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Bend It Like Beckham - Two Perspectives (2/2)

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


There comes a time in every good Indian girl's life when they have to start acting like a lady. According to Gurinder Chadha's film this means studying hard, becoming a doctor or solicitor and learning the domestic chores that impress future parents-in-law and help bag a suitable husband. In Jesminder Bhamra's case, that's cooking aloo gobi, making chapatthis and the rest of a full Punjabi dinner. 

Jess loves her parents, and respects her culture and upbringing but there is one part of her life that she cannot reconcile with her family- football. David Beckham's messianic like arrival on the English football scene gave her something to aspire to. Like him, she plays on the right, wears number 7, and always takes the free kicks. She is overjoyed when her friend Jules introduces her to the local girls team, Hounslow Harriers, and it becomes her dream to play professionally.
But how can she do this and still conform to her family's traditions? Her parents don't always see it, but she is a conventional girl at heart. She disapproves of boyfriends before marriage, doesn't smoke, drink or wear revealing clothes. The hypocrisy of her family situation infuriates her: her elder sister lied throughout her teenage years to mess about with her 'good for nothing boyfriend', but now she is getting married she can do no wrong. Jess however still incurs her parent's wrath because she sneaks off to play football. But deep down she understands why her parents feel so strongly. "It's just culture, that's all."
Predictably the Bhamras come around to Jess' way of thinking in the end. She persuades them that she can play football in shorts and still be a good Punjabi daughter. However coming around becomes capitulation, as they not only allow her to play in a cup final during her sister's wedding, but eventually permit her going to America on a football scholarship. Then when their beliefs can surely take no further shaking, Jess kisses a white boy, her coach, in the airport in front of them. The reason for such taboo behaviour going unnoticed can only be that the film wouldn't sell without the Hollywood-style happy ending.
Bend it Like Beckham came out at a time when women's football was on the up, globally and in the UK. The World Cup had taken place in America where the final was watched by over 90,000 people, Fulham Ladies Football Club had just turned professional, and many other English clubs followed suit and went semi-pro.
But the big-time did not happen. None of the home countries qualified for September's World Cup, the predicted crowds are down by three-quarters on four years ago and back home Fulham recently reverted to semi-professionalism . The crowds at women's games in the UK have not improved, and the attendance figures for this years FA Cup Final were down on the year before.
But at grassroots, Bend It Like Beckham gets it right. The game is growing all the time. It's hard to say if it inspired Indian girls in particular to go and play football but it did show that there are local teams over the country needing new talent. Unfortunately all girls that play football now have to put up with lazy comments comparing them to the protagonists in the film, but at least it put women's football in the public consciousness. And being compared to Jess and Jules is an improvement on the tired old all-woman-footballers-are-lesbian cliché.
Why has the film proved so popular? It's essentially a feel good film and the ending is never in doubt. Its slightly naïve 'follow your dream' message is not realistic, but it makes the film good fun. To Gurinder Chadha's credit it doesn't preach or overly stereotype Jess's parents or indeed the kind of girls that play football. And for the football fan, there are some great match action montages; and hilarious cameos from Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen and the Match of the Day crew give the film footballing gravitas. It's just a shame that after the build-up and the bigging-up, when David Beckham finally makes his entrance - he's actually just a lookalike.


Anjana Gadgil (UK female), August 2003

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