Long before its theatrical release in Canada in the spring of 2003, there was a buzz about Bend It Like Beckham in Toronto’s sizable South Asian community.
Starring Parminder Nagra and then relatively unknown Keira Knightley as, respectively, the soccer-mad Jess and Jules, the film had opened in the United Kingdom in April, 2002. Word about director Gurinder Chadha’s latest project had spread fast among the community grapevine across the pond. Bootleg DVDs – yes, it was that long ago – were readily available at South Asian grocery stores across the Greater Toronto Area. Despite having enjoyed the pirated version already, the community went in droves to cinemas to watch and rewatch a movie about two young women battling cultural and gender norms on the soccer pitch.
It seemed like déjà vu when I attended the first preview show of Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical last weekend at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto with my husband and two kids. I ran into several South Asian friends and acquaintances, who had similarly come with their families to watch the adaptation. We were curious how the film, which had struck such a chord with all of us back then, would translate as a musical.
I still remember how the original story of a young South Asian woman trying to balance her own dreams of becoming a professional soccer player with the traditional expectations of her parents – and the community at large – had resonated with me. (It also helped that the movie’s soundtrack featured massive hits by famous South Asian singers ranging from the qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to British bhangra group B21.)
Unlike Jess, I’d already mastered making aloo-gobi and round rotis. But my mother’s harangues that “everyone should know how to feed oneself” were about learning what she saw as a necessary life skill (including for my kid brother), whereas Jess’s mother espoused the belief that good Indian daughters knew how to cook good Indian food. On the other hand, a master’s degree in English and a fledgling career in journalism weren’t the foundation of a successful future according to my parents. Back then, even as I was trying to build my reporter’s portfolio, my father suggested more than once that I could still get a graduate degree in computer science or some other financially rewarding field.
As it turned out, it wasn’t just South Asians who could relate to Jess and Jules’s goals. Bend It Like Beckham became a surprise hit across the world. Many young female athletes, and their parents, also saw their lives reflected in Jess and Jules’ struggle to make space for themselves in a male-dominated sport. I’ve had conversations about the film with Italian, Somalian, Chilean – and recently Danish – colleagues and friends. They all found the film inspirational in the way it upheld female soccer players such as Mia Hamm as a role model, alongside David Beckham.
For my part, I’d been wondering when to introduce the film to my two kids, Mallika and Dax, ages 9 and 7. It could provide an opportunity to talk about women in sports, the ways in which South Asians of my generation culture clashed with their parents, and challenging patriarchal and other outdated attitudes. My kids and I have regular conversations about media and pop-culture representation, and who gets to make and tell stories we see or hear around us. I’d be proud to share with them a movie that, long before an inclusion rider became a rallying cry in Hollywood and beyond, gave centre stage to actors such as Nagra, Archie Panjabi and Anupam Kher – who would eventually get recurring roles in TV series such as ER, The Good Wife and New Amsterdam respectively.
But I knew I’d need to fast-forward through a couple of racy scenes in the film, and ignore some of the language. We’d also need to talk about how the small LGBTQ thread was mostly played for laughs. When the opportunity to take Mallika and Dax to see the North American debut of the Bend It Like Beckham musical came up, I was all for it. I hadn’t yet shown them the movie, and, admittedly, I didn’t know exactly what would unfold onstage. But I was willing to bring them along for the show, which had enjoyed a year-long run after opening at a West End theatre in London in 2015, and I was ready to talk about any thorny bits afterward.
While Chadha could never see a follow-up to the film, the director, who was in town for the show’s previews, could envision the stage adaptation, which she co-wrote with husband Paul Mayeda Berges.
“You get to hear the father and mother, and Jules’s mother, and Jules and Jess, and Pinky – you get to hear them all sing and express their inner thoughts and emotions; and suddenly that becomes very moving,” she says.
“Often, there aren’t roles that are specific [to South Asian] stage actors,” she adds, hoping that the show “encourages more people to put our lives out in interesting stories – be it musical theatre or be it a movie.”
It was exciting for my kids to watch a musical about a South Asian girl wanting to play soccer on a Toronto main stage, even if the enormity of the moment didn’t quite hit them. Meanwhile, my acquaintances and I couldn’t help but swap notes after the show. I spoke with Anjula Gogia, events co-ordinator at Another Story Bookshop, who’d come with her young daughter, a basketball player.
We discussed how much the movie had meant to us, despite what some critics saw as reinforcement of South Asian stereotypes – women relegated to the kitchen, boorish young Punjabi men horsing around in the park. We were impressed with how the musical had updated the LGBTQ subplot to be more queer-positive. And we hoped that the technical difficulties that sometimes drowned out the actors’ voices under the music at the preview show get sorted out by opening night on Dec 17, as well as the wavering mix of British/South Asian accents of some cast members.
In the end, both of us agreed we were happy to have caught the show. Most of the jokes landed, and the audience was laughing with us – not at us. It was brilliant to watch the multiethnic cast dancing bhangra onstage, and doing a good job of it. At the curtain call, the cast went into the audience, encouraging them to dance along to a rousing Punjabi song. Was it a bit cheesy? Sure. But the audience seemed to enjoy it. And nobody even attempted the “twist the light bulb” move. Now that’s a winner in my book.
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