Bend it Like Beckham

By Nate Clarke

If you glance at census statistics for the United States (or any major western European nation) you will notice that immigration is having a profound impact upon the demographics of these once white dominated countries. As immigrants from nations such as Mexico, India, China, the Philippines, and Vietnam mix with the traditional western population, cultures clash. Sometimes a new hybrid culture emerges; other times, these immigrants (and especially their children) are torn between the temptation of a new world and the familiarity of the old. As the world becomes more global and transnational, this is a predicament that we will see with increasing frequency.

Bend It Like Beckham is a comedy that shows us the dilemma of culture clash by placing us into the middle of a Sikh family in London that is trying to make sense of life in a foreign country.

Jessminder (Parminder K. Nagra), or Jess as her friends call her, is a tom-boy. She dreams of football stardom (that’s soccer to us Yanks) and exorcising England’s World Cup woes. Her Sikh parents have a shrine to an ancestor over their fireplace, but Jess forgoes the traditions of her parents by enshrining David Beckham (England’s Michael Jordan) over her bed. Jess’s family assumes and hopes that her football fancy will pass as an adolescent tangent. They are certain she will follow in the path of her sister – learning what it means to be a good Sikh woman and marry a fine, upstanding Indian man.

When her parents realize that Jess’s obsession is taking root in her life, they forbid her to continue her forays to the park to play ball with the boys. When Jess is presented with the opportunity to play club football with a women’s team the dilemma of the film is revealed: will Jess honor her parents and forgo her chance to chase her dreams, or will she rebel and join a squad of like-minded women on a path to glory?

Bend It Like Beckham will draw immediate parallels to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, partly due to its art theater run, but mostly because both films tackle the dilemmas that children of immigrant families face when they attempt to straddle two opposing cultures. However, Bend It Like Beckham succeeds where Greek Wedding fails. Greek Wedding is about over the top cartoon-like characters; because they are so silly, a non-Greek audience is allowed to laugh at them from a distance (“Ho ho ho, look at the crazy Greek man spraying glass cleaner on his hand. Isn’t he silly.”) The net effect is that any new-found appreciation for Greek culture is undermined by this hyperbolic characterization.

The characters in Bend It Like Beckham are not silly shadows of real people; rather there is complexity and humanity to them. They feel like real people who sometimes say some hysterically funny things. We are allowed to see the Sikh culture for all its wonder (this film will make you want to get married Sikh style) and for all its foibles (appearances are often valued more highly than actual behavior). The net effect is compassion for the characters as they traverse the challenges and frustrations of cross-cultural life, and appreciation for a culture that is depicted not as a comic device, but as a sincere offering on the part of the director to enter into her world. That all this happens in a comedy is even more remarkable.

Bend It Like Beckham is not a perfect movie. Keira Knightly (who plays Jess’s friend Jules) overacts quite a bit and Jess’s love interest, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is prone to longful boy-band gazes. The film’s plot is also fairly conventional. However, the metanarrative of life between two cultures is so wonderfully and gently handled that any miscues are easily overlooked. Bend It Like Beckhamcould easily have been an overbearing social commentary or a trivial silly-fest. Instead it is an honest (and fun) look into the lives of a family trying to make sense of what it means to be British and Sikh.