Arts

After 17 years and a hop from screen to stage, Bend It Like Beckham feels more relevant than ever

I was afraid the movie that meant so much to me wouldn't hold up in 2019 — but it still resonates.

I was afraid the movie that meant so much to me wouldn't hold up in 2019 — but it still resonates

Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical. (Seanna Kennedy Photography)

I was nervous to rewatch Bend It Like Beckham.

So many of the films I loved growing up, from The Little Mermaid to Love, Actually, have soured with time thanks to jokes or storylines that went from classic to cringeworthy. But Bend It Like Beckham holds a special place in my heart which I wasn't ready to relinquish.

The 2002 hit, directed and co-written by Gurinder Chadha, tells the story of Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra (Parminder Nagra), a Punjabi teen growing up in London, U.K. who, against the wishes of her family, aspires to become a professional soccer player. With a $6 million budget, Bend It was considered a small indie film — but it made a massive impact, grossing more than $76 million worldwide and launching the careers of Nagra and co-star Keira Knightley.

More than a decade after the film's release, the story was adapted by Chadha into a musical that originally debuted in London's West End in 2015. And after a successful one-year run in the U.K., Chadha is now bringing the story to North American audiences with a run at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto from December 8 to January 5.

Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical. (Seanna Kennedy Photography)

Though it's been 17 years since the film first premiered and four years since it debuted on stage, Chadha says the story remains the same. So, in advance of seeing the musical, I gathered my courage and rewatched the film. What I discovered is that not only do the jokes hold up, but the story that meant so much to me as a kid now means even more to me as an adult.

I was 14 when the film was released in North America. I didn't know who David Beckham was, had never been to the U.K. and my Indo-Canadian parents were not nearly as traditional as Mr. and Mrs. Bhamra — yet seeing Bend It Like Beckham felt like watching a home movie. Between Jess shopping for lenghas with her sister, speaking a seamless blend of Punjabi and English, and getting scolded for not making round chapatis, the story and its characters felt familiar but completely new at the same time.

"I've never really seen an Indian girl into football," coach Joe (Rhys Myers) tells Jess at the outset of the film. And back in 2002 when it was released, the same could have been said about seeing Indian actors and stories from the South Asian diaspora on Western screens. As journalist Radheyan Simonpillai has pointed out, this was well before #OscarsSoWhite or conversations around the importance of meaningful representation making headlines and being mentioned in award speeches. Bend It Like Beckham came out two years before Russell Peters's viral stand-up set, three years before we were introduced to Kelly Kapoor on The Office and nearly a decade before Lilly Singh took over YouTube performing caricatures of Indian parents. Similar to Jess's pursuit of soccer, it's not that South Asians in Hollywood didn't have the talent or drive — it's just that we weren't being seen. Chadha — who became the first British Asian woman to direct a major feature with her 1993 film Bhaji on the Beach — has built a career on changing that.

Left to right: Keira Knightley, Parminder Nagra and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Bend It Like Beckham. (Kintop Pictures)

"The thing is, you have to write about what you know. It's based on real people, on my community, what we were going through at the time, how we negotiate constantly," says Chadha, explaining that she never wanted the film to be a stereotypical "cultural clash," but instead wanted to show how South Asians find their identity by blending East and West.

When she co-wrote the screenplay, Chadha saw herself as Jess and based the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Bhamra on her own parents — but that's no longer the case. "I say things to my kids that would come out of Mrs. Bhamra's mouth," Chadha tells me, laughing about how she now tells her kids to learn Punjabi and eat Indian food.

I was 14 when the film was released in North America. I didn't know who David Beckham was, had never been to the U.K. and my Indo-Canadian parents were not nearly as traditional as Mr. and Mrs. Bhamra — yet seeing Bend It Like Beckham felt like watching a homie movie.- Ishani Nath

Watching the film at 30, I too felt a new connection with Jess's parents. As an adult, I've come to realize that the Hindi lessons, cultural celebration and frequent rotation of Indian dishes my mother insisted upon were her way of fostering my Indian identity. At one point, Jess's mother tells her, "I was married at your age; you don't even want to learn how to cook daal" — an iconic line which is repeated in the musical. As a teen, I heard that line as nagging. Now, I understand it as being a recognition of the opportunities a new country affords while also stressing the need to preserve a cultural heritage. It's a reminder that while Jess is the central character, everyone in her family has their own story.

Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical. (Seanna Kennedy Photography)

Chadha, who is the artistic director and co-producer for the North American production, says the musical provided space to delve into these backstories more. Singing "Look at Us Now," the Bhamra parents and older Punjabi generations in the cast describe the barriers they overcame in order to get to this "golden moment" with their "concrete drives" and "bling on their wives" — which is one of Chadha's favourite scenes in the entire musical. The two mother-daughter duos later share the stage to sing "Tough Love," a song that showcases how, despite cultural differences, these two families share parallel concerns and frustrations. And one of the most poignant moments in the film — when Mr. Bhamra details the racism he experienced as a new immigrant — is transformed into the emotional "People Like Us," a song about who is allowed to dream, which is reprised as an empowering ballad in the musical's finale.

The film is only 10 percent of the story, says Chadha — but with the stage production, audiences get the remaining 90 percent. "The musical allowed me to take each and every theme that I had in the film and just expand it," she says.

The fact that [Bend It Like Beckham is] so loved in North America, and around the world, is always just a timely reminder of what it means to be a brown girl growing up and how things haven't really changed.- Gurinder Chadha

And those themes of feminism, anti-racism and inclusion have only grown more salient in the 17 years since Bend It Like Beckham first arrived. The film has become a cult classic, but watching it back, I realized that while my perspective as a viewer has shifted, the movie's central issues remain current. It's been mere months since Jagmeet Singh was told to "cut [his] turban off" so he would look like a Canadian — racism similar to what Mr. Bhamra describes experiencing when he was shut out of British cricket clubs and mocked for his turban. Women's soccer teams around the world, including in Canada, the U.S. and Australia, recently took action to demand equal pay as their male counterparts — a sexist double standard that is repeatedly raised in the film. And as we approach the third anniversary of the Women's March, it's easy to imagine Jess and Jules taking to the streets and fighting for their right to dream without limits.

Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical. (Seanna Kennedy Photography)

"The fact that [Bend It Like Beckham is] so loved in North America, and around the world, is always just a timely reminder of what it means to be a brown girl growing up and how things haven't really changed," says Chadha. The story's enduring message is why Chadha never felt she had to do a sequel, but instead decided to revive and expand the story as a musical.

"I think when you watch it back now, there's an urgency about it in a different way because it was made pre-9/11, pre-Trump, pre-Brexit, pre all that stuff — so at a time when you do have rising xenophobia, it's a timely tale to tell."

A few years after the film became a worldwide blockbuster, Chadha told The Guardian, "I think the reason I have the drive I do is ultimately about racism. It's about finding ways to diminish the impact of difference." In Toronto, I asked her how she hopes the musical will achieve that goal with its North American run. Without missing a beat, she replied, "By telling that story again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again."

Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical. To January 5, 2020. St. Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto. benditmusical.com

About the Author

Ishani Nath is a freelance journalist who was born and raised in Ontario, though that's never stopped Uber drivers from asking her where she's *really* from. She has appeared as a pop culture expert on CBC, CTV and Global Radio and has bylines in Maclean's, FLARE, Chatelaine and more. Getting to cover everything from the latest must-see Netflix series to the cultural significance of Indian jewelry for second gen kids is the reason why Ishani loves her job — even on Mondays.