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15 years later, 'Bend it like Beckham' is still an anomaly in the film industry

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Can you believe it’s been 15 years since Jess Bhamra bent it like Beckham and changed the cultural consciousness forever?!

Writer-director Gurinder Chadha established herself as a household name with this now-iconic film depicting the struggles of British-Sikh teenager Jess (Parminder Nagra) growing up in Southall as she tries to balance her love of football with the traditional values of her family.

The film launched the career of the now mega-famous Kiera Knightley, and has had a hit adaptation on stage in the West End, which will soon be heading to Broadway. Unusual in its ability to transcend cultural specificity, especially way back in 2003, Bend it like Beckham is undeniably a classic British film to everyone - not just to the British Sikh Punjabi audience it directly represents. 

Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Parminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

Now, 15 years later, the landscape of ethnic representation is only just seeming to catch up to Bend it like Beckham’s standards. Though films featuring all-white leading casts face backlash these days, studios are still reluctant to commit to non-white stories taking centre stage. 

Talking on an industry panel last year to support the release of her film Viceroy's House (2017), Chadha said: “I personally don’t think Bend it like Beckham would get made in today’s climate in the film industry. I think it would be seen as a maverick, isolated film [with] no reason for prequels, sequels or all the rest of it.”

“I think I’d struggle now. People would look at it and think: ‘it’s not global, it’s not going to sell, it’s not international’… even though it was.

“That’s why you don’t have diverse storytelling… it’s all about: can this go on to make loads of money and can we sell it to every single territory? Will every single country in the world want to buy it?

“I think that we as an industry need to look at the stories that we’re telling and encourage those voices. Being diverse doesn’t mean sticking a person of colour into your crew… diversity to me is about hearing stories from those different perspectives that you might not necessarily be familiar with. That to me is where I would like to see change.

“I would ask of our industry to look sometimes beyond commerce and look at those other voices. From where I’m sitting, I see the graph [going down] in term of diversity in filmmaking in British cinema.”

The key to Bend it like Beckham having the success it still enjoys today definitely lies in the diversity behind the camera. Chadha’s own experiences growing up in the British-Asian community as a Sikh woman meant that her film is truly authentic. Diverse creators are the stepping stone to better on-screen representation, so while championing actors of colour is important, so is championing directors, writers, and producers of colour, who might have the next Bend it like Beckham up their sleeves, just waiting to be green-lit.

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and John Chu’s upcoming adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians are a few more examples of directors taking on projects which are best handled when informed by their own cultural backgrounds. 

Here’s to hoping that in another 15 years time, there will be far more examples to draw from.

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