Hollywood Rewind | Bend it Like Beckham: The British movie with a desi heart which put Keira Knightley on the map

Did you know that Gurinder Chadha was the first British Asian woman to direct a feature length film? The movie also put British star Keira Knightley on the map.

British-Indian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha has many TV and film projects to her credit, but the one which really put her on the map was the 2002 dramedy Bend it Like Beckham. Not only her, the film was responsible for turning British star Keira Knightley into an overnight sensation as well. Since her turn as the tomboyish Jules Paxton in Bend it Like Beckham, Knightley has starred in a slew of popular and acclaimed movies, including the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean, Atonement, Love Actually, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina and Imitation Game.
Bend it Like Beckham has earned massive popularity over the years because it spoke to so many people — women of colour, people of different genders and races, the Indian diaspora primarily living in Europe or the UK, and of course, to sports fans. But many years have passed since I first saw the film on television as it aired on Star Movies, I think. And now, I can’t help but feel that the feature basically spoke to so many because this was something Chadha felt about deeply, and told it in a funny, honest way. A film from the heart, if you will. Throughout the movie, emotions are meshed in a loving embrace with genuine laugh-out-loud moments. This doesn’t happen very often.
So the story runs thus — Jasminder, or Jess (a very convincing Parminder Nagra), is an 18-year-old who loves football. But her orthodox upbringing forbids her from participating in it at any level, not even for recreation purposes in fact. The mother wants her to behave like a ‘proper’ young woman, the father (Anupam Kher as the gentle, but firm desi dad) has a soft corner for Jess, but he doesn’t want her to go through any heartbreak as he had endured after a failure to make a name in cricket. Jess’ father had suffered racism and despite his talents as a bowler, had been excluded from cricket club. Despite this kind of personal history as her emotional baggage, Jess dares to do what she wants. So this makes Bend it Like Beckham an underdog story too. The odds are stacked against her, but Jess, with Knightley’s Jules as her best friend, and an empathetic, sensitive coach (Jonathan Rhys Myers), she joins a local football team, and SPOILER alert, she makes it to the big leagues.
The allusion to Beckham in the title is a play on the particular style via which world-famous football player David Beckham gets his free kicks.  The story of a young Indian girl having a dream to be as skilled and/or famous as a white, English man in the sports millions love is inspirational. But Chadha shows us, that inspiration doesn’t always have to veer off into the preachy lane. You can make a movie that influences others without being loud, obvious or overly dramatic about it. Bend it Like Beckham was quietly inspirational. And while a lot of the credit goes to the writing and directing department (overseen by Chadha herself), one has to applaud the magnificent cast. Everyone fit their roles to the T; be it Jess, or Archie Panjabi as Jess’ elder sibling, who has her own personality and ambitions, drastically different from Jess.
There were some spill-overs as well from real-to-reel. Remember that sequence when an underconfident and vulnerable Jess tells her coach how she got a scar on her thigh? Turns out, that was not in the screenplay at first, but was put in because lead star Nagra actually had the scar and was conscious about wearing shorts for most of the movie. Art imitating life. While the movie addressed gender issues — the male-female dynamic and the roles society expected them to play, there was another case of art mirroring life happening off screen too. Did you know that Gurinder Chadha was the first British Asian woman to direct a feature length film?
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Here’s another surprising fact about the movie. All the dad-daughter scenes in the film are so well done and raw, like this could be something you could have spoken to your own father about. Now we know why that is. At the time of filming Bend it Like Beckham, Chadha was grieving her father’s death who had recently passed away.  Chadha had once spoken about it while talking to The Guardian. “When he died, there was this real sense of loss and tragedy, but at the same time, there was a sense of appreciation. It made me very impatient with people who throw life away. It was an epiphany. And I didn’t know this at the time, but when I was making Beckham, I was totally grieving. That’s why that film is so emotional and so raw, especially the scenes with the dad. It’s a film that was made in grief.” This makes the whole experience slightly bittersweet, because how could a movie that exuded so much genuine joy, could have been made when the creator was going through such a loss? As it turns out, life works in weird, mysterious ways.
Bend it Like Beckham was a surprise success upon its release, earning praise from the critics as well as cinegoers.