Queer Coded Or Missed Opportunity? Queer Desis Look Back On Bend It Like Beckham

"I won't let anyone tell me this film isn't queer."

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In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Bend It Like Beckham, Junkee is spending the week digging into the impact and legacy of the iconic film.

It’s been 20 years since Bend It Like Beckham first graced our screens, but lingering questions about the film’s queerness remain. Taken at face value, the film is about a platonic friendship between Jess (Parminder Nagra) and Jules (Keira Knightley); one that is tested because of the girls’ mutual crush on their coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

But others say this film was queer coded, that while the film’s teenage protagonists were never explicitly said to be queer, there’s enough subtext for the audience to know what’s really going on. The term was coined in the 1987 book The Celluloid Closet, which explains how queer coding was often necessary for films go get funding and base consideration within a notoriously homophobic entertainment industry.

In fact, AfterEllen claims that Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha had planned to include a romance between the girls but “chickened out” at the last minute for a fear of upsetting audiences. After all, it was the early 2000s, and a movie that honed in on a working-class Punjabi family in the UK was already pushing the limits of what continues to be a conservative film industry.

But queer South Asians know that Bend It Like Beckham was a deeply queer film, nevertheless. Here, we hear from three Queer South Asians who watched Bend It Like Beckham as kids in 2002, and look back on the queerest Desi film that never quite was.

“That Irish Guy Was Only There To Satisfy The Heterosexual Norm” — Neha, Adelaide

“Growing up in Western Sydney during the ’90s and ’00s as a Queer, Punjabi eldest daughter who loved playing cricket, I didn’t see myself represented in media. I’d resigned myself to the fact that I was a bit of a weirdo — people like me didn’t exist, and I just had to deal with that reality.

So when my dad took me to the movies to see some film about an Indian girl who plays soccer, I didn’t expect much. By the time I walked out of the cinema, my nine-year-old self was bursting with excitement, delight, and feeling for the first time that I wasn’t alone; I wasn’t the only one.

Jesminder’s Punjabi family was a lot like mine: immigrant parents who worried about their kids’ futures. Would we be able to get good jobs when we grew up? Would we be safe in this country where everything is different? How long could they protect us from the racism they experienced?

I won’t let anyone tell me this film isn’t queer. It remains one of the gayest movies about the Desi diaspora I’ve come across. Jess’ male best friend who ‘really, really likes’ Beckham, Jess hiding who she was and what she loved from her family who didn’t understand, getting changed into her footy kit in closets, THE FOOTBALL SHOES, the gossiping aunties who (gasp!) talked about astrology and lesbians, and the undeniable chemistry between Jess and her (short-haired) soccer pal Jules. That Irish guy was only there to satisfy the heterosexual norm.

Watching Jess and her family grow to accept themselves gave me the strength I needed to be me: to embrace my love of sport, to find my own Jules, and to come out to my family.”

“It Doesn’t Matter That They’re Sikh And We’re Muslim, [In England] We Were All Seen As Asian” — Aliya, Melbourne

“I have a sense memory of the first time I watched Bend It Like Beckham. It was my Sri Lankan best friend’s turn to host our weekly Saturday night sleepover, and Shema was in charge of picking a movie. She’d just gotten a new DVD of a film our classmate’s Dad helped produce, about an Indian girl who played soccer. Shema was the sporty one, and I was always a bit rubbish at soccer, so I wasn’t massively enthusiastic at first. But I can’t count how many times I’ve seen it since.

As a London-born Pakistani, the migrant experience of the Bhamra family is all too familiar. It doesn’t matter that they’re Sikh and we’re Muslim, in the end, we’re all seen as Asian in our colonial step-motherland (England). Every time I watch the film, I bear witness to the weird Desi quirks of her migrant family, the gossiping aunties in their runners and shalwar kameez, and all the cultural obligations that come with hosting a shaadi. It could very well be my family — the Ahmads instead of the Bhamras — on the screen.

Seeing honest South Asian representation helped me feel like I had a place among all the goras as a kid. It was only later that I realised the impact the film had on me as I navigated my bisexuality as a young adult. This movie is queer. From Jess’ best mate Tony who “really likes Beckham”, to the astrology, and — you cannot convince me otherwise — the bisexual over the top steely-eyed Irish male coach, by the end of it, we were all cheering for Jess and Jules to get together.

Bend it Like Beckham has a little something for everyone, for South Asians, migrants, queers, and anyone that’s ever felt a bit out of place or felt like they had to hide part of themselves from their communities. In 2002, it captured all the imperfections and awkwardness of clashing cultures, first loves and friendships better than any mainstream Hollywood film. I’m filled with a sense of pride that two decades on, this small South Asian film (which featured my third-grade classmate as an extra) continues to mean a little something to so many.”

“I Could See The Lost Potential Of The Love Story Between Jess And Jules” — Deenah, London

“Bend It Like Beckham felt sincere and authentic, and will always have a special place in my heart. As a queer Desi Muslim woman and, just like Jess, a second-generation immigrant, I’ve had to deal with a lot of microaggressions and struggles growing up. The film felt intensely relatable, and its humour was my favourite thing about it by far, because I too have a tendency to deflect difficulties with often unintended humour.

I also love that I am able to appreciate the film on different levels as I’ve grown up. I first watched it when I was a kid, long before I figured out that I was queer — and it took me a while to work out what Tony meant when he said he really liked David Beckham. It was only really looking back on the film having realised my own queerness that I could also see the lost potential of the love story between Jess and Jules.

And it was only after coming into my own as a queer person that I could appreciate the nuances of that representation and its critiques. At the heart of this was a lack of intersectionality — many commentators wanting the film to be queerer didn’t want to accept that Jess and Jules could both be bisexual, rather than lesbians (and I say that as a lesbian!), or that the movie could have veered away from a Jess-Joe-Jules love triangle and into a polyamorous relationship instead.

For all its flaws, the tokenistic gay character, the infamous “Jess, I’m Irish” line, the unrealised untapped queer potential of Jess and Jules — you can’t deny that Bend It Like Beckham dared to kickstart conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have been had at that time. That’s why I love it.”

Reena Gupta is Junkee’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.