Dir: Gurinder Chadha. UK. 2001. 110mins.
Gurinder Chadha's high-spirited, unassuming comedy about a football-mad Indian girl living in London is a real charmer which should score with teenagers but also has strong crossover potential. In the UK it will coast on the successful new wave of popular Asian comedy of which Chadha's own first film, Bhaji On The Beach (1994), about Indian women on a jaunt to the seaside resort of Blackpool, was an early example: more recently there has been the 1999 hit East Is East and the long-running TV satirical sketch show Goodness Gracious Me!. Meanwhile Anita And Me, based on GGM star Meera Syal's novel about her childhood, arrives later this year. Bend It Like Beckham should also appeal to fans of female soccer worldwide (though curiously it doesn't make much of its only American character, a US talent scout). And it offers, above all, a gorgeous, hugely likeable young cast and that feelgood, triumph-over-adversity plotline which worked so well for low-budget Britpix like The Full Monty and Billy Elliot. The picture opens wide in the UK on 12 April, while overseas sales to date include France, Spain, Israel and South Africa.
The title (whose odd phrasing might be an initial stumbling block in some territories) refers to Manchester United and England player David Beckham, whose signature curveball kick finds its parallel in the heroine's own determination to bend, if not to break, the roles in her favour. Beckham does not appear personally in the film, although he is said to endorse it and lookalikes of him and his wife Victoria (Posh Spice) are glimpsed briefly in the closing scenes.
Eighteen-year-old Jess (Parminder Nagra) idolises Beckham and loves to watch and above all play football. However, her family wants her to be a conventional Indian daughter who concentrates her energies on learning to cook a full Indian supper, finding a nice husband and studying for a respectable, deadly dull career like accounting.
Kicking a ball around with friends, she meets fellow football nut Jules (Keira Knightley), who's from a white middle-class background, but suffers from the same pressure. Her brash, frilly-bloused mother (Juliet Stevenson) insists that football is unfeminine and "there's a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one without a fella". Recruited to the local team, Jess soon blossoms into a star player, unknown to her family, under the tutelage of her stern but dashing Irish coach (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).
The rest of the featherlight plot plants a series of obstacles in her path towards her dream. Some of these impediments and misunderstandings are allowed to drag on for a little long, and if the film is to be trimmed, it's in these later sections where the cuts would most effective.
Production values are modest but attractive, especially the West London setting in the heart of one of London's largest Asian communities, with its dramatic contrast between the colourful sari shops and street markets and the suburban semi-detached houses. It's also close by Heathrow Airport, whose low-flying planes act as a constant visual reminder of Jess's longing to escape her surroundings.
Some of the characters are drawn with very broad strokes. But the film has a lot of unmalicious fun with all of them, from Jess's bevy of arch-traditional aunties and her Sikh father, an immigrant from Kenya who works as a customs officer, to her shopaholic friends who, with their baby-pink cellphones, designer nails and tinted contact lenses, are Asian London's equivalent of Valley Girls. Most importantly, Chadha draws winning performance from her central trio - the two young actresses are a particular revelation - and creates an enormously appealing chemistry between them.
Prod co: Kintop Pictures
UK dist: Helkon SK
Int'l sales: The Works
Prods: Deepak Nayar, Chadha
Scr: Chadha, Guljit Bindra, Paul Mayeda Berges
Cinematography: Jong Lin
Prod des: Nick Ellis
Ed: Justin Krish
Music supervisor: Liz Gallacher
Main cast: Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Juliet Stevenson, Anupam Kher