When I was 9, I used to tell people I was Spanish.
As a little brown girl growing up in Bristol, aside from at family gatherings for Diwali and raksha bandhan, I was usually in the racial minority in most rooms I entered on a day-to-day, and so learned to navigate white spaces from a young age.
Of course, I didn’t realise I was navigating white spaces, I simply learned that my home culture was alien to most of those around me and picked up that the more I assimilated, the more people would play with me at school (hence the Spanish lie).
So in 2001 when Bend It Like Beckham graced our screens, and I saw my internal balancing act between home life – where my mum was trying to teach me gujarati, make round rotis, and respect elders without question – and my school life, where I desperately wanted to replicate white Britishness around me, thrust onto a screen for everyone to see, I felt a strong sense of relief, but also nakedness.
The director with a difference, Gurinder Chadha, has a way of making me feel included in the film industry, from her Punjabi Sikh and British character of Jesminder Bhamra in Bend It, to casting Manjeeven Grewal as Ellen in Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging, a character who wasn’t written as being South Asian in the book.
I was engrossed at the age of 9 to be watching a South Asian main character navigate her way through the difficulties of a traditional Sikh household while trying to follow her own football dreams and connect with the contrasting white household of her best friend Jules Paxton.
I cringed when Juliet’s mum told Jesminder about the ‘lovely curry’ she made and joked her mum was probably setting her up with a ‘nice handsome doctor’.
I empathised with the outrage Jess felt when her traditionally-minded Asian family made sweeping judgements based on little information or logic, like that Juliet was a boy because of her short hair, that playing football brought shame on her family, or many of the other moments of complete despair I related to with my own extended family.
This was all so important to me, because before Bend It Like Beckham, I thought I was on my own in this and that no one would ever understand the dilemma I felt with the very culture I was supposed to be proud of, but which was getting in my way of being English – or so I felt when I was a child. Now I have found ways to balance both, but the film showed me that there was a conversation to be had, and there were others I could have it with.
As well as raising issues of race and dual identities, the film tackles femininity and the perception of what that word means in different cultures. Jessminder’s sister Pinky, played by the iconic Archie Panjabi, represents a version of femininity her parents accepted as opposed to Jess’s more boyish style.
Despite Pinky having her flaws, it is the aesthetic external impression she gave to others which pleased Mrs Bhamra, and she made a point of asking Jess why she couldn’t just get with boys ‘behind mum and dad’s back like the rest of us’. As I grew older and further from traditional values, I related to this trope in the film more than ever. My Indian family makes a game of keeping up appearances and sweeping perceived shame under the carpet. I was 15 and I wanted to go and drink in a park with my white friends. Like Jesminder had to hide her football kit in the bush and pretend to be ill to avoid family gatherings, I also lied to my mum about going out so that I could take-part in the activities I thought she’d stop me doing. Even after I started being open about any antics I was involved in, there was very much an emphasis on appearing ‘acceptable’ to the family, particularly the elders, regardless of what you were actually doing.
Now, in my adult life, I am prouder than ever of my Indian and British culture, whilst also thinking critically about it and choosing the parts of it I want to keep, and the parts I’m happy to leave in the past. It is still difficult seeing more traditional members of my Indian family express damaging opinions of what being a modern British Indian woman should look like. Luckily we have a world of beautiful, strong, and powerful Asian women making their way into the media spotlight, with the help of Gurinder Chadha, that I can turn to for inspiration if I ever feel lost.
Academics argue that Bend It Like Beckham did little to challenge the structure of English society because it offers a version of multiculturalism based on assimilating to a utopian English norm.
There is definitely room for this argument. The film did after all require the Bhamras having to become more liberal and Western for a happy ending. However as a British Indian, seeing the struggles that I could barely articulate as a child being represented in mainstream film was indisputably a good thing.