BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM. Director: Gurinder Chadha. Players: Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Anupam Kher, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Indo-UK (DVD). English. 113 mins.
Desi-Brit filmmaker Chadha has made a career out of serving up slices out of the daily lives of Indian-something diaspora people (Bhaji on the Beach,What’s Cooking?). After pausing on offerings with culinary derived titles, Chadha now turns her acute gaze to that other love of Indians everywhere—sports! Combining comedy and a sports story with a romantic twist all surrounded by porous cross-cultural barbwire, Bend It Like Beckham offers an unusual but delightful peek at desi culture’s indelible mark on British society.
Jess Bhamra (Nagra) secretly yearns to play soccer and is damn good at it. Her tradition-minded Kenyan-Punjabi parents (Kher and Shaheen Khan) want nothing better than to have Jess apply to college and then follow family protocol by getting in line for the arranged marriage sweepstakes. Jess (cutely Anglicized name for Jaspinder), meanwhile, unbeknownst to her parents, is recruited by Jules (Knightley), another neighborhood tomboy, to join a local high-kicking all-girls-all-the-time soccer team.
The story of these two young women from divergent ethnic addresses, both lives challenged by different degrees of parental involvement, takes rapid, plausible, and humorous turns. On the soccer field, Jess and Jules square off as would be rivals on the same team while off the field, possible romantic complications loom when their hunky soccer coach Joe (Rhys-Meyers) enters the picture.
The refreshingly gender-neutral script for a change allows the boys that lurk on the fringe of the Jess’s soccer-first world to be cold, calculating, and shallow. This is especially true of a band of raggedy desi street punk-types that Jess practices soccer with—a set up that is a quaint disaster waiting to happen. You just know that Jess’s mother will accidentally take a stroll through the park one day and—horrors—stumble onto her wayward daughter playing ball with the boys in the hood. Instead of distracting, however, the predictability of certain scenes actually enhances the tight narration and aids with the diffusion of the inevitable storm that Jess must weather down the road.
Retrofited by a script that pivots off of women doing manly things and vice versa, the role-reversing jokes are humorous for the most part. While most of the humor employs well-meaning but ill-informed parents continuously questioning the femininity of athletic-minded girls and implications thereof (are Jess and Jules lesbian, or what one antiquated desi aunty refers to as “Lebanese”?) the overriding gender-neutrality of the central premise allows ample gay-friendly sentiments as well.
The “Beckham” in the title, incidentally, refers to Brit soccer superstar David Beckham. While Beckham may not be popular in the U.S., he is a veritable demi-god on the English soccer circuit. The trans-Euro cult of celebrity no doubt had something to do with the warm reception given toBEND IT LIKE BECKHAM at Cannes.
Festival accolades were followed by an incredible box office that greeted Bend It Like Beckham’s British screening. Beckham’s record setting $3 million-plus opening made it the seventh highest opening gross for a British film in Britain ever. That is higher than East is East, The Full Monty, or even Shakespeare in Love! No matter how you bend it, this Beckham kicks more than just soccer.