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Religion, race, and gender themes in the movie bend it like beckham

Religion, Race, and Gender themes in the movie Bend it Like Beckham

Gurinder Chadha is a British filmmaker who wrote, directed and produced the movie Bend it Like Beckham. The movie film premiered in the US in 2003 and has won acclaim from both critics and moviegoers for its realistic portrayals of Asian culture (Giardina, 2003, p. 67). The focus of this film is on the main character, Jesminder Bhamra, who comes from a traditional Sikh family, and her desire to play football, which is at odds with her familial obligations. Jess must decide if she is willing to pursue a dream of playing soccer or if she will respect her parents wish for her to attend University and get married. Cultural Identity can be defined as our sense of belonging to a particular cultural or ethnic group. Bend it Like Beckham shows us Jess's struggle to find her own cultural identity by exploring the main themes of religion, race, and gender.

Religion in Bend it Like Beckham

Indian culture is explored in this film through orthodox Sikh religious beliefs, the importance of cultural artifacts such as ritual, cuisine and dress, the traditional role of women, and the deep respect given to elders.

Jess is not always enthusiastic about participating in some of the more traditional aspects of her culture, although she understands that her parents push her in this direction because it is what is familiar to them. Indian culture is explored through religion, which plays an important part in Sikh culture and incorporates rituals and prayers into daily life (Oberoi, 1994). Above the Bhamra mantle, for example, hangs a portrait of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism (Sikhism, 2009). Jess's mother especially is shown frequently praying and talking to the portrait. As a parallel to this, Jess has a picture of her idol, footballer David Beckham, above her bed. Throughout the movie Jess is shown talking to the picture about the things that are going on in her life, or what she is thinking. This picture plays a similar role in Jess's life that the portrait of Guru Nanek plays in her mother's life.

Clothing is a cultural artifact that is used in the orthodox Sikh culture as a symbol of faith. Jess's father wears the turban and a beard to express his faith, and her mother wears traditional Indian clothing. Jess, along with her sister Pinky, dress as other British young people would throughout most of the movie. In a clash Jess's mother sees her playing football in the park in shorts and thinks it's shameful for her to be showing her bare legs in public when there are boys around. Aside from the fact her mother obviously does not think that women should be showing their bare legs in public, Jess has a horrible scar on her leg that her mother doesn't want other people to see.

Family rituals are also impacted by cultural differences. Jess participates extensively in her sister Pinky's engagement ceremony. She is expected to be home early to help in the planning, and in helping her father decorate the house. However, Jess unintentionally causes a bit of a problem for her sister when she goes shopping with her fellow footballer Juliette. Jess's friend has very short hair, and while waiting for the bus the girls are laughing and joking around. The parents of Pinky's fiancé see Jess with her friend and assume Jules is a boy and they think they see “the couple” kissing. Because it is shameful for an Indian girl to be behaving like that, Pinky's fiancé's parents call off the engagement.

Jess and, to a lesser extent, Pinky have become more integrated into British culture than their parents. Mr. and Mrs. Bhamra have chosen to remain closely tied to their Indian cultural in-group. Her parents are very ethnocentric; they believe Indian culture is better than western culture. They realize that living in the United Kingdom will influence the behaviors and decisions that their children will make, and so they try to help Jess and Pinky by steering them in the correct direction culturally.

The traditional role of women in Indian culture is often different from western culture. When her parents first find out that Jess wants to play football in a girl's league, her mother does not like the idea, and her father sides with his wife. Jess's mother believes that instead of playing football, her daughter should be learning procedures needed to know to be a good Indian wife, such as cooking. Her mother worries: “What mother will want a daughter-in-law who can run around kicking football [sic] all day but can't make round chappaties?” (Chadha 2002). The elder Bhamra's tell Jess she cannot play football and that she must start behaving like a proper woman.

Respect for elders is another important aspect of Indian culture that the movie shows us. Because of the respect that Jess has for her parents, she initially decides to abide by their wishes and stop playing football. It is only after intense coaxing from her best friend Tony, who tells Jess that what her parents don't know won't hurt them, and her new football teammate Jules that Jess chooses to lie to her parents and keep playing. Deep respect for elders is further shown when Jess and Pinky are shopping for her engagement ceremony, and they come across her Indian friend Tony's mother. The young women give greetings in Punjab and bow respectfully. Still another way in which respect for elders is demonstrated in the Indian cultural tradition of arranged marriages. In the locker room after practice one of her teammates asks Jess if she is promised to someone. Arranged marriages are still fairly common, but most Indians are also free to choose who they want to marry. Traditionally, in all of India's major religions, the parents of the bride and groom arranged every marriage. Unions were seen as a religious contract between the two families (Overdorf, 2008). Pinky's marriage is a “love match,” and was not arranged. One of the team members wonders how she can put up with an arranged marriage, and Jess responds that “it's just culture.”

