Saturday, 12 May 2012

Goals on Film: Bend It Like Beckham

It’s 10 years since Bend It Like Beckham hit the cinemas like a well-taken free kick nestling in the opposition net.  However what's striking, given the place it has in our collective consciousness, is how bad it is.

That the film has such an elevated cultural status is due to the convergence of a number of factors.  Firstly, its snappy title links it with the most famous English footballer of the last decade and at the time of its release there was considerable concern that Beckham wouldn’t be bending anything at the forthcoming World Cup as he’s just broken a bone none of us knew existed.

Secondly it came at a time when Asian culture had achieved considerable mainstream success.  The comedy show Goodness Gracious Me led in turn to The Kummars at No 42 which won its first International Emmy in the year Bend It was released.  There was even a Bollywood/football crossover in and advert for Walkers Crisps’ Great British Takeaway range when Gary Lineker ‘married’ The Kummars’ Granny Sushila (Meera Syal).

Up for the cup
Finally, the film rode on the wave of success generated by Billy Elliott two years earlier.  Like Bend It, the (remarkably similar) Billy Elliot is a film in which a youngster finds themselves by illicitly engaging in an activity frowned upon by their community (because it subverts deep-rooted gender stereotypes) before eventually winning acceptance and being allowed to leave the community to pursue their dream.

The film also benefited, like any good football team, from just the right balance of youth and experience.  The youth was provided by Parminder Nagra as Jess and Keira Knightly as Jules in what were breakout roles for both.  Leicester-born Nagra went on to play the first recurring female Indian character in a US TV series starring in six seasons of E.R. (this was in part due to Bend It’s spectacular success at the US box office where it became the highest grossing Indian-themed film of all time).  Knightly, of course, went on to pout and simper in a range of roles. The experience was provided by the likes of Bollywood star Anupam Kher, in his first English feature film role, as Jess’ father and Juliet Stephenson as Jules’ bewildered but well-meaning mother.

The story centres on Jess, a Sikh teenager living in Hounslow who has a passion for football and wants to play professionally but whose parents, clinging to a familiar culture and desperate to give their children the best upbringing possible, are fearful that they will lose their daughter to forces they don’t understand and can’t control.
As with most ‘football’ films the football scenes themselves aren’t great, but then Bend It is no more about football than Billy Elliott is about ballet.  The sport is merely a vehicle through which to explore a variety of themes including body image, race, gender, sexuality and friendship.

Incidentally, if you want a sport-focused, female coming-of-age comedy/drama you’d be better served by the superior Whip It, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut from 2009 which is centred on roller derby.  The similarities between the two films have not gone unnoticed by many which led to slightly derisive headlines on reviews of the latter such as “Whip it Like Beckham” and “Whip It Like Bend It”.

That aside, Barrymore’s film is the better of the two because it has a darker tone and she keeps things simple.  By contrast Bend It’s writer/director Gurinder Chadha over-complicates and so the film becomes a confused mix of issues none of which are tackled head-on and in reconciling the cultural differences it does highlight, Bend It takes every easy option possible and closes with a fairytale wish-fulfilment ending.

Jess initially displays an unwillingness to wear shorts as she has a scar on her leg from a childhood burn. However, this issue is quickly and easily dealt with by her coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who shows her the scar on his knee and tells her that at least she can still play the game she loves, while his injury prevents him from doing so.  After this little pep talk, Jess happily runs onto the pitch to join in the training and the scar is never mentioned again.  That she overcomes her self-consciousness so quickly makes you wonder what the problem was in the first place.

Both Jess and Jules, who are in many ways parallel characters, have to deal with their mothers’ (different) idealised images of what femininity is.  So, Jess is forced to learn how to make a full traditional Indian meal while Jules’ mother tries to get her to wear more attractive clothes and encourages her to get a boyfriend.  In the end, both women realise that to keep their daughters they must accept them as individuals, but only after both fathers step in to give the girls their blessing.  That there is no compromise on Jess or Jules’ part; that they achieve their dreams so easily, is just one of the film’s many shortcomings.

While Bend It is about women playing a male-dominated sport, Jess experiences no overt sexism.  The gentle teasing she receives from the lads she plays football in the park with is easily quashed by her football talents.  Likewise, racism is dealt with only fleetingly.  During an important game, Jess is called “a Paki” by an opposition player and in a remarkably out-of-character move responds with a retaliatory shove for which she is sent off.

Again Joe reacts sympathetically telling her that he knows what it feels like because he’s Irish and so another “issue” is beeezily ticked off the list.  It’s a depressingly easy path for the film to take and it sends out a subtle but all-too insidious message: Yes, we all know racism is wrong but don’t fight it, just put your head down and get on with life.

Ultimately Jess ends up with Joe, a relationship that threatens her friendship with Jules who has had a long-term crush on their coach but, surprise, surprise the girls work it out through their mutual love of football before jetting off together to the USA having both won football scholarships.

Sexuality is also touched on.  Jess’ best male friend Tony (Ameet Chana) is gay and is planning to tell his mother.  We never get to find out what her reaction is but this is not the only reason the chance to explore the issue properly is missed.  There are several Shakespearean ‘comedy’ misunderstandings.  Jules’ mother wrongly believes her daughter and Jess are in a romantic relationship and some of Jess’ families’ friends see her with Jules and wrongly assume that she is in a relationship with a white boy.

Showing the boys how it's done
Again all these issues are ultimately easily resolved in pseudo-sitcom fashion.  For example Jules tells her mother that while she isn’t a lesbian there’s nothing wrong with it, to which her mother nods and acknowledges that she was “cheering for Martin Navratilova as much as the next person”.  Brilliant, problem solved. However, a more complex resolution (or no resolution at all) would have made for a far more interesting film.

Interestingly the original script for Bend It had Jess and Jules fall for each other.  However, according to Chadha’s friend and fellow director Nisha Ganatra she “chickened out” of the lesbian romance storyline for fear of offending and upsetting Indian audiences.  This is a significant weakness for a film supposedly challenging prejudice.

Near the end of Bend It there’s an aerial shot of Jess’ family celebrating her sister’s wedding in their garden  It also shows their white, English neighbours peacefully getting on with their business.  The scene and the film’s implication is clear: we can all get along, multiculturalism works.  And in this version of reality it works especially well if immigrants assimilate their new cultural surroundings.

This is what Jess’ parents do in their acceptance of both her football career and her relationship with Joe.  It’s them who completely forgo the tradition which, for so much of the film, they held to be so important, Jess herself has to sacrifice nothing.  She gets to play football, she gets to study in America on a football scholarship and she gets to have a relationship with a white man with her parents’ blessing.

By never truely challenging the prejudices against or - just as significantly - within the Asian community it focuses on - the film tells us little of value about the society we live in. As it turns out, far from bending it like Beckham, the sugar-coated version of reality it portrays is somewhat wide of goal.

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1 comment:

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