Growing up playing football, I consistently looked up to one star. It wasn’t David Beckham or even Ronaldinho. My idol didn’t play in a regular league I could tune in to watch every Sunday, her poster wasn’t pasted to the back of my door like Zac Efron’s, and I didn’t own one of her shirts — because truth be told, it didn’t exist. Back when I was a 10-year-old, growing up between my Indo-Caribbean and Western cultures, and feeling like I wasn’t really great at either, my idol was Bend It Like Beckham’s Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra (Parminder Nagra).
Despite the fact that Nagra’s Jess wasn’t actually an IRL player, she was the person I turned to as inspiration for one super big but pretty simple reason: She looked like me. Growing up in a predominantly white community meant that I wasn’t used to seeing that IRL, and in 2002, onscreen. Which is why watching Jess head a ball and follow her dreams was so impactful. And still is.
Twenty years after the film was released, there may have been strides in representation, but Bend It Like Beckham, however flawed, remains impactful for being one of the first pieces of western media showing young South Asian girls of my generation who not only could exist between and embrace two cultures, but could be leading ladies, both onscreen and IRL, long before Hollywood caught up.
For those who aren’t familiar (and if so, you’re seriously missing out), Bend It Like Beckham follows Jess, an 18-year-old Indo-Brit who is torn between her love of football and pleasing her somewhat strict (but always incredible and hilarious) parents. After secretly joining a local women's league, Jess has to balance her dreams of playing football abroad with the cultural expectations that she stay in the UK, attend university, and ultimately marry a nice South Asian boy. Needless to say, it doesn’t go as planned.
At the beginning of the film, when Jess first goes out for the team, Coach Joe (a hunky Jonathan Rhys Meyers) tells her: "I've never really seen an Indian girl into football.” And, as journalist Ishani Nath noted in a 2019 CBC article about the musical adaptation, in 2002, (and 2003, when the film was released in North America) the same could be said for seeing South Asian characters on screen outside of Bollywood. As many have pointed out over the years, BILB came out in a time predating a lot of the now-famous South Asian faces we’ve come to know and love. Before Mindy Kaling graced our screens first in The Office and later The Mindy Project, before Lilly Singh’s YouTube empire and subsequent late-night talk show (RIP), before the rise of young South Asian women like Iman Vellani as superheroes and — despite how you might feel about him — even before comedian Russell Peters started making fun of his culture onstage, Jess was running dribbling drills and wheezing through sprints with the Hounslow Harriers.
For a lot of young women of South Asian descent (myself included), Jess Bhamra was the first depiction of ourselves we’d ever accurately seen. As a 10-year-old when the film was released, I can remember the distinct feeling of watching the movie the first few times and feeling seen. Despite the fact that my own immediate household wasn’t as cultural as Jess’s (my dad’s side of the family is Indo-Guyanese, which comes with some complications), watching Jess be forced to make chapatis with her mum or have the seamstress jokingly but affectionately comment on her chest size (reassuring her her boobs would look like “juicy, juicy mangoes”) reminded me of interactions with my aunts and great aunts, who were constantly trying to feed me handmade roti at every family function, all the while commenting on my weight. And when Jess left those spaces to play football and party with her BFF Jules (Keira Knightley) — a friend who was understanding of her situation but could never truly understand the feeling of being caught between two cultures — I related to that, too.
But more than the intimate relatability aspect was the happiness I felt at seeing someone who looked like me as the main character on-screen. In a time when I felt like all my friends were Jules (white, gorgeous, and desirable), it was refreshing to see a story and experience framed entirely around someone who I’d previously only thought of as the sidekick — me. It didn’t really matter that (spoiler) in the end Jess gets the guy because her existence as the main character at all felt so special and monumental.
Of course, we can’t really overlook the problematic bits. Because, of course, 20 years on from its release, there are going to be some — or at least parts of the film that haven’t aged as well as the movie’s central message. In hindsight, the relationship between Jess and her coach, Joe, who I thought at the time was so dreamy, is actually an example of some questionable power dynamics at play. Jess is only 18, and while Joe is meant to be a young coach, the fact of the matter is that he is still her coach. Watching the movie back now, I can’t help but feel just a bit icky at what is clearly a pretty big power imbalance.
But despite this, Bend It Like Beckham still holds up two decades later. Since its release, there have thankfully been massive strides when it comes to South Asian representation on screen, culminating most recently in the gorgeous depiction of South Asian culture on the second (and highly watched) season of Netflix’s Bridgerton. But despite the strides we’ve made in representation, I’ll always have a soft spot for the movie, for Jess as the original, and for making me feel like I was worthy of being a leading lady in my own life.