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Courtesy of Searchlight

How Bend It Like Beckham went from benchwarmer to blockbuster

To mark the 20th anniversary of this British classic, we tracked down the cast and crew to tell us how it all came together.

11 Apr

Think back to 2002. Spring has just arrived and you’re perfecting Shakira’s Whenever, Wherever choreo in front of The Hits TV channel on Saturdays, in between playing snake on your mum’s phone, making dens in the living room, and watching Tracy Beaker which has just launched on CBBC. But it was also a difficult time, not only because people were wearing ‘gypsy’ skirts over flared jeans, but the reverb of 9/11 was being felt around the world, and racism towards brown people was even palpable to children who were being treated differently in the playground, afraid to openly celebrate their culture. On this day, 20 years ago, Bend It Like Beckham made those third culture British kids feel less alone. 

Fresh from the mind of trailblazing director Gurinder Chadha, OBE – who was the first-ever British-Asian woman to direct a full-length feature film with her 1993 Bhaji on the Beach – the hilarious film told the story of a young Punjabi girl name Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra in Hounslow, west London, who wanted to play football. It was a critical and commercial juggernaut. It stayed at number one in the UK for 13 weeks, and in the US went to number seven, competing with blockbuster Hollywood films with budgets way beyond the £3.7m it took to bring this canonical masterpiece to life. 

But Bend It Like Beckham almost didn’t happen. It had been in the works for five years before it got made as Gurinder, Paul Mayeda Berges, and Guljit Bindra worked on finalising the script. At first Guljit, a big football fan had envisioned it as a story of a girl who was really into football and goes to play with a football team in Ireland before her father dies, and so she has to come home. That idea was shelved until the Euros in 2000 when Gurinder noticed Ian Wright running onto the pitch after an England match, shoulders draped with the Union Jack. While that had been a symbol of National Front racism and football hooliganism, it sparked an idea to use the world to unpack the relationship between sport, culture, race, and gender with an Indian woman “at its core”.

So to celebrate Bend It Like Beckham’s 20th anniversary, and its impact, we spoke with the amazing people who made the film, including iconic members of the film’s cast and crew and did a rare interview with director Gurinder, to reflect on the project two decades on.

(Left) Kiera Knightly (Right) Shaznay Lewis on the Bend It Like Beckham set

“They said ‘oh we’ve done East is East we don’t need to do it”

The battle to get Bend It Like Beckham made

Gurinder Chadha: I pitched the idea of two sisters, one who is proper west London and was going to get married, and the other one is a bit of a tomboy who wanted to do things differently.

We kind of knew very quickly that we had something really great. But nobody else did. As soon as you pitch something and there’s an Indian in the lead or an Indian female in the lead, you suddenly get all these questions like ‘is it going to be commercial?’Is it going to appeal? Is it mainstream?’ Not much has changed sadly in 20 years. That’s evident. Look at how little similar content there is out there.

It was a big struggle and a lot of people passed on it. I kept going back to Channel 4 saying ‘you really should do it’. And they said ‘oh we’ve done East is East we don’t need to do it’. That was what I was sort of up against at that time. 

I just kept pushing and pushing and then I submitted it to what is now called the lottery. A producer told me that they had seen a report on my script saying ‘don’t fund it’ because you will never find an Indian girl that can play football that can bend a ball like David Beckham. I was like, ‘what the fucking fuck?’ So then I called John Woodward who was about to be the new head of the Film Council. And actually, John was great, he asked me the issues and I said ‘they’re all bogus. It’s pure racism. Does this person think Harrison Ford jumps out of helicopters? What does he think happens in those situations?’ I caused a massive stink about it. Because at that point, I was fed up with being put on panels to talk about diversity, and how hard it is to make films with women and women of colour. And I was always very important on those panels. And I just said, ‘Right, that’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m going to expose everybody and I’m quitting’. And then John was like, ‘Calm down. You’re exactly the kind of filmmaker we want to support in the Film Council.’ 

I made a few minor changes to the script and he took it to the committee and said, ‘I don’t care what you finance. But you’re going to finance this one.’ That’s exactly what happened. They gave me £1.1 million and that’s the only reason the film got made.

A still of Preeya Kalidas (centre) from Bend It Like Beckham

“I would say cut and they would carry on playing”

How the stellar casting created a fun set

Shaznay Lewis (who played Mel): Gurinder and Paul, they reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested. They sent me the script and I just completely got it and was really up for being involved.

Shaheen Khan (who played Mrs Bhambra): At that time, a lot of Asian actors had all worked together in some way or the other. So it really that sort of element of the family was sort of there.

Ameet Chana (who played Tony): Every day on that set had something special about it. We had so much fun in that film: we got paid to play football and go to a wedding.

Gurinder Chadha: What was euphoric then was when we were in Hamburg at the very end, that was the last time they were all going to play as a team. And suddenly, Parminder and Keira were footballers. When we were shooting that scene, it suddenly became England versus Germany. I would say cut and they would carry on playing, I remember Keira coming up to me saying ‘oh please can we just play this, we’ve just got to get this goal. And I was like ‘uh it’s not a real football match you know’. 

