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Bend It Like Beckham: 20 years on and just as iconic

By Jeevan Farthing

Culture Editor Jeevan Farthing interviews his mother, Bend It Like Beckham’s co-writer Guljit Bindra, about its effect on women’s sport.

Bend It Like Beckham is now 20 years old. It has since become the only film to be officially distributed in every country in the world, inspiring sports players and sports journalists alike. Through the endeavours of its protagonist, Jessminder, to intertwine her love for playing football with her South Asian culture, the film has sustained such relevance and uniqueness that its anniversary has dominated the media, with the BBC even producing a documentary about its impact. Guljit Bindra co-wrote the film with Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda-Burges, and The Glasgow Guardian spoke to her about her perspective on crafting the film and its effect on women’s sport.

“I started the very first version of the script in the early 90s”, Guljit recalls. “When I was growing up, it felt to me as though a lot of representations of South Asian women in films and TV often centred on issues around arranged marriages. I wanted to see something different, that showed we weren’t only thinking about weddings. I knew Gurinder and that she was a filmmaker, so one day I told her it would be great to see an Indian woman in a film doing something different, like being obsessed with football. She said, ‘Well, write something then!’”

“Gurinder gave me advice and I sent the completed script to her, but I don’t think it was right for what she wanted to do at the time. It was a much sadder story, probably because back then it seemed like there were even fewer avenues for someone like Jess to succeed. I still felt it was important to tell the story, though, just so that other young Asian women might feel they weren’t alone in wanting to follow their own path. I did enter the script into various schemes and competitions for new scriptwriters – including one by BBC Scotland! I didn’t have any luck, so I was really surprised when Gurinder got back in touch a few years later to ask if I’d be interested in working with her on a new version of Jess’s story.”

I asked Guljit why sport seemed like the best medium to portray a young South Asian woman pursuing something different: “Sport can really capture the country’s attention. I remember watching the FA Cup Final on TV in the ’70s and ’80s with my dad and sister, and back then the fixture felt like this huge nationwide event. I always noticed when Black players like Cyrille Regis, Viv Anderson and Laurie Cunningham appeared in games on the TV too. I think even at a young age I was in some ways aware that it meant something to see people from minorities succeeding on these big stages.”

While the film’s ethos can apply to all sports, Bend It Like Beckham concerns football in particular. Guljit agrees that football has a distinct unifying significance: “I think football’s unique place in culture is something to do with it still being one of the most democratic sports in terms of participation for working-class kids. There aren’t any big economic barriers to being able to play, so you get people from really poor immigrant backgrounds like Zinedine Zidane becoming superstars, as long as they’ve got the talent. I think that’s why there’s so much discussion about the money that football players earn. They may well be too high, but I get the feeling that the debate is often driven by classism or snobbery rather than any desire for a fairer society.”

Indeed, Guljit herself has never felt unwelcome at matches: “The only time I’ve ever got any real stick myself was when I was watching a match in a pub and was asked for a cup of tea instead of beer!” She understands that watching football is no safe haven for gender equality, though, hearing “sexist comments from male fans directed at female players, which is where we got the dialogue for the scene of the boys in the park teasing Jess to ‘chest it’”. 

The film has undoubtedly contributed to women’s sport gaining the recognition it deserves. But despite some enthusiasm for the Lionesses’ win at this year’s Euro’s, we are still nowhere near a position where women’s tournaments are as highly regarded as the men’s. I ask Guljit whether she thinks we’ll ever get to that stage: “There are so many aspects of life where the opportunities and rewards for women are severely lagging behind those for men, and we need to change them all! All barriers, whether they’re due to gender, race, sexuality or disability should have been broken down long ago. But it is encouraging to see Women’s Super League (WSL) games on TV now and I’m sure it will continue to grow, the players and coaching staff certainly deserve more recognition for their work and talent.”

It’s interesting that Guljit mentions the WSL, because the film consciously depicts America as this haven for women’s sport, and I wonder if things have changed since: “The Women’s Super League is now considered by many to be the best league in the world, so Jess and Jules wouldn’t need to go to the USA these days. I do sometimes wonder if Jess were playing now whether she’d follow her heart and play for Manchester United, or be more pragmatic and go for Chelsea or Arsenal to have a chance of winning some silverware. I like to think she’d stick with United and be the player that changes everything, like Eric Cantona did for the men’s team in the 1990s!”

And what about if she moved to Scotland? “Given its history in women’s football, she’d probably want to play for Glasgow City.” 


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