Dhadakne Do has an entire plot line about young people playing along to hide something from the older generation. This is also what would happen in real life in India. It was true of my small town when I was a teenager in the 90s and it is definitely much more true today pretty much everywhere.

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    • Hmm. I think I had two points, or at least tried to articulate two points. The first is the reality of the world, which is that young people are far more free in every way in the West than in India. There’s a term for what I am talking about that I just ran across, “moral policing”. That’s not really a thing in the West, you won’t see a gang of men in broad daylight drag apart a couple for kissing on the street. Yes, the conspiracy of youth is true in both places, as I say, but the difference is that in the West you only have to worry within the ethnic enclave, once you walk out of it into the real world, no one cares if you are dating someone or playing soccer or wearing short skirts.

      And then the other point is the general value placed on personal freedom and rebelling against your elders. I agree that before the 90s (I would certainly include Rajshri along with Dharma and YRF as part of the problem) it was much more common for characters to rebel in films. But over all there is still the Indian social concept of the 4 stages of life, obedience/loyalty owed to your elders, and so on and so forth which does not exist in the West. The live cycle expectation in the west is childhood, teenage rebellion, and then a complete cut off from your parents as you live your own life by your own values. To consider your parents’ opinions above your own moral compass would be considered regressive, childish. And that is what I see coming through in this film, everyone around Parminder tells her over and over that she has to grow up and decide for herself, and when she finally does, everything works out.

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