I only came to appreciate sports later in life, as opposed to emerging from the womb already knowing every single stat for the New York Yankees and Knicks like every man in my family. But once I discovered that sports are good, after attending my first hockey game and experiencing the rush of two large men skating into each other at full speed, I also discovered the best part of being a dedicated sports fan: sports movies. A good sports movie is like a safer simulation of a stressful match, taking you from a pit of despair to the unmatched high of watching your team win in the span of an hour, all while imparting valuable life lessons disguised as sports metaphors. Some of the best films that accomplish this are A League of Their Own, The Mighty Ducks, and Remember the Titans. But none of them can hold a candle to the greatest sports film of all time, one which introduced women’s soccer to a broader, non-soccer obsessed young audience: 2003's Bend It Like Beckham.
Currently streaming on Disney+, Bend It Like Beckham possesses all the markings of a quintessential sports movie but elevated. It has training montages, emotional loss, and accurate representation when it comes to the rules of the game, but there’s also a focus on diversity and women in sports, something most films in the genre casually gloss over as if women never deigned to play sport at an elite level. The film follows Jess (Parminder Nagra) a young Indian woman in England with a passion for soccer during a period when England had no professional league for women outside 0f the Women’s Premier League: an amateur parallel of the men’s side where national team players could be trained. Jess is introduced to a women’s amateur team through fellow white soccer lover Jules (Keira Knightley) and the two instantly form a bond. Not only must Jess overcome gender stereotypes, but she is pushed to go against the wishes of her traditional Indian Sikh family to pursue her love of the game. Against the backdrop of her sister’s massive wedding, Jess must decide whether it’s truly worth it to give everything to soccer even if it means disappointing her family. And I don’t care if I’m spoiling the movie for you when I say it is absolutely worth it.
Bend It bears the burden of being a film that focuses on an Indian Sikh family in the post 9/11 era. Director Gurinder Chadha doesn’t shy away from the racism Jess has to face on the field, like an opposing team member referring to her as “Paki” during a game, or at home, like her mother chastising her for becoming too dark after playing outdoors. But Chadha also doesn’t make race the entire lynchpin of the movie in the way that a sports movie like Remember the Titans does. The two films may focus on different time periods in different countries, but the fact that Chadha is able to blend themes of religion, culture, and racism effortlessly in the middle of a PG-13 sports comedy speaks to her talent as a director.
Scenes like Jess getting fitted for a sari and having her breasts referred to as “mosquito bites” that can be transformed into “juicy, juicy mangoes” help define a film that at its core is about finding oneself through soccer. Jess wants to be more than the Indian girl who marries an Indian boy and makes a full Indian dinner, like her sister Pinky. She wants to see where a life with soccer can take her and, maybe if there’s time, do all of those other things. Adhering to one’s cultural and religious traditions and playing sports, a field still seen as cis male-dominated, doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. That seems obvious in 2020, but was still a revelation in 2003 when women were still struggling to be seen as merely athletes without the added hyphens of “woman” or “mother.”
But what makes Bend It such a powerful sports movie is the fact that 17 years after its release, Jess’s struggles as an aspiring athlete are still scarily relevant. When the film was released, the soccer world was coming down from the high of the US Women’s National Team iconic 1999 World Cup Win, which was arguably the most exciting moment in women’s soccer history since its inception. Not only was it the first time a women’s team had ever been two-time World Cup champions (the USWNT won in 1991 but came in third in ’95) but that specific tournament attracted the largest audience to women’s soccer of all time up to that point, an estimated 40 million people watching on television and several hundred thousand attending in person. The final penalty kicks between China and the United States that determined the outcome of the tournament also gave us one of the most iconic and recreated moments in sports history: Brandi Chastain’s game-winning kick and her immortal sports bra celebration, a moment repeatedly referenced in Bend It.
But the excitement from the win didn’t fully translate in the United States once the hoopla died down. In 2000 the Women’s United Soccer Association was formed as an attempt to grow the women’s game professionally stateside and essentially function as a talent pool for future national team players. In Bend It Like Beckham Jules shares that her dream is to play in the WUSA, which served as a home for international players whose countries did not have elite programming for women like Mexico, the U.K., and France, and she encourages Jess to pursue the same path. But the WUSA had its final season in 2003, due to insufficient investment and low ticket sales, the same year Bend It Like Beckham was released in the States. Jules’s and Jess’s potential future in American professional soccer was extensively thought out in a timeline that was written by writer Stephanie Yang, imagining a sequel super fans need.
Bend It Like Beckham brought the beauty of women’s soccer to a broader, often apathetic audience in the aftermath of a groundbreaking women’s World Cup win. The movie included the most popular English soccer player to put his boots on the pitch, David Beckham. But in creating the character of Jess as a young female Beckham-esque prodigy, Chadha echoed what the 99ers team were saying with their World Cup win: that women players are just as good, just as entertaining, as the men. “There was this unspoken — not a burden, just the weight or the gravity of the future of women’s soccer,” Chastain said of the cup win in 2019. “And the future of soccer for girls. There was a little bit in the back of your head how important it was to win, not just for us but really as kind of the flag-bearers for women’s sports.” These days the women’s national team is now on its fourth world cup and the National Women’s Soccer League saw record TV ratings during their condensed 2020 season.
Bend It gave women’s soccer a boost of pop culture relevance that is still felt to this day. Writer, podcast host and sports activist Shireen Ahmed recently talked about the importance of Bend It in an episode of the podcast Football Collective. “This film is 20 years old but it’s still so relevant now,” Ahmed said looking back at how the film showed women being treated as “second-tier footballers” or “an afterthought.” For any film to be a great sports film it must have staying power, beyond ample training montages and a great comeback game, and Bend It Like Beckham has all of that in spades and more. In depicting a young soccer prodigy whose identity was so embedded in the sport as well as in her own culture, Bend It Like Beckham spotlit an important era for women’s soccer, making the sport accessible and desirable to young girls the world over.