Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It like Beckham (2002)
By Jorge Diego Sánchez
“Might Jess be the answer to England’s needs?” is the line chosen by film director Gurinder Chadha to start Bend It like Beckham (2002, 00:01:23-00:01:28) after a journalist has described the performance of the British team Manchester United and its dependence upon the individual figure of David Beckham. Meanwhile, Jess, a girl of Indian background, dreams of playing in that squad and scoring a goal that makes audience cheer. Nevertheless, the idea of Jess playing football shocks her mother as an act of dishonour. This is the beginning of a movie which analyses the race, gender and sexual structures of control and domination that teenagers and families build upon hosts and guests in two different communities of London at the beginning of the twenty first century.
In the film, Chadha dismantles the obsession to describe diaspora and migration as fixed geopolitical and social phenomena where cultural and economic modalities are compartmentalised within impermeable categories. These groupings simplify, homogenise, classify and manipulate the political community and religious specificities of migrant communities within diaspora. In Bend It like Beckham, Chadha shows the porous conflicts of liquid identities within Diaspora Space (Brah 1996, Pérez Fernández 2007, Mankekar 2015) with a commitment to dissent and the enhancement of a “hopeful signifier of a feminist collectivity” (Ahmed 2017, 2). Chadha’s subversive cinematographic storyline displays the multiple and porous existent structures of difference within contemporary London in the early 2000s and so the film bends, paraphrasing the title of the movie, monolithic representations of London. This analysis will illustrate some of the symbols used by Chadha to show how hope is constructed throughout the film as both a subversive force and a social responsibility that enhances individual and community awareness, resistance, dissent and transformation in three aspects of the movie: the victory of a female football team, the leading figure of David Beckham and the many Londons within London.
Jessminder Bhamra (Jess, played by Parminder Nagra), studying to pass her final exams in secondary school, passionately wants to become a professional footballer. Despite her mother’s disapproval (played by Shaheen Khan), she sneaks out to the park to play football with the boys from her Indian and Sikh neighbourhood in London. One day, Jules (performed by Keira Knightley) sees her and invites her to play in an all-female football team with the prospect of participating in an official tournament. Jess tells her parents of this offer, who disagree completely with the idea. Nevertheless, as they are too busy planning her sister Pinky’s love-marriage to a man from their community, Jess lies to them and keeps on training and playing with the team, successfully reaching the finals. Unfortunately, the match clashes with the date of her sister’s wedding, forcing Jess to choose between attending the wedding or playing the match. In the end, she chooses the family celebration but manages to take part in the second half of the game, scoring the crucial goal which helps her team win the match. This leads to her being offered, along with Jules, a football scholarship in the USA. The film closes with both families going off to play cricket together, along with the coach, Joe, after having left Jess and Jules to the airport to begin their new adventure in the US.
A Multiracial Football Team: Diaspora Space in Practise
Nation and gender constructions represent fictional communities that have been formulated and theorised as bordered sites and articulations of power, control and hegemony (Anderson 1996, Lewis 1996, Mohanty 2003, Menon 2012). Borders are “visible and invisible” (Nyers 2010, 118) and are used to separate and categorise those who belong to the privileged side and those who do not. Nations and religious communities fighting against each other for unreal reasons are narratives that permeate the discourses of terror, hate and fear that vertebrate discourses of contemporary xenophobia (Khair 2016). Women fighting against women are part of those stereotypes, constructed through stories such as when two women can never agree, when feminist movements always fight against each other, or when female teenagers very often fight for the same boy etc.
In Bend It Like Beckham, Gurinder Chadha presents a multiracial all-female football team that is able to stay united and resolve initial fights between Jess and Jules for the love interest of Joe the coach. They all stand together when Jess is called “Paki” in the finals (Chadha 2002, 01:03:00-01:04:50) and elaborate a group strategy to score the ultimate goal that grants victory. The climax takes place after the match, when girls from different backgrounds, with different skin-colours, accents and physical appearances help Jess drape the sari she needs to wear to return to her sister’s wedding (01:07:01-01:07:07). This scene symbolises that, collectively, the team can transform a reality that was granted as bordered outside the field. Jules’ family and Jess’ father are reluctant to interact and, later, Jules’ mother insults Jess. Despite this, however, both families end up standing together at the airport when Jess and Jules are departing for the USA. They then go off and play cricket together after the girls’ departure.
How the all-female team resolves discourses of hate, fear and violence exemplify the conflicts of communal living inherent to the diaspora space we currently live in. However, Chadha pictures these differences as permeable and illustrative of liquid identities which change, transform and foster possibilities for new collaboration to happen. The scene when all the girls dress Jess corresponds to Avtar Brah’s definition of diaspora as an “abstract Diaspora Space” of participation and interculturality where sociocultural difference, specificities and modalities coalesce and contest fixed taxonomies for identities in migration (1996: 61-64). The initial conflicts within the multiracial team reveals the tip of the iceberg that diaspora is normally compared to (Cohen 1997). How the struggles are resolved by the girls in the team displays the possibilities that, underneath the surface, transform inequality in this new space as a group bound in differences.
