Joe: “Where do you normally play?”
Jess: “In the park.”
Joe (looks at Jules, looks back at Jess): “I mean what position?”
The social roles that an individual performs occupy a central position in the plot of Bend it like Beckham, Gurinder Chadha’s successful ‘Indie film’1. The treatments of the themes of these movies are unmistakably ‘desi’, another one of those HBO neologisms which implies the juxtaposition of an Indian flavour to a predominantly American or British setting. The plots of such movies progresses through a continuous give and take of the ‘desi’ and the ‘western’ elements in them, these two apparently incongruous elements resolving their hostilities and finding a way to reconcile towards their end. The distinction between such crossover films and Hindi or other regional Indian films shot in the US or England, dealing with the lives of diasporic Indians is very vividly visible and distinguishable. The Indianness of the former comes off as something which is forced. This attempt to be Indian however deliberate it may be is also very genuine as far as the lives of these Indians are concerned. By centering most of the drawing room scenes in Mr. Bhamra’s suburban household around the picture of Guru Nanak, the film is not only catering to its own wish of being recognised as Indian but it’s also indicative of how the members of the Bhamra household refuses to let go of their fast dissipating cultural ties in an alien soil.
Within the tightly woven fabric of inter-relationships of individuals the dynamics of sanctioned social exchanges becomes very intricate. Mr. Bhamra, who is perhaps a representative of the Indo-Anglian community in the movie because of being on the receiving end of rejection from the ‘goras’, a term which has the same degree of pejorative connotation as the term ‘nigger’, builds a wall around himself and his family prohibiting any exchange with Englishmen. This is symptomatic of the larger Indo-Anglian community who are rarely seen to socialise with their white counterparts in the film. Marrying a ‘gora’ is strictly forbidden and is considered a taboo in the community as is indicated repeatedly by the elder aunties and Jess’ mother. Needless to say, such hatred stems from the fact that the first generation members of the Indian settlers at one point of time or the other in their lives in the past have been subjected to racism by the English. But the film itself is set in a changed time when “Naseer Hussein is the captain of the England team”, and as the second generation of the Indo-Anglians fail to relate to the circumstances that their parental generations had faced and finds the ground rules and principles they have set difficult to abide by. Jessie perpetually finds herself yielding and submitting to this spectre of the collective past that afflicts the Indo-Anglian community, yet again picking herself up from the dust and fighting it until she forces it to withdraw. In the end of the film we not only see Mr. Bhamra making peace with the fact that Jessie becomes a professional footballer, but he is seen to enjoy his cricket once again, and that too with a ‘gora’.
The sense of this shared past is essential to the germination and sprouting of a particular community, which empowers them by giving them a collective identity. It would indeed be an unpardonable misreading of the text if it is assumed that the Indian community in English soil is marginalised and their alienation stems from a deep rooted sense of inferiority. It is but the opposite. Mr. Bhamra has a strong sense of pride, and when he was “thrown out”, as he puts it, despite his exemplary acumen as a bowler, he “never complained” like a compliant subordinate but rather accepted it with a dignified resignation and chose to give up the white man’s sport altogether. There is no colonial framework to the narrative, and quite contrarily it’s the whites who are subjected to the only instances of racism in the film. It is the ghost of racism that plagues them in its ethereal presence.
The connectedness with remote cultural ties is what Benedict Anderson, the British historian, calls a “synchronic novelty”. Anderson further elucidates in the same thesis how and why some emigrants diffuse and get absorbed into the overseas cultures while others form “successfully established coherent, wealthy, self-consciously creole communities subordinated to a great metropolitan core” by positing that these are migrants who belonged once to some form of metropole. Unlike their 16th and 17th century European counterparts, such creole communities were informed by an inability to appropriate themselves into a national stronghold, and thus found it unprofitable to form a rupture with their past. But, somehow, the delicate balance of power is still maintained by a precarious sanction of the past and the dead, the attempt being to secure solidarity for the community by enforcing a certain notion of normativity which prescribes certain roles and acceptable attributes of women and men to which they must adhere to2. Needless to say, this overrules marrying a white person or playing football as a taboo if you are a woman, and explains why Mrs Bhamra desperately wants her daughter to internalise these same sets of imagined values which she herself has been indoctrinated into. Deviation from the normative is something which unnerves the finely poised balance of the order of things in the community.
Therefore, all representatives of the second generations of the creole community are, in a way, interlocked in a struggle to negotiate with the social roles their parents want them to play and roles they would like to play. And hence Jess’s elder sister (played by Archie Punjabi) is forced to meet her lover in a very clandestine fashion. Jess herself lies to her parents repeatedly to follow her dreams. This is true for even Joe, who falls outside the cosmos of the creole universe, and who, having destroyed his career as a professional footballer because of his dad’s negligence and carelessness, finds it hard to satisfy his dad. Being a man, it is considered very debilitating for Joe to coach a girls’ team. Their rebellions, successful eventually, are a statement against conscripted gender roles irrespective of white or brown cultural backgrounds. Both Jess and Jules find themselves in varying degrees of difficulties to pursue their goal in life. Both these women are constantly expected to behave like prim and proper ladies which they cannot because it does not come naturally to them. But unlike Jules, Jess’ defiance is greater in dimension. Jules simply defies her gender norms, while Jess defies her gender as well as her racial norms in associating and socialising with women from different communities, and also by nurturing romantic passions for a ‘gora’. This twofold defiance of Jess is very interesting: we see her telling Joe that she cannot be involved in a romantic relationship with a ‘gora’ because her parents have just made peace with the fact that she’s a deviant in terms of her gender norms; having already forced her parents into a social adjustment she cannot force them into another because she fears losing them completely.