Shaznay Lewis: I discovered through doing that film that I run like bambi. That was pointed out to me. I don’t know if you’ve seen Friends and seen the episode with Phoebe. I’m a bit of a Phoebe runner. Simon, the guy who trained us in football pointed that out, so then what I tried to concentrate on whenever I was running during a scene, was not to run like Bambi which I found extremely difficult. They shot me from the waist up (laughs).

Preeya Kalidas (who played Monica):
We really just had fun with it during filming. I just remember that scene with the three of us on the bench commenting on the boys playing football. We were actually watching them, and we were all just messing around and having fun with it.

All that footage that you see at the wedding reception, we’re actually really having a good time. It just felt like we were actually at a wedding because – we’re talking about the early 2000s – There weren’t very many opportunities in terms of stories that were representing our community. So suddenly, we had our community on set together and we just had the best time.

Gurinder Chadha: I’d say cut and everyone would burst out laughing. And actually, I don’t mean to be mean, but [some of the crew] had just come off the Ali G movie and they were saying that wasn’t funny at all, but this one they were saying was absolutely hysterical.

Bend It Like Beckham was a family affair

Gurinder Chadha:  I had lost my father in an accident two years before the film. So at that point, I was totally grieving. But I didn’t know at the time, it’s only now when I look back at the film, and I go ‘oh for fucks sake it’s so emotional and so raw’. I find it hard to watch the film to be honest with you because it reminds me of my dad, and my mum to some degree … everything the dad says is my dad. My mum’s one goal was that I had to make perfect Indian food: meat and veg. To this day, I don’t make chapatis … I’m traumatised. 

Shaheen Khan (laughing): Half of the extras were [Gurinder’s] relatives. I just remember, people always get so excited that they’re going to be in a film, but they don’t realise what a slog it is. 

Gurinder Chadha (laughing): There was a very funny moment when Jesminder hands a plate of barfi (Indian sweet) to everyone and none of [my family] say anything. They don’t talk, they don’t move because they’re scared and the cameras are there. So then I cut and in Punjabi, I said, ‘you all just have to be natural like, when you’re at a party and someone brings you barfi, what do you do? They said, ‘we say yeah, thank you.’ So I said ‘Exactly. So choose the bit you want and just say thank you and move on’. Then we did the second take. On that take, Jesminder stopped at my Bhuaji (aunty). And bhuaji decided this is her big moment. She took hold of the tray. And she said in Punjabi, ‘Oh, I’d love to have burfi but I can’t because I’m not allowed to have a lot of sugar. And it’s a real struggle for me because I love barfi and all this looks so nice’. So I said: ‘cut. Not that much!’.

The thinking behind the iconic soundtrack

Gurinder Chadha: Music is very important to me personally, in my life. Every single track in the movie was on an iPod playlist of mine. All songs that I love. But Move On Up was the one that I really, really wanted for the film, and Inner Smile was a song by Texas that I really loved. I just feel what is the right song and I know when it’s the wrong song as well.

Craig Preuss (composer): We used a lot of different sources. We used B52 songs, there was a Bally Sagoo song. This is the cultural brilliance of Bend it Like Beckham: that it wove a lot of contemporary Indian styles that Gurinder liked and artists she championed too, like Bally Sagoo. And she wove it into the soundtrack, it really gave it a good edge.

Gurinder Chadha: I mean Rail Gaddi [played during the final wedding scene] was classic. I couldn’t even resist getting in there during that scene and dancing to Rail Gaddi in the film.

That Keira Knightley top

Ralph Wheeler-Holes (Costume designer): There was a scene when they were in the nightclub in Germany Keira wore that silver handkerchief top. We just went out shopping and I saw it and Keira loved it. So we just bought it and put it among the other options. Anyway, the day of filming came, and Keira was adamant that that’s what she wanted to wear, so I had quite an interesting conversation with Gurinder, who at that time wasn’t quite sure it was right. I suppose she felt it might have been too much. But she did buy into it when we spoke to her. That’s the thing about Gurinder – she does listen. I think it was important for me and for Keira to see Jules as not just this kind of tomboyish masculine gangly teenager, but a teenager who has her sexuality going for her. She wanted to play football. She wanted to achieve things but equally, she wanted to be an attractive woman. So that little outfit kind of hopefully allowed us to hit that mark.

Gurinder Chadha: I’ve got it somewhere actually. I kept it because I thought it was so iconic. I didn’t know it was gonna be iconic at the time, but I kept it. 

“There were signs on the doors saying: No blacks. No Irish. No dogs. So that’s where that line comes from”

‘Jess, I’m Irish’ and the handling of race in the film

Gurinder Chadha: Well, when my parents first came to England in the 60s, People like them found it hard to rent accommodation. There were signs on the doors saying: No blacks. No Irish. No dogs. So that’s where that line comes from. And I grew up at a time when there was a lot of racism against the Irish. And still is to some degree. So we know particularly at the height of the troubles in Ireland, there was a lot of anti-Irish feeling in London, particularly, so it was really coming in on that. But if you go to Ireland, there is a real anti-British feeling because of what the empire did in Ireland. 