Liquid identities emerge in these third-spaces (Bhabha 1990, Bauman 2004, Friedmann 2009, Pérez Fernández 2009) and are able to offer alternative cartographies of possibilities in this open and porous diaspora space of conflict but also of cultural cohabitation. It is in this space that Mr Bhamra and Joe, namely Indian and Irish, recognise their “historical inventories” (Gramsci 1929, 324) and play cricket together, despite their initial reticence. This image depicts that they all share a relatable cartography of diaspora that links them to Jules’ father while Jess and Jules fight for the creative and transformative possibilities granted in the Diaspora Space.
Beyond David Beckham: A Collective Feminist Homework
The start of Bend It like Beckham reveals how Jess dreams of becoming David Beckham, her idol, the figure on the posters she prays to (Chadha 2002, 00:01:04-00:02:06, 00:14:38-00:14:50). Meanwhile, her parents Mr and Mrs Bhamra pray to Guru Nanak, one of the 11 male gurus of Sikhism (00:08:40-00:08:54, 01:34:00). In a way, as Sara Ahmed claims, it is as if Jess would “embody a happiness hope because her desires take her away from (what are narrated as) the traditional expectations of her Sikh family” (2017, 272). This happiness hope defines the construction of the migrant as a melancholic character longing for a promise of Western citizenship that is possible only if the migrant proves him/herself worthy and a happy recipient of Western promises of modernity (Ahmed 2010, 121-159). Nevertheless, the development of Jess as a character is not merely melancholic but shows a struggle against the patriarchal systems that are imposed upon her double burden as a non-white woman. Jess dismantles her private borders to find a personal space that is limited by her own relatives but also by Jules’ mother and the city both families share.
Jess is trapped in a social, political and cultural conglomeration of systems ruled by men, a control also imposed on Jules. For instance, Jules and Jess train hard and even fight against each other to be closer to Joe, their Irish coach (00:24:26). Jules and Jess depend on the decision made by a male US talent scout to obtain a grant to go abroad and earn a living playing football. Jess’ future hinges on her father’s desire for her to study a proper degree such as Medicine as he states “We decide for our daughter” (00:42:20), as indeed does Jules’ father does for her. . And, as already mentioned, it is a male journalist who wonders if Jessminder Bhamra can be the answer to Britain’s Needs at the start of the movie. A response of dissent is collectively granted by Chadha in the scene where Jess scores the crucial goal in the final with the help of all her team, despite the pressure exercised by her father and the male coach. The team and the practise of football (normally a male and white public space) becomes a space to exercise “private hospitality” (Manzanas and Benito 2017, 16). This private zone (Manzanas and Benito 2011, 7) grants Jess and the rest of the female players a space for hope, a hopespace. This emotional and physical site entails a subversive escape from the communal and family hostility that normally limit them throughout different public borders placed upon their personal potentials.
Chadha shows how social transformation happens jointly as a feminist practice. By feminist practice, theories and slogans are obviated to denote the necessity of political collaboration and active dissent (Menon 2012). As Sarah Ahmed points out, feminism becomes assignment and homework because it “aims to transform the house, to rebuild the master’s residence” (Ahmed 2017, 7). Jess and Jules might look like glass-ceiling breakers but they are not completely. They are dependent on a triple axis of mentorship and authorisation: a male coach, a male scouter and fathers that have the final word to accept or not their decisions. Watching Bend It like Beckham makes us question patriarchal structures of difference and control such as religion, place of birth and sexualities (for example, Jess’ best friend Tony is ashamed of his homosexuality prompting Jess offering to marry him as a cover-up story), and makes us aware of what needs to be dismantled, “to ask what it is that we are against, what it is we are for … working out that we [as] hopeful signifier of a feminist collectivity” (2). As Bracke states, transformation only happens when it is a set of group actions and a dismantling of hegemonic systems (2016,54), in this case built in diaspora spaces such as the city of London in which Jules and Jess live in.
Gurinder Chadha stands up here as a non-white female director, producer and screenwriter who works towards that feminist collectivity by not accepting but, rather, questioning, dissenting and offering alternative models for the current diaspora space. Gurinder Chadha is a British filmmaker of East African Indian descent born in Nairobi (1960, Kenya). Her family migrated to British Kenya from the Punjab (north of India) looking for better economic prospects: her father as a banker and her mother as a shopkeeper. Chadha was almost two years old when her family moved to Southall, England. In the UK, she would be brought up as a British girl surrounded by the peculiarities of the South Asian cultures in diaspora. During her last two years at secondary school, Chadha recognised the racism imposed by the British white-normativity when, at the times of her A Levels, she was told by a teacher “to do [her] best and become a hard-working secretary” (Chadha 2006, 2). However, she opposed this cliché and proved her teacher wrong. As she points out:
Experiences like that [referring to the incident with the teacher ], and seeing my parents struggle, made me think: You don’t believe I can do that, so I’m going to prove you’re wrong. If you tell me I can’t do something, that’s the worst thing to tell me. And that’s what I tell girls, and what Bend It like Beckham is about: you can do it, you can do it better, and you can do it in the way you want. (2)
She would then found her own production company, Umbi Films (later to become Bend It after the international success of Bend It like Beckham), shooting Bhaji on the Beach (1993), a film about how women from different cartographies of diaspora collectively come together, after initial disputes, to oppose the husband of one of them. Chadha’s interest was that of displaying characters and cultures she could relate to and that had no representation in cinema (2009). Being one of the first non-white female directors, Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach and Bend It like Beckham are committed to complete a collective feminist homework that is necessary in Diaspora Space.
Alternative Cartographies within London: Hybrid Narratives about Transnational Differences
Different spaces and neighbourhoods within are shown in Bend It like Beckham: a park, a stadium, the Bhamra’s house, the Bhamra’s house all garnered up for Pinky’s wedding, Jules’ house, Tower Bridge, the now gone HMV CD shops… London is represented as an urban transnational node made out of many spaces. It is in this depiction of London as a sometimes dysfunctional metropolis that, as John Ball claims, fails to offer freedom and individual and group possibilities to subvert economic and educational inequalities (2004, 6). Chadha offers a vision of London as abstract Diaspora Space hosting different problems, communities and struggles that are interrelated and porous. Jess and Jules move through the city unveiling its many cultures and the fact that while place of origin is irrelevant to them, it matters to their families.
Bend It like Beckham offers a vision of many Londons in construction, where songs by Blondie (“Atomic”, 00:44:06-00:44:15) or an ex-Spice Girl such as MelC (“My Independence Day” 00:31:20-00:31:50), can be heard just before the latest Punjabi hits (“Jind Mahi”, 00:28:17-00:28:32; “Darshan”, 01:21:58-01:22:17). This eclectic vision clearly defies the idea of London as a city full of static and compartmentalised differences kept in different neighbourhoods that do not relate to each other. This is exemplified in, for example, the prominent role played by the multiracial all-female team, the group strategy to score the last goal in the final or how Jules’ and Jess’ families play cricket together at the end of the film. British novelists of different backgrounds such as Zadie Smith, Maggie Gee or Monica Ali have also represented London with what Pérez Fernández calls “alternatives cartographies within London” (2018, 59).
Chadha shows the transnational nature of the conflicts faced not only by Jess but also by Jules, Joe and their families in London. Supriya Chaudhuri has stated that descriptions of characters living in idealised cities can stimulate “nationalism” “pastoralism” or “decay” and other narrative and imagined “stereotypes” (2019, 2) that define migration and migrants as fixed and immobile categories. This is not the case in Bend It like Beckham, where there are many Londons described throughout: Sikh rites, British footballers, English songs, Punjabi music hits, Indian snacks or continental nibbles. The multiplicity of Londons and its many inhabitants are displayed as colliding forces which struggle but also find different paths to collectively re-make themselves.
For instance, a two-fold conflict around Jess and Jules travelling to the USA is shown in the film, illustrating how i non-idyllic situations are also found within Diaspora Space. On the one hand, why do these talented footballers need to go to another country to follow a professional career in sports (what is wrong in the UK that does not allow them to continue it there)? On the other, why do Jules’ parents support her going to the USA from the very beginning while, conversely, disregard Jess as a friend for Jules towards the last part of the films? These statements depict how London is not a utopian city but a city full of hegemonic contradictions and patriarchal misconceptions constructed upon cultural, gender, sexual or religious differences.
The artistic languages used by Chadha also depict the intercultural intricacies and complexities of the film. Bend It like Beckham can be defined as a “diasporic” and “transnational” film (Desai 2004, 3; Moorti 2003, 357; Ezra & Rowden 2006) or an instance of contemporary “hybrid cinemas” (Diego Sánchez 2015) because there are creative elements from different performing arts and cinema traditions employed in the film. Bend It like Beckham is not by any means a Bollywood film, but neither is a Channel 4 style standard British film from the early noughties. Accordingly, Chadha applies elements from classical Indian cinema in the shooting of the wedding, adopts a documentary tone when dealing with how media would represent Jess’ success and mixes famous actors from India and the UK to vertebrate a hybrid narrative that poses transnational questions relevant to the global Diaspora Space we all live in.
An Un-concluded End against Fear
Fear, as a strategy to separate and install structures of hegemony, is challenged by Jess, Jules, Joe and their families. They all build a collaborative space at the end of this film where hope becomes, as Giroux mentions, “subversive” (2004: 62). The characters stand up for themselves both individually and collectivelly showing the audience that hope is possible and that, despite the clashes fostered by narratives of hosts and guests, hope can be formulated as a space itself, a hopespace. These subversive spaces for hope are illustrated in Bend It like Beckham by the collaboration between Jess and Jules, the power of the feminist coexistence of a female team, the use of hybrid narratives to represent transnational London, and the final alliance among Jess’s father, Joe and Jules’ father. Accordingly, the possibility of hope itself is a subversive trope from which to respond to the social confrontations unveiled by diaspora and contest the subaltern position of women in the present diversity of cultures. It is now our role to bend those structures that limit us as individuals and collectives.
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