It was 2003. The year of “Love Actually,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and “Elf.” Three iconic blockbuster films with predominantly white casts and a meager sprinkling of diverse faces thrown in to move the plot along.
And then, like a unexpected gift from the cinema gods above, came “Bend It like Beckham,” a movie that had one thing all those other theater-packing, Hollywood hits didn’t have.
Jess Bhamra. A brown girl like me.
When I first saw the trailer for the film, I thought, “Beckham … What a strange name for a brown girl.”
It wasn’t until I sat down with my younger sister to watch the movie that I understood ― this was a film about the immigrant Indian experience. Jess, wasn’t just the nerdy best friend, the submissive shy girl, or the exotic temptress (all tropes that are far too common for Asian women). She was the main character ― a girl with many layers and quirks, whose long braid came loose, a girl who had a knack for getting what she wanted.
And this wasn’t the kind of movie that played only at the South Asian theater in my hometown in Rockland County, New York. “Bend It Like Beckham” was an unexpected global smash hit. It was something people at school were talking about. So much so that once, when I reluctantly answered the eternally infuriating question, “Where are you really from?” the person who asked responded with, “Oh, like ‘Bend it like Beckham?’ Yeah, I know all about that.’”
In the movie, Jess Bhamra, played by the English actress Parminder Nagra, is an 18-year-old budding soccer star from London who desperately wants a chance to play her sport. She joins a local women’s team (with a conveniently smoking hot coach). When her parents, Sikh immigrants to the U.K., find out that she’s playing, they’re furious and ban her from the field.
The rest of the film has all the elements of a beloved romantic comedy ― a grand, colorful wedding, a sudden change of fortune, and of course, a scintillating kiss in an airport.
Now, there are a few differences between Jess and me. Her family was Sikh, mine is Christian. Her family is likely from Punjab, while mine is from a state much farther south in India, called Kerala. She speaks a language at home that my family wouldn’t understand. She was raised in England, with its imperialist history of subjugating Indians, and I was raised in America, with its own racist history of discriminating against Indians. (I guess some things are sadly universal.)
But while it’s important to note that not all immigrant experiences are the same, my 14-year-old self couldn’t help staring at Jess on the screen and seeing a kindred spirit. I felt incredibly confident that Jess would know what it’s like to be constantly confused with the other brown girls in her class. Jess would know what it’s like to run through her mom’s kitchen like it was on fire, to avoid having the smell of chicken curry cling to her clothes. Jess would know what it’s like to love your immigrant parents fiercely, protectively, and still be frustrated beyond belief when they aren’t able to float freely between two cultures the way you can.
What I love the most about “Bend It Like Beckham” was that the heart of the problem ― the reason why Jess’ dad is preventing her from doing what she loves ― is not because his culture is strange and backwards and oppressive towards women or because he is a foreigner unwilling to mingle.
It was racism. Jess’s dad had his own dreams of playing for an English team. He was once part of a cricket club, but the men on the team had made fun of him, and eventually kicked him out.
The experience taught Jess’s dad a hard truth. Along with adjusting to a new language and culture, he also had to learn how to navigate through a society that didn’t always see him as one of their own. He didn’t want his daughter to feel the shame of that rejection.
This kind of plot line, this truth that pervades the life of immigrant families and at times, defines how they interact with the majority culture, was only possible in “Bend It Like Beckham” because this movie was not just about visibility on the screen, but also about representation behind the scenes. The film was produced, written and directed by Gurinder Chadha ― an English film director of Indian descent.
This is why we need to make sure people of color make it to writers’ meetings and boardrooms even before the cameras start rolling ― so that our experiences are added to the conversation about what it means to be a human being.
When asked, “How do we empower the people we call the voiceless?” she responded:
“One of the most important things for us to do to amplify those voices is to pass the mic whenever we have it,”Al-Khatahtbeh said at the summit. “If there’s someone that can speak to a lived experience that you cannot, do not take up that space, do not speak on their behalf, let them speak for themselves.”
“If there’s someone that can speak to a lived experience that you cannot, do not take up that space, do not speak on their behalf, let them speak for themselves.”
So even though “Bend It Like Beckham” is a movie about a brown girl that’s bizarrely named after a rich white man, even though it perpetuates the idea that Indian women need to be saved from their family’s culture and properly assimilated into the West, this moment was a milestone for Indian girls of my generation. For the first time in my life, I saw an echo of myself on the screen.
This essay is part of the HuffPost Voices series “When Representation Mattered.” The series highlights stories from people of all racial backgrounds, religions, abilities, ages, sexual and gender identities on what representation means to them. To submit your story (in written or vlog form) for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Past blogs in the series: