I‘d forgotten how Bend It Like Beckham begins: with a spoof BBC football commentary in which Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen and John Barnes wax lyrical about the silky skills of Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra. It’s a fantasy, obviously, which is why her mum soon butts in to tell her off for “running around with all these men, showing [your] bare legs to 70,000 people ”. As openings go, it’s supremely silly and very British, perfectly setting the tone for what follows: a relentlessly cheerful comedy about a British Indian girl torn between her love of football and her traditional Punjabi family. And how often do we get one of those? Erm, once. Twenty years ago.
In the intervening decades, Gurinder Chadha’s surprise hit starring Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley – who, obviously, was the one who went on to become a global superstar – has matured into the highest grossing football film of all time. Which is amazing, even if you think Bend It Like Beckham is a bit glib, cliched, overreliant on stereotypes and dodgy when it comes to sexuality, which for 20 years I did. Until I rewatched it this week and was destroyed by its glinting moments of authenticity. The scene where all the Indian ammas and aunties pull out their mobile phones! The dancing at the wedding! But more of that later.
Bend It Like Beckham: 20 Years On (BBC Three), Miriam Walker-Khan’s lighthearted documentary examining the film’s impact, also opens with… Gary Lineker. Rewatching his cameo, he reckons he might have “overacted a bit”. He had no idea (nor did I) that Chadha was originally inspired not by Beckham but by Ian Wright. Apparently she saw him in a union jack flag and caught a glimpse of an evolving concept of Britishness in football. Which, 20 years on, has not evolved enough. “It’s surprising that things haven’t changed too much in terms of the Asian presence in the game,” Lineker muses.
Next it’s off to the National Football Museum in Manchester to talk to some young sportswomen. Coach Ali Speechly, who was 19 when she first saw the film, remembers thinking: “Oh my God, this is me.” For freestyle footballer Kaljit Atwal, “it’s sad that it’s still relatable 20 years later”. Walker-Khan meets real-life Jesminder, Rosie Kmita: the first south Asian woman to play in the Women’s Super League (WSL). Like Jess, she grew up playing football in the park, using jumpers as goalposts and facing the difficulties “that come with being Asian and playing the game”. Jess may have been a great role model, Kmita and Walker-Khan agree, but she wasn’t real.
Walker-Khan, an up-and-coming BBC Sport journalist, is a bright and engaging presenter with lots to say on Bend It Like Beckham’s intersectionality: how it tackles race, class, gender and sexuality with a fleet-footedness that belies both the subject matter and times. It’s a shame she doesn’t interview Chadha: there’s only one clip of the director, and it’s from 2007. In its time, Bend It Like Beckham was criticized for being too upbeat and sidestepping the issues, but Canadian sports journalist Shireen Ahmed points out that its multicultural positivity was sorely needed less than a year after 9/11. “This film,” she says, “gave us a moment to stop apologizing.”
Essentially, though, this is a documentary about football. It’s about how much the landscape has changed, with the WSL now regarded as the best women’s league in the world. And it’s about how little it has changed, with South Asians remaining vastly underrepresented in women’s football. Ahmed points out that, 20 years later, the local team on which the film’s Hounslow Harriers is based is still made up of “a lot of white girls”.
I’ve been on my own vexed journey with Bend It Like Beckham. I was 23 when it came out: at a defiant, confused stage when a film like this seemed to have nothing to say to a British Asian like me. An Indian who did not grow up in an Asian community. Whose south Indian parents weren’t strict like the caricatures we (so rarely) saw on the telly. Whose football-mad, sari-wearing Hindu mum would take weeks off work every time the World Cup was on. Bend It Like Beckham was yet another thing that made me feel like a bad Indian.
Twenty years on, I see my response was forged both by the times and what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “the danger of a single story”; a shame born out of only getting to see one version of myself. I know, now, that there are as many ways to be British Asian as there are Asians in Britain. Which is why, 20 years later, and nearly two years after my wonderful and unusual mum’s death, watching Bend It Like Beckham made me cry. It was for me after all.