20 years ago, 'Bend It Like Beckham' changed how millions of girls saw themselves

Bend It Like Beckham turns 20 years old today. It forever changed the discourse on Brown girls and sport, and South Asian representation on the big screen and behind the camera, writes Shireen Ahmed.

I, and so many like me, finally saw myself reflected on a movie screen

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

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ

"What family will want a daughter-in-law who can run around kicking football all day but can't make round chapatis?" — Mrs. Bhamra. (This column contains spoilers, but if you haven't yet seen this film watch it immediately.)

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Bend It Like Beckham, one of the most impactful films of all time in my view, turns 20 years old today. It forever changed the discourse on Brown girls and sport, and South Asian representation on the big screen and behind the camera.

While we are in an era that has dark-skinned, South Asian lead actresses in some of the most popular series on television (e.g. season two of Bridgerton on Netflix), this iconic line from the fictional Mrs. Bhamra is as poignant and timely as many of the other topics covered in the seminal film. Mrs. Bhamra is one of the delightful characters that filmmaker Gurinder Chadha brought to life with this beautiful and important story, in which so many young girls saw — and still see — themselves reflected in the movie.

Two decades ago Bend It Like Beckham told us the story of Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra, a Manchester United-loving girl from a traditional Sikh family who plays soccer for fun in the local park and then is asked to join a girls' team. As the movie unfolds, she falls in love with her coach, Joe, which leads to tension with her teammate and friend, Juliette "Jules" Paxton.

It intertwines issues of inter-racial relationships and power dynamics, and of course features the growth of a character like Jess, perfectly played by Parminder Nagra, who unfortunately is too seldom seen on screen since as a central figure. 

I pride myself on being a self-declared Bend It Like Beckham scholar. I have written about the importance of this film in graduate school (I got an 'A' on the paper), I interviewed Chadha when the musical version of the movie hit Toronto, and I continue to speak about the importance of this film on many levels: as a soccer player, a South Asian daughter, and as a racialized woman sports journalist in mainstream media.

The most visceral response to this film from marginalized young women is that they see aspects of themselves they have never seen anywhere else on-screen. This coupled with the stories of young women in spaces where they shouldn't be while grappling with their identities and their futures is what hits home. 

The eternal requests faced by so many South Asian girls are rarely addressed in films for Western audiences: can you please put your dreams on hold and fulfill your family obligations and cultural expectations? Can you not fall in love with that activity or that person? Can you conform to what is expected of you? Even non-Indian young women feel these questions and these pressures.

Culture writer Stacy Lee Kong wrote on Instagram that even though she isn't Punjabi, British "or even a little bit sporty" this movie made her feel seen. "Two decades later, it still does," Kwong wrote. 

Bend It Like Beckham interrogates many aspects of life for the two protagonists, but as the spotlight shines on Jess, it still asks us to consider everything from the experiences of immigrant families, to socio-economic disparities, systemic racism, acceptance of LGBTIQ in the broader community, and of course, sexism in sports.

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"There's a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one of them without a fella!" — Paula Paxton, Juliette's mother.

Bend It Like Beckham shows the ways in which sexism and misogyny in sports are not limited to South Asian communities, but also prevalent in white, middle-class families, as we see with Jules, played by Kiera Knightley.

Paula desperately wants Jules to adhere to societal norms of femininity, while Jules would rather be smashing a ball to the back of the net. Like Jess, their mothers are the ones challenging their passion for football as opposed to their dads, who attempt to support them in different ways. This further explores the ways that women often uphold patriarchal systems and don't let their daughters thrive, a very delicate topic but one that Chadha navigates carefully. 

I remember the day I watched this film for the first time. It was 2002 in the early summer and I was in a theatre at Yonge and Bloor with my cousin, Nadia. I had left my toddler son and newborn daughter with their grandparents and went to the movies for a couple of hours. I remember crying at a specific part when Jess is cleaning her soccer cleats as tears stream down her cheeks because she was being torn between what she loves: football and family duty. I still sob during that scene. Not to mention that the picture was elevated by the absolutely exquisite soundtrack that I listen to on my Spotify soundtrack and have a CD of in the car.

