In 2002, who would have imagined a Sikh girl in the UK daring to dream of becoming a soccer player.
Gurinder Chadha did.
Her romcom Bend It Like Beckham showcased the story of Londoner Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra, a Manchester United fan who plays soccer for fun in the local park until she is asked to join a girls’ team. Bhamra’s parents, immigrants from India, discourage her, deeming soccer too British and not suitable for a girl. They push her, instead, towards good grades and marriage.
This dichotomy, balancing cultural expectations while pursuing personal passions, rang true for many young women. The pitch-perfect lead performance of Parminder Nagra tackling misogyny in the diaspora gave millions of girls—South Asian and otherwise—a sporting role model they never realised they needed.
The film also touched upon other serious topics. For instance, Jess’s friend, Juliette “Jules” Paxton—a role that catapulted Kiera Knightley to fame—struggles with balancing the love for football, her mother’s expectations of femininity, and her possible homosexuality.
Bend It Like Beckham, most importantly, was a breakout venture for the South Asian diaspora’s film community.
These days, platforms like Netflix have the budget to make shows like A Suitable Boy and Bridgerton with South Asian casts, and global viewers will lap them up. Showrunners like Mindy Kaling are shining the spotlight on South Asian stories in Hollywood. But back in the day, there was nobody like Chadha—literally. In 1993, when she made Bhaji on the Beach, she became the first British South Asian woman to direct a major feature film.
Chadha struggled initially. Her PBS series Beecham House, set in India during the regency era, was cancelled after one season. But with Bend It Like Beckham, which has one of the strongest south Asian female protagonists to date, she really kicked it out of the park. The $6 million-budget film earned more than $76.5 million.
Its cultural resonance remains strong years after its original release, and social media continues to be inundated with memes of the film.
Major movies can shift culture: South Asian girls in places like the UK, women who are now in their 30s and 40s, now had an additional reason to fulfil their potential beyond what was thought possible.