Voices: Bend It Like Beckham is just as iconic now as it was 20 years ago

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Like Jess, my athleticism was met with judgement and comments stemming from a fear that I would never ‘grow out of it’  (Getty)
Like Jess, my athleticism was met with judgement and comments stemming from a fear that I would never ‘grow out of it’ (Getty)

Bend It Like Beckham is one of the most iconic movies ever to have graced our screens, and 20 years on, it still holds a special place in my heart.

I remember discovering it at my aunt’s house as a child. It flickered across her tiny TV screen while she got dressed, and I became fixated on the image of a girl who looked like me – in a Manchester United football shirt, no less.

Just as I started to get into it, we had to leave. I sighed and was visibly frustrated, so my aunt laughed and handed me the DVD case. When I eventually watched the film in its entirety later that evening, it felt as though Gurinder Chadha had created the whole film for me.

Like Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra, I was obsessed with football. Every free moment was spent playing the game, and after intense, competitive matches at school (I played for the Molesey junior girls’ team), I would kick a ball about with my brothers and older cousins by the garages to blow off steam.

Some of my happiest memories are from that time. Although the neighbours complained about the noise, which often led to us being racially profiled and threatened with asbos by the police – just for playing footy – the garages were a safe space for all kinds of people. We once calmed a groom with pre-wedding jitters, and we even got a visit from Luke Shaw. That is the power of football: it is a global unifier, turning strangers quickly into friends.

Also like Jess, my athleticism was met with judgement and comments stemming from a fear that I would never “grow out of it” (I did, eventually, because it wasn’t treated as a serious path for me to take). As a 7-year-old Asian girl, I had concerns about whether I would be penalised for standing up for myself in games after facing racial abuse. In year 3, a kid told me and a group of Asian boys that “no p***s” were allowed to play.

Bend It Like Beckham became a virtual sanctuary for me; I loved how brilliantly it captured so many parallels. I would watch it so many times over, while secretly plotting my escape to America, that my mum ended up binning the disc. We are able to laugh about it now, but that’s how enamoured I was by the movie.

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Seeing the likes of Luke Shaw – a guy from my area who had attended a school like mine – make it as a professional footballer for my favourite team, I often wondered if I, my brothers or my cousins could ever have the same opportunity.

While the film focuses on the way in which cultural expectations hold Jess back, the reality is that most Asian girls and boys will never make it into Premier League football, because of systemic exclusion. Many put their inability to progress to the major leagues down to “injured ankles”, but this is not the case. Without systemic restrictions, there’s no doubt that Jess would have gone on to great things – maybe she could even have gone on to win the Ballon d’Or. We could have, perhaps, as well.

Chadra created a timeless film in Bend It Like Beckham – and got the whole world rooting for the Hounslow Harriets. Not only does it illustrate how hilarious our lives are, it has a 10/10 soundtrack and boldly champions themes of queerness and female friendships. What’s not to love?

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