Much like the bunches of dhaniya (coriander) that Mrs Bhamra asks her daughters to buy, Bend It Like Beckham is a cultural staple for my generation. As a Desi child watching it for the first time in the noughties, it was a relief to finally see a protagonist who resembled me. Jess Bhamra (played by Parminder Nagra) faced so many of the same barriers as me: racism, family pressure to do well academically, and being at the mercy of family “honour”. Many years and a gay awakening later, I look back on this film through queer goggles, lamenting the missed potential of romance between Jess and Jules. I think fondly of how this was the first film that sought to challenge and subvert gender roles as I understood them growing up. In many ways, whenever I watched this movie, it was like looking in a mirror.
Like some of my favourite WOC-led coming-of-age movies of this era (think Cheetah Girls and Twitches), Bend It Like Beckham stands the test of time surprisingly well. Its feminism feels genuinely heartfelt, in shows of solidarity and cultural authenticity rather than anything shallow or performative.
Does that mean the movie’s feminism is perfect? No, I wouldn’t say so. There’s a lot to be desired as far as the queer subtext between Jess and Jules is concerned - and the director has reportedly admitted she “chickened out” of going down the romantic route for the two stars of this movie, fearing backlash from Indian audiences. Tony, the only canon queer character in the film, is tokenistic at best.
But let’s think about that in context. I’m old enough to remember being ten years old and not knowing what gay meant, because it was a word only ever uttered in the playground as an insult. That’s not necessarily out of choice. At the time Bend It Like Beckham was released, section 28 was still in force, which banned “promotion of homosexuality” in the classroom. It was only a year later, 2003, that section 28 was repealed. I say this not to excuse the pigeonholing of Tony as the gay best friend - his storyline, afforded only a few minutes’ screentime, is a perfect metaphor for the film’s lost queer potential. But I also want to acknowledge the reason why there were limitations on how much Bend It Like Beckham could set the queer scene.
Racially, the film does much better, but even then, the little hints at colourism (with Jess's mother commenting on how dark her skin is) and anti-Blackness are fleeting, inadequate mentions. As a South Asian myself, I know how pervasive these issues are within Desi communities, and that they are rooted deep in colonialism. But the many displays of ignorance and prejudice in the movie appear (rightly or wrongly) steeped in gallows humour - the auntie who confuses the word “lesbian” for “Lebanese”, the way Jess mimes the slitting of her throat at the possibility of dating a Muslim, the boys who objectify the Black captain of the Hounslow Harriers.
With that said - this film lays bare the perpetrators of patriarchy in a way that few movies could replicate, and I think having an Indian director (Gurinder Chadha) has a lot to do with it. I can’t stress enough the importance of having lived experience - not of being South Asian, a woman, of the Indian diaspora, or having immigrant parents, but of all these demographics, that crisscross and intersect to Jess’s story and make it resonate for so many Desi audiences.
Interestingly, the characters most vehemently advocating for forcing gender roles on their daughters aren’t the fathers, who are portrayed for the most part sympathetically. Instead, that pressure comes from the matriarchs. Mrs Bhamra and Mrs Paxton are most anxious for their daughters to have, respectively, nice shoes and noticeable cleavage. However, along with subverting expectations in this respect, the resolution in the film demonstrates the sway of the father’s approval.
Think about it. As soon as Mr Bhamra puts his foot down and gives his blessing for Jess to go to America to play pro football, the mother gives in and goes along with it. This is emblematic of how women are often the enforcers of their own oppression, and that men can be complicit simply by not challenging this status quo.
Speaking of, I realised upon my rewatch of this film as an adult that much of my frustration seeing Jess and Jules not end up together was felt by other queers on the internet. I wasn't alone in feeling - cheated, almost, or baited at least, especially given how Jules’ mother assumes they’re together and the relationship feels so organic in their closeness, both physically and emotionally. But the criticism of this portrayal, of Jess ending up kissing Joe, has such a singular focus: the injustice of a canon queer relationship being waved tantalisingly in front of the audience only to be snatched away at the last second.
Doing so ignores the wider context of what makes Bend It Like Beckham a groundbreaking movie - the fact that its protagonist is Indian and is constantly being othered by Jules’ mother. When Jess goes to see Jules, she is referred to as “your Indian friend” by Mrs Paxton, and in other condescending and racist terms. We see how Jules’ mother reacts to the possibility that Jules might be gay, but her homophobia seems to have a racialised undertone to it as she weeps to her husband.
This could have been a canon queer relationship, and it’s great that Keira Knightley was on board with that. But more than that - it could have been a canon interracial queer relationship, which is a rarity on my screen twenty years later. When Jules asks if it would really be so bad if she were a lesbian, her mother responds by saying - in a way that reminds me of the worst white feminists - “I’ve got nothing against it”, before saying she supported Martina Navratilova, a lesbian athlete known for being vocal against trans women participating in sports. Mrs Paxton is like a walking personification of white feminism, not only through her racism but also her rigid view on gender roles and womanhood specifically.
More than that - the commentary on how Bend It Like Beckham has aged is lacking in nuance even from a queer perspective. Is it really that much of an impossibility for Jess to be in love with Joe and Jules? Yes, heteronormativity exists - but so does bisexuality. Throughout the movie as I saw Jess, Jules and Joe butt heads, connect and get under each other’s skin, I was rooting for them. All three of them. They all fancied each other, and maybe if the movie was written now, it would have ended in a polyamorous relationship.
At the heart of Bend It Like Beckham is a deep sense of solidarity and community. It’s kept alive by commentary that reminds us of what this movie could have done better. Whether it’s felt by a queer viewer yelling at Jess to just kiss Jules on the mouth for God’s sake - or a Desi daughter who unfortunately knows the importance of making round rotis and laughs in delight at Jess’s entire team helping her with her sari after the match - this film is brought to life by lived experience. Having women of colour front and centre behind the camera as well as in front is Bend It Like Beckham’s biggest victory, and every single movie would do well to follow in its footsteps.
Words by Deenah al-Aqsa
This essay was commissioned as the screening notes for a screening of Bend it Like Beckham that will take place on 15th June 2021 at Genesis Cinema, Mile End.