In 2003, things were changing for me. I started high school, bought my first pair of jeans that actually fit (flared, with the lowest rise possible), picked my favourite Beatle (John, but also George), and saw Bend it Like Beckham for the first time. All of these events were major milestones, but the last one has probably been the most influential to my life trajectory.
As a teenager, I was obviously obsessed with being conventional in the ways that mattered: being pretty, being popular, and being white. I got upset when people referred to me as “Indian” because I associated Indians with stereotypes I saw on TV. Apu from The Simpsons, with his heavy accent, tons of children, and general inability to fit into American society, seemed to be my only representative in popular culture during my childhood. Whenever anyone imitated an Indian accent, sat in a “lotus” position, or said that the burfi I brought into school for Diwali had a weird name, I felt shame, anger, and confusion. I couldn’t articulate my problem, except to try and assert that I wasn’t like “those Indians” that were so often the butt of the joke. But I had no other point of reference for what real Indians were like.
Like most young people, I looked to pop culture to help me figure out the answer to this unfair situation, particularly when asked the impossible question: “Do you feel more Indian or Canadian?” My answer was definitely the second, because I felt no connection to the first and hoped no one would find out that I did indeed have one. Before Bend it Like Beckham, most of my experiences with Indian culture came from visiting my grandparents in Delhi every few years, and wearing cheap bangles from Little India in Toronto’s East End. I didn’t watch Indian TV, or listen to Hindi music (except my mother’s homemade mix tapes of film songs). I was so worried about being mistaken for a smelly, loud, foreign alien, that my solution was to be as white as possible. And then I watched Bend it Like Beckham.
Bend it Like Beckham is British director Gurinder Chadha’s third feature film. The protagonist is Jess Bamra (Parminder Nagra), a British Indian girl who lives in a suburb of London with her family. Jess is a football (soccer) player, and is convinced to join a local team after meeting Jules Paxton (Keira Knightly), whose goal is to play professional football in the US. Jess’s parents don’t approve of her devoting all of her time to football when she has A-Level exams to study for and her sister Pinky’s (Archie Panjabi) wedding to plan, so Jess plays football in secret until she is forced to choose between attending her sister’s wedding and playing in the final match of season.
Besides Apu, I had seen a couple of film and television portrayals of “the immigrant experience” before I saw Bend it Like Beckham, but none of them had really stuck with me. Most depictions I saw about immigration were either about overcoming (or not overcoming) impossible barriers in a new country, or stereotypical portrayals of ultra-traditional parents who struggle to understand their “wild” Westernized children. I loved Lane Kim on Gilmore Girls, but she had a super negative relationship to her family’s religion and culture, and in the context of the show, American culture was clearly superior to whatever happened in the Kim household. I had also seen Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, but its plot was centered on arranged marriage, and was set in the “old country,” which didn’t really resonate with me.
In Bend it Like Beckham, I found a movie that spoke to the different parts of my identity, and portrayed Indians in a way that I had never seen before. As an awkward, football-playing child of immigrants myself, it wasn’t surprising that I gravitated immediately towards Jess. Unlike other Indians I had seen on film, Jess’s culture is part of her life, but it does not define her. Being Indian, like being a football player, or being a woman, is part of her identity, rather than her defining characteristic. Her Indian-ness also wasn’t the foundation for the movie’s jokes, which was huge for me. For once, the foreigners weren’t funny because they were foreign, but funny because they were saying funny things. Jess and her family deal with racism, feeling like they are caught in the middle of two cultures, neither one quite feeling like home. They aren’t noble, silently suffering immigrants, and they aren’t Apu—in Bend it like Beckham, the Indians are real people.
Even though Jess and I were not the same in terms of our skin colour, family background, or religion, I saw myself in her because she seemed like a normal person who just happened to be brown. In Jess and her sister Pinky, I saw people who had many of the same trials and tribulations as I did. These girls made out in the backseats of tiny cars, but they also loved their parents and had no desire to disappoint them. Sometimes this was hard, like when Pinky’s fiancé is forced to break off their engagement after his parents think that Jess is running around with a white man. Other times, it was as simple as Jess’s attempts to practice keep-ups with root vegetables while attempting to learn a full Punjabi dinner—meat and vegetarian. They were trying, in the wise words of Hannah Montana, trying to have the best of both worlds.
For barely teenaged me, this was a revelation. I had been trying to be white for so long that I was shocked to see Jess and Pinky doing things that I only saw white people do on TV and in movies. After I was shocked, I was thrilled. It was the first time I remember thinking that this might be a movie that was actually “for” me. I understood all of the jokes about making pickle and the ones about periods. Even if the movie is formulaic and stereotypical, I didn’t see it. I just saw some people who were a little bit like me. And as I watched, I felt like I really “saw” Indians for the first time, and I didn’t feel ashamed about it; I felt proud.
Even though I’m not Sikh, British, or Punjabi, I was excited that I could claim some ownership over the culture presented in the movie, and even more excited that I wasn’t embarrassed by the portrayal of the Indian family onscreen. In Bend it Like Beckham, both Jess and Jules’s families are lovingly ridiculed, without either one being a target of derision for being behind the times, in contrast to my beloved Gilmore Girls or other families with immigrant parents. The Paxtons and the Bamras want their children to be “normal” because normality means ease in an unforgiving society. Jules faces her mother’s constant nagging about being “feminine” in her clothing and appearance, because Mrs. Paxton (Juliet Stevenson) is so worried about her daughter possibly being a lesbian and maybe having a difficult life. One of my favourite scenes in the movie is when Mrs. Paxton hears Jess and Jules fighting, and thinks she is hearing them break up. “It was terrible what they did to that George Michael,” she weeps into her husband’s shoulder. It would have been so amazing if the story had ended with Jules and Jess getting together (an Internet rumour that remains unproven), if only because I think the Paxtons and the Bamras would have been able to handle it.
Similarly, Jess’s parents’ are not painted as unrelenting traditionalists whose values are incompatible with those of their daughter. Jess’s father (Anupam Kher) doesn’t want her to play football because of his experiences with racism when he first immigrated to Britain. It’s not that he thinks Jess is wasting her time, but he’s afraid that she’ll experience racism from teammates and opponents (which she does). Both sets of parents are slightly out of touch, but the fact that they’re both given this treatment was something that I held onto for years afterwards.
Ten years later, Bend it Like Beckham still resonates with me. Throughout my adolescence, I used it as a kind of comfort food, watching it when I was sick, hungover, lonely, or just when I wanted to kill a couple of hours. In my early teens, devoted to people pleasing and being normal, I felt like I had to choose between the “Canadian” culture that I was immersed in, and the Indian culture that I felt cut off from. I didn’t think to argue with the idea that it was necessary for me to be Indian or Canadian (Canadian being synonymous with “white,” despite the fact that my white father is actually American).
The idea that anyone would care about the stories of girls like Jess helped me feel like I was part of a community that had previously felt inaccessible. I finally understood that I didn’t have to be a certain kind of Indian to feel a connection to a piece of pop culture. I could just be me, and use what I saw to influence my own brand of Indian-ness. Now, when I see characters like Mindy Lahiri, Hannah Simone’s Cece on New Girl, Indie Mehta from the now-cancelled How to be Indie, and Some Girls’ Saz Kaur, I get excited because they’re weird, outspoken, fun, and also South Asian. I get even more excited because this is just the beginning of my list. I hope they inspire girls the way Jess inspired me to define my own ideas about culture and belonging, and also how to make round chappatis.
Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is a writer and editor living in Toronto.