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Hounslow's Finest: Bend It Like Beckham At 20
Ammar Kalia , April 15th, 2022 11:10

Familial pressures, cultural stereotypes and social climbing statues are given a dramatic weight in Gurinder Chadha's light-touch comedy – and felt like a major moment of representation, finds Ammar Kalia

There was something unique about growing up in Hounslow in the late ‘90s. A stone’s throw from Heathrow Airport, this largely working class London suburb was home to the spectrum of the English capital’s diversity, comprising airport workers, migrant labourers and second-generation families integrating into British life – all without wanting to lose a sense of their own inherited identities in the process.

I spent the first 20 years of my life there; one of these second-generation immigrants whose parents had relocated to the suburb in the ‘80s. Among the rest of the South Asian, Black and Eastern European communities that lived in the town, we made our own Hounslow identities. We took trips to the Treaty Centre on the weekends, picking up CDs from HMV and watching Bollywood films in the local Cineworld. We ate jalebis from the Indian sweet shops and worked in the library and for the local pubs. There was always friction, but there was also a sense of belonging.

It was an area rarely depicted on screen – outside of the odd punchline on ‘90s BBC British Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me – until Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham premiered and spent 13 weeks at Number 1 in the UK box office. The story of Sikh girl Jesminder’s (Parminder Nagra) ambitions to play professional football, against her strict first-generation parents’ wishes, it made stars out of a young Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra, and firmly put Hounslow and its ineffable essence on the map. 20 years on, the film holds up as an immaculate time capsule; a reminder of life before the 2008 recession gutted the high street, before the internet took over our identity formation, and before the government’s hostile environment policy made immigration an act of dangerous defiance.

At first glance, Bend It Like Beckham ticks a lot of boxes with a somewhat heavy hand. There is the rebellion of Jesminder against her parent’s traditionalist wishes (tick: intergenerational trauma and the assertion of the diaspora child’s newfound hybrid identity), there is best friend Tony coming out as gay (tick: challenging heteronormativity), and there is Keira Knightley’s determination to play football against the conservative wishes of her mother (tick: challenging heteronormativity, again, and class-based gender expectations). Then, there is coach Joe, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Wrestling with his own daddy issues – his father would “piss himself” if he knew he was coaching a girls’ football team – Joe has given us the film’s most meme-able moment when he equates Jesminder’s experience of racism on the pitch to his existence as an Irishman in England. “Jess, I’m Irish,” he tells her, “of course I understand what that feels like.” We cringe.

Joe’s awkward words of comfort aside, Chadha’s themes are woven through Bend It Like Beckham with a necessary weight. It is necessary since the film carries the burden of representation; it was one of the first instances that many white viewers would have witnessed the inner workings of a first- and second-generation British Asian family, and the pressures their community would place on its youngest members to abide by its rules – rules borne out of a need to assert a sense of cohesive identity in the face of prejudice.

This intergenerational clash is depicted best in the relationship between Jesminder and her father Mohan, played by Bollywood veteran Anupam Kher. Mohan doesn’t want his daughter to be subjected to the racism he encountered when he tried to join the local cricket team as a recent migrant, so he denies her the opportunity to even try. He stifles her chance for growth out of fear, and in the process enacts the very silencing he underwent as a young man. Resolution comes when Jesminder asserts her needs and allows him to reflect on the unexpected legacies of trauma. Thankfully there is no white saviour to bring about this realisation – Joe’s attempts fall on deaf ears and Jesminder makes herself heard, on her own terms. The film closes with Mohan playing cricket with Joe; a rose-tinted touch of revisionism.

So much of Bollywood’s narrative thrust hinges on the trope of the stern patriarch having to learn to accept the changing lives and ideals of their children, otherwise risk losing them and the family they had fought to create in the first place. See: Amitabh Bachan’s toupee-toting turn in 2001 hit Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, forced to welcome back his estranged son after banishing him for marrying a lower-class woman. By adding racial prejudices into the patriarchal, class-conscious mix, Chadha neatly subverts the Bollywood stereotype for a diaspora audience. Yes, Jesminder’s father still has to learn to accept her as her own person, but he is threatened by the spectre of racism – not just the continuation of the family lineage – when he opposes her footballing career. He wants to protect her from the inequalities of the majority-white world they live in; Bachan wants to save face and his family’s reputation.

The heaviness of these narrative strands are thankfully also given lightness by their detail. The set dressing is immaculate – from the gaudy sofas in Jesminder’s terraced house, to her double denim Y2K fits, hot pink wedding sari, and her elder aunties’ dowdy beige salwar kameezes. Then there are the performances: Kher’s patriarch carries an underlying softness in his reprimands – the unspoken experience of having been belittled before – Nagra and Knightley disguise their silent romantic frisson in the bond of friendship and communicate it instead through longing looks; Juliet Stevenson’s fidgeting eagerness embodies the hyperactive, overbearing energy of Knightley’s mother; and Archie Panjabi plays Jesminder’s sister Pinky with gum-chewing, nonchalant flair, pretending to only care about her own life while making space for her sibling’s footballing dreams by repeatedly covering for her when she needs to sneak off to a match.

It all coheres to allow Chadha to build an entertaining yet authentically detailed snapshot of South Asian life in Hounslow at the turn of the 21st century. It might be framed through the niche world of amateur women’s football, but Bend It Like Beckham ultimately plays, 20 years later, as a memory of a different Britain. Here is a suburban, migrant community expressing the last vestiges of an identity that only existed because it still had a proximity to its origins. Women needed to be married and know how to cook a “full Indian dinner”, elders needed to be respected above all else, and anything other than a vocation was a waste of time. As time has passed, and second generations have turned into third- or fourth-generation migrants, so the friction between rigid tradition and a diasporic, changing modernity has become more nuanced and less easy to grasp.

One is not necessarily better than the other – just different. Integration has meant greater access to brown and Black faces on screen, thankfully making a film like Bend It Like Beckham seem less groundbreaking now for its representation than it initially was – yet the casual racism its characters experienced persists. The passing of decades has also meant that the elders who would have pushed these antiquated ideals on their children and grandchildren are now dying out, taking their stories and connection to a shared sense of home with them. We children may be more free to do what we want, but we no longer have the people alive with us who know where we came from and why. Watching Bend It Like Beckham now, post-Brexit and after a decade of continuous Tory rule, is to view a past that no longer exists. This was the “happy multicultural land” Zadie Smith writes of in 2000’s White Teeth. It was another place, another life.