I laughed heartily at the witty one-liners Mrs. Bhamra whips at her daughters, and loved how the family dances with joy at Pinky's wedding, and chuckled at Mrs. Paxton's earnestness and hovering. The most incredible scene for me was as Tony drives Jess to the final match, she is trying to untie her beautiful sari and change into her kit. I still remember the flurry of excitement I felt watching. I have changed out of a kit in a similar fashion, trying not to rumple my shalwar kameez or beautiful lenghas, and taking off my jewelry ever so carefully. The most important intersection of my life — community and soccer — was there for the whole world to understand. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

Representation matters

My heart warmed while watching the familiar scenes of hot chai being served in Corell dishware, and the conversations and noises from a loving and bustling Indian home, or from scenes shot in Southall, a vibrant district in London that is predominantly Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan.

But it wasn't only the good that resonated with me, it was also the more difficult parts of life that the movie illustrates. The first time I was ever racially abused was on a soccer pitch during a match. I was 12 years old. And exactly like Jess, I retaliated and was penalized but the offender was not. Those moments can be jarring, but to see what happened to me more than a decade earlier being portrayed on the big screen for the masses, changed the way I thought about sharing my own experiences through storytelling. I carry this in my own work to this day.

During my 2019 interview with Chadha for the Burn It All Down podcast, I asked her whether she felt there was adequate representation of the South Asian experience in film and in mainstream media.

"Not enough. Not for me," she said. "I mean, I just don't see enough films about our experience, I just don't see it out there. Obviously, there's some very bad films, you know. I've seen people try and copy what I've done but don't put enough attention into it, and strive to make it authentic and truthful and good, you know. But I have to say, I haven't really seen it."

Chadha knows that this film isn't just a blockbuster but a game changer. It inspired generations of women's soccer players, and also held an important coming-out scene for Tony, Jess' best friend, that reverberated all over the world. Twenty years ago we did not see many movies that addressed issues about racialized gay characters. It is one of the many ways Bend It Like Beckham thought ahead of its time, and recognized the reality of the community it was depicting.

We know that representation matters immensely. And that audiences have been so drawn to this film. Since its premiere, Bend It Like Beckham has not only inspired a bevy of academic work but a plethora of narrative pieces to why it matters so much. Major outlets like the CBCespnW, and Huffington Post have offered perspectives from both racialized women and racialized non-binary folks on the film and its importance. Reputable soccer site All For XI's Steph Yang provided a fanfiction-esque timeline of Jess and Jules after they leave for University in California. For The Atlantic, Rajpreet Heir opined on why Jess's story mattered so much. GalDem, a magazine featuring racialized women writers in the U.K. presented an extensive oral history of the film written by Neelam Tailor. There are many more. BBC's Miriam Walker-Khan did a whole documentary on the film which will air this weekend. 

The core aspect of how Bend it Like Beckham has remained iconic for 20 years is not only the brilliant characters, memorable dialogue and moving storyline, it is the way the film has connected and impacted different communities all over the world. Chadha is bold and unapologetic about its importance in the world and rightly so. 

The possibility and the power in the stories of Jess and Jules allow us to dream and achieve. We can be athletes and mothers and strong women. We can be cherished and loved and supported and remain independent. 

As we still grapple with racism, sexism and homophobia in sports, rampant abuse in women's soccer, and the exclusion of racialized women in so many parts of society, Bend It Like Beckham continues to remind us to fight for what we want: to fight for what is just, and for what we deserve. As Mr. Bhamra says so wonderfully: "I want her to fight, and I want her to win."


Shireen Ahmed

Senior Contributor

Shireen Ahmed is a multi-platform sports journalist, a TEDx speaker, mentor, and an award-winning sports activist who focuses on the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is an industry expert on Muslim women in sports, and her academic research and contributions have been widely published. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. In addition to being a seasoned investigative reporter, her commentary is featured by media outlets in Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia. She holds an MA in Media Production from Toronto Metropolitan University where she now teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media. You can find Shireen tweeting or drinking coffee, or tweeting about drinking coffee. She lives with her four children and her cat.

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