Jess is portrayed as being proud of her heritage and accepts that some things just are the way they are. Yet she also learns that sometimes she is going to have to do what she wants and not only what her parents think is best for her. Jess decides to stay on the team even though her parents don't want her to, and her sister aids in the deception. Jess realizes that her parents are just trying to protect her, because they feel that what she is doing is taking her away from everything that they know and understand.

Bend it Like Beckham and Race

The movie also uses race as a key theme. One unique feature of Indian culture is the caste system, which is a “social classification and differentiation” (Jain, Kussman, 1997, p. 96) in Hindu India. It is a system which is at least partially based on skin color. Colorism is a type of discrimination in which certain privileges are afforded to people with lighter skin over their darker skinned counterparts (Hunter, 2007, p. 237). There is evidence that these prejudices still exist in a scene from the movie. Jess's mom has just learned that she wants to play soccer on a girls' team. Mrs Bhamra does not want Jess to play on the team and comments; “how dark you have become playing in the sun” (Chadha, 2002). In traditional Indian culture, only poor people and laborers would have dark skin because they would be working outside (Hunter, 2007, p. 239).

Another aspect of race shown in the movie relates more to ethnicity. When Jess's teammates ask her about kind of man would be acceptable for her to marry, Jess tells her teammates that she pretty much will need to marry an Indian. It would be less acceptable to marry someone who was white, it would be even less okay for her to marry a black man, and she would be forbidden to marry a Muslim. Jess falls for her Irish football coach and asks Pinky if her parents would still speak to her is she dated a “goreh” (white boy). Pinky tells Jess that she can be with whomever she wants. If that person is not Indian though, then the difference in ethnicity is all people are going to see when they look at her.

One of the reasons Mr Bhamra does not want Jess to carry on playing soccer is because of the racism that he has experienced since coming to Britain. Jess's father tells her coach Joe about when he was a teenager in his country. Mr. Bhamra was the best cricket player in his school, and the team he played for even won prestigious tournaments. When he moved to Great Britain he could not participate in any of the cricket clubs or leagues because he was Indian and was made fun of because he wore a turban. He explains to Joe that he does not want Jess to have to experience the disappointment that he was subjected to. This is highlighted later in the movie when Jess gets into a fight at one of her soccer matches after a girl from the opposing team calls her a “Paki.” “Paki” is a British racial slur that stands for Pakistani.

Gender in Bend it Like Beckham

Another key element in the movie is gender. The movie has already explored some examples of gender bias as it relates to the way that Jess's parents feel about how she should behave with regards to her Indian heritage. The film also looks at gender in other ways. The movie shows us that stereotyping is universal regardless of culture. Stereotypes are the over generalized, oversimplified beliefs we categorize groups of people with. Both Jules and Jess's mothers hold stereotypes of how women should behave in their respective cultures. Early in the movie Jules is shown shopping for bras with her mother. Her mother wants her to buy a fancy sexy bra, and Jules just wants a practical sports bra. This scene sets up a theme that continues throughout the movie, that both Jules, and Jess to a certain extent, are struggling against the idea that “being a strong, empowered, highly skilled female athlete is in direct opposition to heteronormative constructions of femininity” (Giardina, 2003, p. 75). Not only are the girls struggling with this in relation to their parents, but they also struggle against the British culture. There is no professional league for women in Great Britain. Jess comments at one point that “Indian girls aren't supposed to play football” to which Jules counters, “It ain't just an Indian thing now is it? I mean, how many people come out and support us?” (Chadha, 2002)

Homosexuality is also portrayed in the movie from both British and Indian cultural viewpoints. Jules's mother begins to think that she is a lesbian as the result of a misunderstanding. The idea of Jules being a lesbian clearly distresses her mother, and it obvious that she believes it is why she likes football and does not often date.

The Indian view of homosexuality is also seen in the movie when Jess learns that her best friend Tony is gay. Jess's first response to the news is that he can't possibly be gay because he is Indian. In fact until very recently, September 2009, it was a criminal offense to be homosexual (Pinto, 2009). Like many teenagers regardless of culture, Tony is reluctant to tell people that he is gay, later in the film he also tries to do Jess a favor by offering to marry her so that she can go to the United States for school and to play football.

The conclusion of the movie sees Jess seemingly having to choose between her Indian heritage and her love for football. Pinky's wedding is the same day as the final football tournament match at which there will be an American scout. Jess chooses to attend the wedding and forgo the match. During the wedding ceremony her father notices how miserable she is and gives her permission to attend the match, and to return to the wedding after it is finished. From this point on the film juxtaposes scenes of the wedding celebration and the soccer match, to highlight the joyful exuberance of both events. It also highlights that Jess is beginning to understand that her cultural identity, or sense of belonging, can coexist in both the Indian and British cultures. This issue of “blending into a society without losing one's ethnic individuality” (Rajgopal, 2003, p. 59) is what Bend it like Beckham is all about. Jess learns she can create her own unique cultural identity by combining the religious, racial, and gender aspects of the cultures that she is a part of.

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