Bend It Like Beckham and Identity Formation

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Bend It Like Beckham and Identity Formation

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Since the very beginning, films have had a great impact on society. Filmmakers have constantly tried to promote awareness on social, cultural, and political issues. Actors have served as influencers, whom the general public can look up to and follow. Thus, films play a great role in changing mindsets and approach of its viewers towards certain issues. Bend it like Beckham has also proved to be such a film. As Jessica Raschke has rightly said: “the film’s strength lies in its capacity to provoke thought and discussion about a large scope of important issues surrounding cultural differences and identity” (Raschke, 126). The plot of the film revolves around two young girls with different cultural backgrounds and their struggle in pursuing their dreams, which, in this case, is playing football. Gurinder Chadha, in her film “Bend it like Beckham”, explicitly addressed the issues of racism and sexism (especially in sports), and did a great job showing Jess’ hybrid identity formation (Indian and English). Also, she, minutely, highlights the details of hardships, that Jess had to go through, in her new identity formation.

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Bend it like Beckham is the story of an Indian-British young woman, Jess, who lives in London with her traditional Punjabi family. She loves to play football and has been seen playing with neighborhood boys, many times in a park near her house. But her parents don’t support her because girls don’t do outdoor sports in their culture. Specially her mother (Mrs. Bhamra) is really conservative about this matter because girls have to wear shorts, and therefore, she puts playing football as a “shame” on family. As the film proceeds, in spite of all the restrictions from her family, Jess plays football and gets selected in a local women football team, the Hounslow Harriers. She has got tremendous skills and, so, impresses the football coach, Joe. She soon develops friendly relationship with Joe and falls in love with him. Other than Jess, the film also introduces its audiences to an English girl, Jules, who also has issues with her mother (Mrs. Paxton) because she doesn’t want her daughter to play football, as it is taking away the femininity from Jules. Jules is already a part, and a really good player, of the Hounslow Harriers. She discovers Jess, while Jess was playing in the park, and was impressed with her skills. So, she introduced Jess to the football coach Joe, and this lays the foundation of Jess’ and Jules’ friendship. The film highlights the difficulties these young girls face in order to fulfill their wishes, and finally how they convince their parents to let them play professional football.

Although Bend it like Beckham raised some serious issues of multiculturalism, gender, culture, and identity but it was a light-hearted (comedy) film. It received mixed reactions from the critics. Some thought that it was a great film with a positive message which provides a new way of looking at women in sports, while others pointed out its limitations, as Abdel-Shehid and Kalman-Lamb did in their article “Multiculturalism, Gender and Bend it like Beckham”. The shortcomings of the film, they pointed out, included their critique on the aspect that sport films make it seem very easier to enter in sports, but the fact is if the society is racist, entering into sports is not that easy. (Abdel-Shehid and Kalman-Lamb, 145). As far as film ratings are concerned, Bend it like Beckham was a blockbuster. It received great public response from England, Australia, and India. It was not only an entertaining film, but it proved to be a milestone for young girls who wanted to do sports, as Giardina said: “Since its debut in April, interest in girls’ football has skyrocketed, and new girls’ leagues are starting up all over the country. Most notably (British) Asian girls and women are signing up for leagues in higher number than ever before. (Giardina, 45-46).

In order to understand the film, one needs to be aware of the colonial history of India. This awareness answers many important questions regarding the film. One of the important issues which has been debated is why Chadha presented Mr. and Mrs. Bhamra as conservative parents who do not allow Jess to pursue her dream. To solve this query, I’ll consider Mr. and Mrs. Bhamra’s viewpoints separately. Mrs. Bhamra is often seen, in the film, scolding Jess for playing football. Once she pointed out the incident of Mr. Bhamra’s niece, who was a fashion designer, wore small skirts, and above all married to a white boy with blue hair, and later got divorced. Mrs. Bhamra showed sympathy for her mother by saying: “Her poor mother, she hasn’t been able to set foot in that temple since” (0:22:39). Recalling this incident, while explaining Jess, clearly gives us a hint that Mrs. Bhamra is afraid of social exclusion from her community. The mother, whose daughter has married a boy who didn’t belong to their cast, hasn’t been able to visit the temple. This would be probably because one of two reasons: (1) she is ashamed of facing her people, or (2) her community has forbidden her to come to the temple. In both the cases, she has been socially excluded from her community. This is the fear that has occupied Mrs. Bhamra. She doesn’t want her daughter to get influenced by and indulge herself anywhere other than her “own” culture. This takes me back to the time of colonization when British controlled India and Indians were afraid that it would take the essentials of their culture from their future generations. Chacko argues that this fear of losing one’s own culture has created the significance of a private space where there shall be no interference of any other culture: “…“home” or the private sphere was constructed within nationalist discourse in colonial India and in the postcolonial diasporic space” (Chacko, 81).

Before discussing Mr. Bhamra’s concerns, I would like to present Chacko’s argument that it is very easy to assume that in Indian culture women are not given equal rights as men. But the notion that is ignored here is that if Indian men don’t want their women to do jobs, or face the outer world (especially in the West), it is not because they want to deprive their women from their rights but it is because they want to protect their women, and don’t want their women to be the victim of the racism that the men face. She further asserts that: “…cultures are constructed and contested rather than given, fixed, and consensual” (Chacko, 83). Taking, this definition of culture, into consideration it could be argued that Mr. Bhamra’s hatred towards “goras” (Whites) was not because of their cultural differences but it was because of the racial attacks made by Whites against him. Time to time, Indians have faced racism in England which has created antagonism in them, and this antagonism now seems to be a dominant part of Indian culture. The film repeatedly portrays the reflections of how Mr. and Mrs. Bhamra think of the western world. When Joe came to Jess’ house to convince Mr. Bhamra to let her play, Mr. Bhamra told Joe that when he came to England, he was not selected in the cricket team, in spite of the fact that he had been the best fast bowler when he was in Nairobi. He also mentioned that the Whites made fun of his turban and that’s why he doesn’t want her daughter to face the same situation. “I don’t want you to build up Jesminder’s hopes. She will only end up disappointed like me” (00:44:46). Mr. Bhamra was afraid that Jess would also be the victim of the racism that he faced in his time, and it becomes evident that the purpose, of not letting Jess play football was just to protect her, not any cultural restriction.

At one more point in the film, we are able to see racism when, during the semi-final match, a player of the opposite team tugs Jess’ shirt and calls her “Paki” (1:06:05). Paki is usually used to refer a person from Pakistan or South Asia by birth or descent, especially one living in Britain. On and off, there are scenes when boys are seen passing sexist comments on Jess and other girls playing football: “They don’t all look like lezzies, do they?” (1:04:07). All in all, it could be argued that Chadha tries to give her audiences a picture of what England looked like in 2002, when it comes to issues of racism and sexism. Although, some critics have argued that Chadha failed to depict the real racism that was going on against Asians at that time, it could be argued that if she would have included more serious racial discourse in the film, the film would have lost its spirit of comedy.

Now, that I have discussed the issues of racism and sexism, I will move forward to analyze Jess’ hybrid identity and the difficulties she faces in order to form her new identity. As Rings states: “Jess is, from the very beginning of the film, situated in-between the two camps: on one hand, she loves her parents … On the other hand, she cannot accept the future role her parents have reserved for her …” (Rings, 117). Throughout the film, Jess tries to maintain a balanced position between her Indianness and Englishness. Jess wears traditional Indian clothes and serves the guests at Pinky’s (Jess’ sister) wedding, she is shy when changing clothes in front of other female team members, doesn’t drink, smoke, or date boys, is reluctant to kiss Joe and maintains her virginity, loves her family and is even ready to sacrifice the final of the football match for the sake of Pinky’s wedding. Portraying these gestures of Jess, Chadha gives us a clear insight that Jess is a young Indian woman with all those qualities that an Indian family would expect from their children. But at the same time, Jess is also a liberated English woman who doesn’t give up her dreams, goes out of the way to play football, plays magnificently and secures a spot in the local women football team, goes to Germany without informing or taking permission from her parents, and also falls in love with his Irish coach. Another important aspect that emphasizes Jess’ Englishness can be found in the scene when Tony (Jess’ friend) confesses that he is a gay and Jess replies: “It’s okay Tony. I mean it’s okay with me” (1:02:32). After all this being said, it wouldn’t be wrong if Raschke asserts: “While Jess objects to the oppressive expectations placed upon her by her Indian family, she similarly opposes the expectations that the Western or British culture places upon women” (Raschke, 125).

Jess has been very much disturbed in order to find a balancing position for herself. She has been worried for her acceptance in the family as a footballer. She never wanted to be excluded from her family but also was unable give up her passion for football. When the final of the football match and Pinky’s wedding fell on the same day, Jess, with broken heart, chose to attend Pinky’s wedding rather than playing the final. Not being able to bear Jess’ sad face and on Tony’s request, Mr. Bhamra allowed Jess to play the final and Jess happily ran away to grab the opportunity. After winning the final, Jess told her family: “I played the best ever! And I was happy because I wasn’t sneaking off and lying to you” (1:37:26). This statement made by Jess proves that she mustn’t have been comfortable lying to her parents and playing without their permission. Jess further told them that she has been granted a fully paid scholarship from America’s top university and a chance to play professional football and that her happiness is related to football (1:37:54). Taking note of her daughter’s happiness, Mr. Bhamra made an announcement in front of everyone that he is allowing Jess to go to America and fulfill her dreams. He also confessed that he made a mistake in his time when he didn’t fight for his place in the cricket club, he referred to “accepting life” and “accepting situations” as a mistake. This popular dialogue, then, revealed the main message of the film i.e. don’t settle for less, fight for your rights, and eventually everything will go your way. This is what Raschke puts as: “If you’re convinced about who you are, it won’t take long for others to be convinced by your view” (Raschke, 126). I agree with the critic reviews that this film has oversimplified the issues of “inclusion of women in sports” and “parental and generational conflict” but would argue that this film was aimed to provide the society with a positive message rather than going into the depth of social issues.

Before concluding the discussion, I would also refute the notion that Chadha failed to show the positive side of “Asianness” (Giardina, 44). Chadha didn’t aim to show the positive or negative sides of the cultures but wanted to put forward the complexities of one’s life when exposed to new culture and did quite a good job do that. As, the target audience, of the film, was the general public, the film directly appealed to them. The audiences were able to relate with the film and gave extremely positive response. Bend it like Beckham earned high grosses and managed to maintain third position in the genre of sports (soccer) films (Box Office Mojo, an IMDb company). As the critics argued, Chadha wasn’t able to do full justice while addressing certain social issues in the film, but did a fairly good job addressing the issues necessary to understand the context of the film, maintaining the entertainment level, and providing its audience with the happy ending (which the audiences crave for).

Works Cited

  • Raschke, Jessica. Juggling Cultures in Bend it like Beckham. Australian Screen Education, Autumn, 2004, Issue 36, pp.123-126. Raschke is a freelance reviewer and editor. She provides analysis of the film in terms of “young women playing a male dominated sport”, “the Indian diaspora”, and “parental and generational conflict”, along with, critically examining its strengths and shortcomings. This review has a direct link to my research process, in a way that both the review and my research focus on the issues of amalgamation of cultures and identity formation. It is an argument source.
  • Abdel-Shehid, Gamal; Kalman-Lamb, Nathan. Multiculturalism, Gender and Bend it like Beckham. Social Inclusion, 2015, Vol.3(3), pp. 142-152. This article defines the limitations of multiculturalism and, with the help of a thorough analysis of the film, provides a detailed criticism on the efficacy of sports as an instrument for social inclusion. Basing on this article, I have argued why Chadha has oversimplified the issue of entering into sports.
  • Giardina, Michael D. Chapter Two: Bend[ing] it Like Beckham: Stylish Hybridity in Popular British Culture. Counterpoints, 1 January 2005, Vol.282, pp. 27-48. In this article, Giardina starts the conversation by describing the worst racism that was common in England in 2001. He argues that Chadha has failed to depict the real racism that was going on against Asians at the time the film was released and has also failed to show the positive side of Asians. I’m making a counterargument here and discussing why has Chadha done that. Giardina clearly pointed the limitations of the film but at last also admits that after the release of the film, many girls (especially Asian) showed their interest in sports.
  • Chacko, Mary Ann. Dribbling the Self Through a Cross-Cultural Space. Multicultural Perspectives, 24 May 2010, Vol.12(2), pp. 81-86. The main focus of this article is to assert the importance of hybrid identities. Chacko argues that culture develops through time and is not anything that is fixed or unchangeable; as it mixes with other cultures it adopts many new things from those cultures. She believes in fluidity rather than fixity of identities. I am using this article as a theoretical argument, using the lens of “colonization and post-colonization” and how it affected the Indians in developing their conception of Whites.
  • Rings, Guido. Questions of Identity: Cultural Encounters in Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 2011, Vol.39(3), pp. 114-123. Rings is professor of postcolonial studies at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. Rings has very closely read the film “Bend it like Beckham” and provided a thorough critical analysis referring to post colonialism. Although, he argues that the characters in the film represented extreme identities, such as Mrs. Bhamra depicts a pure Indian, rather than hybrid identities, he had still raised some issues of difficulties faced by Jess which are closely related to my thesis. This article serves as a contextual source which provides a background of colonialism and then builds its thesis on the provided background.
  • Box Office Mojo., Inc. or its affiliates. All rights reserved. This a website used to quote the ratings and success of the film.

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