Bend It Like Beckham and the Art of Balancing Cultures

When the film debuted 15 years ago, it taught me that shaping a hybrid identity could be a beautiful, inventive, and at times lonely experience.

Parminder Nagra as Jess in a still from Gurinder Chadha's 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham (Fox Searchlight)

When the comedy-drama film Bend It Like Beckham premiered in the U.K. 15 years ago, frenzy for the impending World Cup was ramping up. I was 12 at the time and happened to be visiting England that summer for family weddings; I can vividly recall the football fever that gripped the country. One of the wedding receptions took place during the World Cup Final, so groups of my male relatives would periodically disappear to the parking lot, turn on someone’s car, and listen to the radio for game updates. Brazil—which went on to win the tournament—scored its first goal just after the bhangra performance and right before I dipped roti into masoor dal.

By the end of the trip, I was homesick for Indiana, where I had been born and raised. “When I get married, I’m going to wear jeans, and everyone will eat fried chicken,” I’d tell people. “At my reception, we’re going to listen to Jewel.” As an Indian British American girl, what I was beginning to realize at that age was that I didn’t seem to quite belong anywhere. Yet, after watching Bend It Like Beckham in my last few days in England, I came to realize that transiency was, in some ways, a gift. In the absence of a place that reflected who I was, perhaps I could make my own.

Growing up in the U.S., I’d caught glimpses of Indian people in mainstream movies: There were villains and extras in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Mowgli in The Jungle Book, Oliver Warbucks’s bodyguard in Annie, and an assistant in A Little Princess. Then, in 2002, came Bend It Like Beckham, which managed to become an unlikely hit, grossing more than $76 million worldwide on a $6 million budget. The protagonist, Jesminder Bhamra, or “Jess” (played by Parminder Nagra), isn’t just a young woman trying to balance her British Indian identity while trying to stay true to herself—she’s also a Punjabi Sikh who loves football, like me, though I played the American kind (Spiral It Like Manning?).

Bend It Like Beckham’s authenticity and vision made it an utter departure from anything else I’d seen, probably because the director Gurinder Chadha set the film in the area of England where she grew up and even attributes some of the movie’s success to its autobiographical components. Chadha, born in Africa to Indian parents who migrated to Britain, grew up accustomed to ambivalence. She was British, but also not; she was an Indian girl, but also not. She regularly clashed with her family’s traditions, refusing to wear Indian clothes and trying to get out of her cooking duties.

In Bend It Like Beckham, Jess also comes from a family who was part of the Indian Diaspora and resents the traditional agenda imposed on her. In nearly every scene, Chadha shows Jess trying to come up with her own unique formula for balancing her heritage and her obsession with football. When she’s in the kitchen with her mom, Jess is practicing knee-ups with a cabbage, and when hanging laundry, she bends the ball around the clothes—at once conforming to her cultural heritage and aligning herself with the most British of British sports. Chadha takes what could have been an abstract, internalized dilemma and translates it to the screen in a visually engaging way that also prompts empathy. But these scenes aren’t just convenient cinematic shorthand for conveying Jess’s dual identities. I recognized what Jess was doing: experimenting with making her “own” culture by inventing little, symbolic rituals.

In the summer of 2002, during the wedding receptions, I discovered that part of being a good Indian girl meant knowing Indian music and dancing to it. Dancing was far from one of my talents or interests, so to shirk my responsibilities, I developed a strategy: I’d run and hide in the bathroom every time the music started, no matter how much I enjoyed the song. Whether at a table, in the bathroom line, or in the bathroom itself, I’d find myself twisting the small pins I’d secretly attached to the underside of my tunic. One was an American flag, and the other was one of the two checkered flags that wave during the last lap of the Indianapolis 500. I can’t remember how I ended up with these little talismans, but they brought me a lot of comfort in those moments. In response to familial and cultural pressures, I clung more tightly to my Hoosier ties.

But the affection for and sense of connection to a culture isn’t always reciprocated. Despite her love of the sport, Jess doesn’t necessarily “fit” on the football pitch either, as illustrated most starkly when a white girl on the opposing team commits a foul and calls Jess a racial slur: “Paki.” Jess shoves the girl, receives a red card, and sits out the rest of the game. She doesn’t have a fellow Indian teammate or coach to turn to who might understand the situation.

Though I didn’t face such outright racism growing up (something that changed once I got older), I understood Jess’s alienation. Once I was back in Indiana, in middle school, I found myself yearning for Aero chocolate bars, pakoras, getting around a city by foot, and an actual community of Indians. I missed sitting with my many male cousins and tearing up Styrofoam plates into confetti no one would use and mixing every fizzy drink together into a concoction we’d call “volcano.” The World Cup and weddings felt far away, even though only months had passed. I had already felt different from my friends because I was one of a handful of Indian students in a school of 900; trying to explain my summer and a whole other aspect of my cultural identity to them made me feel even more removed. To deal with these feelings, I kept a Warwick Castle postcard in my Trapper Keeper binder and wore a blue rugby shirt that I’d bought with my British cousins to school as often as possible.

In showing Jess in so many traditional situations—making Indian food, dancing at her sister’s wedding ceremonies, and trying to wrap a pink sari in the locker room—alongside the scenes of her trying to pursue football, Bend It Like Beckham helps viewers better understand Jess’s masterpiece invention of a hybrid identity. She’s not just an Indian girl completely ignoring her roots, yet she’s also not resigning herself to a life dedicated to perfecting her appearance in preparation for marriage, cooking, and tidying up the house. To play soccer in the park with the boys and then secretly play for a team, while also trying to be a good Indian daughter, requires nonstop maneuvering.

In a 2003 interview, Chadha explained that David Beckham’s trademark kick—curling the ball so it looks like it’s going one way, but, in midair, actually swerves around a wall of defenders before hitting the back of the goal—presents “a great metaphor for a lot of us, especially girls. We can see our goal but instead of going straight there, we too have to twist and bend the rules sometimes to get what we want—no matter where ‘we’ reside, no matter what group ‘we’ claim or do not embrace as part of ‘our’ ethnic lineage.”

In Bend It Like Beckham, Jess also tweaks the rules she’s expected to follow in order to achieve her goals. The future her parents want for her doesn’t make room for her football dreams, so Jess quits to appease her family—but that, too, makes her unhappy. Finally, her dad bends his own idea of what daughters can and cannot do, and allows her to sneak out of her sister’s wedding reception to play in her team’s final tournament game—a match that will be attended by an American scout. Part of Jess’s way to playing football means giving up and coming back home, and then trying again with parental permission; going straight for what she wants isn’t possible.

The inter-cutting of the climactic football and wedding scenes captures the beauty and fullness Jess achieves from weaving her worlds together. By the end of the film, Jess supports her sister, gets approval from her father, plays a sport she loves, and scores a game-winning free kick. And how does she score? In place of the wall of defending players, she imagines her mother, sisters, and other female relatives dressed in saris—and bends the ball, literally like Beckham, around them. When Jess’s teammates lift her in the air, it truly feels as though she’s transcended so many of the restrictions placed on her. In the locker room afterward, her teammates try to help her put her sari back on so she can get back to the wedding—a move that finally expresses their solidarity with her and respect for her culture.

Bend It Like Beckham offered an optimistic message of cultural wholeness I needed as I entered the thick of middle school, 4,000 miles from England and 7,400 from my grandparents’ rural Indian villages. It made me realize I didn’t have to try so hard to fit in, and could work on reveling in the moments when I didn’t. The film made me proud of how so many of my experiences are particular to me—wearing a bindi with my high-school graduation dress, teaching baseball to my British cousins, eating Indian food from my relative’s pub, and doing a Punjabi yoga DVD with my grandmother in Indiana. I get to live a life of constant innovation.