Ameet Chana: The script is actually more clever than a lot of people give credit for because it addresses so many things that are still relevant today. I’ve always said the reason why the Irish and Asians get on is that they’ve been oppressed by English all their lives. 

Shaznay Lewis: I think what I love about [Gurinder] most is probably just how she manages to find humour within her culture. And also give us all a bit of a taste into a culture as well. I adore her. When I’m around her I soak her up. She’s such a great female source of inspiration and strength. She’s major.

If you come from any kind of cultural background, Gurinder is such an advocate for acknowledging your roots, speaking your truth, and being such a force for your culture, whoever you are, whatever culture you’re from, and, and I love that. She didn’t dumb any of it down. She was in her truth. And we all got it and we all embraced and loved it.

Preeya Kalidas: It was probably one of the only few scripts that I’d read, that I was really excited about, just because of what it represented. I just felt it really resonated with my experience and upbringing in London. And the fact that you had the lead female was the protagonist who had a dream and had to deal with her adversities to get there and that’s kind of been my journey also. 

My character Monica was one of those girls that I also knew. Because where I grew up in West London, I used to hang out with people in Hounslow west, so I’d see a lot of these girls who were all about looking good, attracting attention, and hanging out in the park. 

It was so funny filming in the shoe shop in Southall because you’ve got these aunties who just wanted to come in and buy heels for their daughter’s wedding, and we’re saying ‘sorry you can’t come in, we’re filming’ and like these aunties just didn’t care.

Sexuality in Asian communities and men that ‘really like Beckham’

Gurinder Chadha: It’s such a shock when he says it. You’re not expecting it because there’s nothing about him that is effeminate or anything. That ‘I really like Beckham moment’ is iconic and very truthful, because I remember when an Asian person said that to me, and I said, ‘but oh my god you’re Indian.’ So much of the film is from my life. 

Ameet Chana: When I look back now at that time, people’s mentality and approach to that kind of subject matter was so different, particularly within our communities. And I think it’s probably the main reason I wanted to do it because I think Gurinder and the team wrote him as a normal guy that just happened to be gay. Whereas at that time, when you’re watching films with gay characters, they’re always really stereotypical.

I had lots of great, positive reactions from the South Asian gay community. I think they felt like there was someone that kind of was flying the flag and saying ‘it’s okay, whatever it is you feel. There’s a Tony in you.’ 

The iconic lesbian romance that nearly was?

Gurinder Chadha: I think that it was made at a time when those boundaries were being blurred. We had Tony who was gay, the girls have a very close friendship that could have gone either way. And it is a love story in some ways. But it was also about innocence at the time when they’re still sort of figuring out who they are and what they are.

“Against all the odds we did it”

The film’s reception and legacy

Craig Preuss: On the night of the premiere, David Beckham had broken his foot, and the Daily Mail had a big headline that said ‘Mend It Like Beckham’. Of course, we were all accused of arranging that to help. It went straight to number one. It stayed there for weeks and weeks and weeks. It inspired a lot of sports in schools and there was a surge in numbers of women signing up to play soccer.

Gurinder Chadha: I don’t think anybody could have expected the success. I have a theory as to why it was so successful. I think it came at a time in Britain, when Britain needed a new narrative, but people didn’t quite know how to articulate that narrative. You’d have a lot of riots, you’d have a lot of young British people who were kids of our parents’ generation. So we were all negotiating our identities. But 9/11 had just happened while I was finishing the film. Here was a world that had been totally bruised by that. So here comes this film that is very open and accessible, and that talks about culture and race, and the pains of not fitting in, but also that sense of hope about moving forward and claiming your rights. And being bigger than just about race. Finding ways to unite the world through traditions, but also using football, a global language.

You were invited into the house of a west London Sikh family, and you were made to understand how the parents think, how the kids think, and how they are going to deal with shit. And that translated to everywhere. 

The movie has one statistic that no other movie in the world shares: it is the only movie that has been officially distributed in every country in the world, including China and North Korea. That’s the amazing power of cinema, and the power of cultural exchange when it’s allowed to happen on pure, honest, truthful terms.

Ameet Chana: It’s amazing that that film got made 20 years ago. I don’t think anybody would make that film now. I still remember to this day when the film was coming out, the kind of pre-release spiel was a new British-Asian Film is coming out about a young girl who plays football. And then when it came out, the success of it was so huge that all of a sudden the ‘Asian’ was dropped, and it was a new British film. And suddenly we were accepted. Before it came out it was othered slightly, and then with its success, it was welcomed with open arms.

Gurinder Chadha: At the time I felt against all the odds we did it. I managed to pull it off. And the great thing for me is that that victory wasn’t mine. It was for every single person that the film has meant something to. Really not a day goes past where someone doesn’t come up to me and says how important that film was to them. Because I got into this business to tell stories about people like me, people who look like me, and stories about empowerment for women and girls. And that’s what that film achieved, and will forever I mean, it’s on the GCSE syllabus and is studied all over the world in different colleges. So it was a moment in time where I was able to say: ‘This is what it’s like for us. We don’t have to just be what you think we are, we can also be this.’

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