Like Jane Austen’s world of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century women, the feminine social milieu of Indian expatriates in the movie hovers around the institution of marriage. Landing yourself an Indian husband with a moderately fat salary cheque at the end of the month is the idea of emancipation for these women and their mothers. But through football, the heroine of Chadha’s movie emancipates herself on a phallocentric domain. For example, it is not just the idea of playing football that seems outrageously outlandish to Jess’s elder sister, but playing football professionally itself is what she finds puzzling and declares to be “worse than I thought”. The gender discourse of the movie, thus, is addressed in this threefold economy of desire that Jess voices, that of firstly ‘playing’, secondly ‘football’ and thirdly ‘professionally’. She desires of invading not one but two phallocentric spaces simultaneously.
Jess’s desire, therefore, is to secure for herself a happiness outside the institution of marriage, bereft of any spousal baggage. Her dream to follow her own goals can be seen as a pursuit of an autoerotic desire which the phallic economy continually tries of thwart. It was Luce Irigaray’s idea that female autoeroticism is something that is always subjected to and subjugated by phallic intervention. Autoeroticism according to her “is disrupted by a violent break-in: the brutal separation of the two lips by a violating penis, an intrusion that distracts and deflects the woman from this ‘self-caressing’ she needs if she is not to incur the disappearance of her own pleasure in sexual relations” (Irigaray). Jouissance, in this way, becomes something that a woman can experience only through masculine instruments and design, Jess’s and Jules’s love for football being manifestation of severely masculine proclivities3.
Hence the cautionary rebuke Jules’ mother issues her when she is playing football with her dad – “no man’s gonna go out with a girl who’s got bigger muscles than him.” Her fondness for a sport which is usually a male pastime when combined with some other misconstrued facts helps Jules’ mother reach the conclusion that she’s a sexual deviant, as we find her whimpering and sobbing about how it all has to be blamed on football. “It is the football”, she says to Jules’ father.
By playing football professionally Jessie and Jules therefore usurp the material domain and hope to reformulate and restructure the power dynamics of gender relationships. The material gender relations do not magically reverse themselves once Jessie starts earning money, which is where Michele Barret’s position against the grain of both classical Marxist as well as cultural post-Althusserian feminist trends become crucial. Barret posits that gender oppression is neither a completely material phenomenon nor a completely ideological phenomenon but rather a midway between the two. The fact that Jess must surrender all her dreams and yield in front of imperious patriarchal forces is something very natural for the Bhamra household, as is Mrs. Bhamra’s assumption that oppression of the fair sex is something which is natural and is grounded in what Barret calls the “ideology of oppression”. Men and women are consigned to different fates “irrevocably in biology, to take procreation and its different consequences for men and women as the root cause”.
The movie showcases therefore two variant forms of oppression. The first is the spectral oppression of collective grievances of the past which forces the Bhamra family to religiously adhere to the cultural ties of India which in turn produces the second form of oppression which is very real. The parental generation of the Indo-Anglian settlers by cloistering themselves from the outside invites an imagined oppression of the ‘goras’ unto oneself, and in turn oppresses their children into submitting to the same set of imagined collectives. Gender roles in the movie therefore are ideologically produced and predate emigration. The social construction of gender differences is something that was interwoven into the cultural collective of the Indo-Anglian community from their overseas parallel. But the film ends with Jess forcing her dad to break the barrier and open himself to the changing status and roles of women and also to the changing relationships of the brown man and the white man in England. In other words, Jess opens Mr Bhamra to the historical juncture of the outside where the freedom and mobility of women are more acceptable4.
1 A coinage HBO used for a long time in the early 2000s while premiering these crossover movies which deal with the lives of expatriate Indian families and their experiences abroad.
2 Hence, Mrs. Bhamra, while reproaching Jess, calls out to the picture of Guru Nanak on the wall and moans “Ya Rabba”, even though the utterance itself is quiet Americanised as she stresses on the second syllable of the word ‘rabba’ instead of the first one.
3 Similarly, Irigaray’s metaphor of the clitoris as a proxy or a quasi-penis further explains why Jess’s desire to play football is deemed as grotesque and bizarre.
4 Although Jess’s role inversion becomes a more acceptable status quo, the film further manoeuvres its inquiring probe towards the next question – whether the man’s role reversal too will become an accepted status quo. Hence, even as Joe snubs coaching the men’s team for coaching the women’s team in the end of the movie, suggesting an opposite role reversal, but the question as to how far that will become acceptable in this particular historical juncture becomes very crucial. Even though you don’t look down women who play football, do you look down upon the men who coach the women’s team? Does it then become a case of you commending women who have climbed into the masculine space and simultaneously denigrating men who climbed down into the feminine space? If yes, then the film has been unable to defeat the ideological production of gender oppressions despite Jess’s looking ahead to the new horizon ahead of her.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso,
Barrett, Michele. “Ideological Production of Gender.” Women’s Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist-Feminist Analysis. London:
New Left Books and Verso, 1980. Print.
Irigaray, Luce, and Catherine Porter. “This Sex Which Is Not One.” This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Carolyn Burke. Cornell University Press, 1985. Print.
Suryansu Guha is a final year postgraduate student of English at the Centre of English Studies, School of Language, Literature and Cultural Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.