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.