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Gurinder Chadha: Bender of Rules


The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Mar. 26, 2003

Bend it Like Beckham may do for girls' soccer what A League of Their Own did for that other ball game. With a witty screenplay, feel-good story, and kick-ass soundtrack, Beckham (named, by the way, for the U.K. soccer star who's also known as Mr. Posh Spice) has already broken box office records in the U.K. and arrives in the United States with a worldwide $50 million gross already under its belt. If it scores a U.S. success powered by soccer moms and a rumored Mia Hamm endorsement, the film might even change this country's view of chick flicks as an underperforming niche market.

Gurinder Chadha wasn't always an award-winning, profit-making filmmaker. No, once upon a time she was a young Punjabi girl from a Sikh family lovingly raised by supportive parents in west London. Beckham is a tribute to her father, who died before it was finished. 'My father was such a feminist,' she told me while in town for a prerelease premiere. 'My family is actually Kenyan Asian, which is different from Indian Asian. It's a double whammy. Coming to the U.K., he hated the way that daughters and wives were being treated by Indians in the U.K. He himself had become more feminist in Kenya, and it was important to him that his daughters went to college.' Chadha credits her dad with letting her get away with behavior unbecoming a traditional Indian daughter. 'He loved my spirit and saw me as someone who would challenge all that.'

Jess, Beckham's protagonist, [played by Parminder K. Nagra] is a reluctant challenger who's driven by her passion for soccer to deviate from the expectations of her old-world family. In one scene Jess rebels when her mother tries to force her to learn to cook, just like her about-to-be-married sister. An autobiographical touch? 'Yes,' Chadha admits. 'It was terribly sexist. I'd argue that men never have to learn to cook, so why should I?' Chadha harangued her mother, saying, 'Mum, you're oppressed!' Her mother retorted, 'Oppressed? You tell that to your future mother-in-law when you can't cook.'

Actually, Chadha dodged that fate by avoiding the proverbial Punjabi mother-in-law. Back in 1994, she came to San Francisco with her first feature, Bahji on the Beach, another look at women and British-Indian culture clashes. Hosted by the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, she fell for its programmer, Paul Mayeda Berges. Our loss, her gain. He now lives with Chadha in London and Los Angeles and collaborates on her screenplays.

If it weren't for their relationship and their transatlantic life, Beckham might never have been made. It was in 1999 in L.A. that Chadha bought a pair of sneakers at Lady Foot Locker and was handed promotional tickets to a game: the World Cup for women's soccer. Carried away by the stadium full of young girls gone wild and the fabulous teams on the field, Chadha knew she'd found her next story. 'Soccer is the national obsession of the English, but until quite recently it was a world that belonged to white guys, hooligans, and skinheads. Now the game is much more integrated, much more global, more diverse and multicultural.'

'I thought I'd put an Indian girl in the middle of it, because nobody would expect that. But I had to balance it with something, so why not the Indian obsession: weddings and brides, all fluffy and demure. Beckham is really about how these two worlds come together - with Jess changing out of her sari and into her soccer outfit. She has to break out of that world to score the goal. But she never forsakes her family. She returns to the wedding. It's really a family film.'

Beckham pointedly punctures English, Indian, and immigrant foibles despite a few jokes that are broad enough to hit the side of a barn. But its pseudolesbian subplot is unlikely to ruffle viewers of any lifestyle. More satisfyingly, the film's climactic wedding scene erupts into high drama with mistaken-identity mischief delicious enough to ensure it won't be mistaken for Monsoon Wedding. My personal favorite is the Indian granny who complains that the British always make such a fuss when Indian parties spill out into public space.

If Beckham crosses into the multiplex without losing its soul, it would be a fitting turn of events for both its creator and protagonist. Complimented by this journalist on her film's happy ending, one that allows its heroine to triumph without making her lose family or friend or beau or match, Chadha smiled. 'I thought she should have it all. Just like I do.'