How The Bend It Like Beckham Soundtrack Perfectly Captured My Immigrant Experience
"There is solace that being a true representation of yourself can be a messy mishmash of sitars, Basement Jaxx and the cacophony of Backyard Dog’s 'Baddest Roughest'."
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. This article was first published in 2018.
If you look through the cluttered drawers of my family home, you’ll find at least six copies of Bend It Like Beckham on DVD.
Some of those are pirated double-features, alongside titles that brought a lot less joy into the world — like, for instance, The Love Guru — but they’ve all become permanent fixtures in our home.
As a second-generation Australian, I started learning at a young age what it meant to toe the line between honouring my parent’s culture and paving a way for my own identity. I loved soccer, doing karate and listening to The Backstreet Boys, but there was also an expectation that I do all those things in moderation to make room for tradition.
I was reminded at home every day to be “a good Indian girl” — and that included watching Bollywood movies and listening to Indian music.
Enter The Hounslow Harriers
When Bend It Like Beckham was released in 2002, it became an unexpected hit. The film hinges on the story of second-generation Punjabi-Sikh, Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra, whose life in England and devotion to soccer collide with her parents’ desire for “a good Indian daughter”.
Her choices also starkly contrast her sister’s contentment with an arranged marriage and motherhood. At first glance, the plot of Beckham reads like a South-Asian spoof — but it quickly became a source of solace for many.
The Spice Girls were as pivotal to my childhood as learning to wear a sari was.
The film’s accompanying soundtrack, which features both bhangra music and Spice Girls’ solo ventures was a reflection of the turmoil that surrounded my identity. The sounds of the tumbi — a traditional single string instrument that whirrs on B21’s ‘Darshan’ — were just as important to me as Victoria Beckham’s 2001 bubblegum masterpiece, ‘I Wish’. The Spice Girls were as pivotal to my childhood as learning to wear a sari was.
In What’s love got to do with it?: (Un)bending identities and conventions in Gurinda Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham, author Claudia May signals that at its core, the film critically examines the complicated journey a person faces when confronted with contesting traditions that involve race, culture, gender, and sexuality.
Bend, Don’t Break
Jess’s relationship with Jules Paxton (played by Keira Knightley) wasn’t very different to my own friendships. I envied their parents’ relatively uncomplicated concerns while I struggled to navigate my family’s cultural expectations without alienating myself from my peers.
Director Gurinder Chadha attributes the film’s success not only to its multicultural ethos but to women’s innate ability to “‘bend’ the rules rather than ‘break’ them so they can get what they want.”
Gayatri Gopinath, a professor at New York University, also likens ‘bent’ with queerness. Of course, any fan of the movie will tell you the greatest tragedy is that despite their parents’ suspicions, Jess and Jules aren’t actually queer.
Any fan of the movie will tell you the greatest tragedy is that despite their parents’ suspicions, Jess and Jules aren’t actually gay.
In Gopinath’s book, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, she points out that while the director takes a stance to shut down female queer desire, there’s space made for multiplicity.
At the end of the film, Jess’s sidekick Tony reveals to her that he’s gay, to which she responds: “But… you’re Indian!” In this fleeting moment, Chadha overturns the notions that South Asian and gay identities are mutually exclusive. It seems like a glaring transgression — but put in context with India legalising gay sex only in September, it begins to make a lot more sense.
Finding my place in the world has been relatively tame, as is Bend It Like Beckham’s climax, with Jess having to choose between playing in her soccer grand final and her sister’s wedding. I once found myself in a similar position, choosing Stereosonic over attending a cousin’s wedding in 2009. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house for weeks (although to be honest, seeing Fedde Le Grand was worth it.)
Living in cultural purgatory is a lifelong dilemma, but every time I watch Bend It Like Beckham, it feels like things are going to be okay. There’s a world where Blondie’s ‘Atomic’ belongs with Mel C’s euphoric trance banger, ‘I Turn To You‘, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers is your forbidden crush.
Ultimately, through the music of Bend It Like Beckham, there is solace that being a true representation of yourself can be a messy mishmash of sitars, Basement Jaxx and the cacophony of Backyard Dog’s ‘Baddest Roughest‘.
There are moments in pop culture that offer clarity so emphatic it can soothe despairing funks of ennui. And in the words of Basement Jaxx, “I don’t give a damn what the people say, I’m gonna do it my way.”
Kish Lal is a writer and critic based in Melbourne. She tweets about raccoons and Cardi B at @kish_lal