Directed by Gurinder Chadha. Stars Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Archie
Panjabi, Anupam Kher, Shaheen Khan, Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
With inevitable echoes of Billy Elliot and Australian favourite Looking for Alibrandi but with a great deal more colour this vibrant feel-good comedy won audience and critical acclaim at the recent Sydney Film Festival for the director of Bhaji on the Beach (1993) and What’s Cooking? (2000).
18-year-old British Indian Jess (Parminder Nagra) wants to play soccer like her hero David Beckham. The only problem is her traditional Indian family, who has forbidden her to play any more football. Instead, they want her to be interested in marriage like her sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi), who has just become engaged to a nice Indian boy. In addition she is earmarked for a law degree at university and a career as a solicitor, while her mother’s main current concern is that she learn to cook a traditional Indian dinner. Jess’ disgust at this as apparent: “Anyone can cook aloo gobi. Not everyone can bend it like Beckham!” Playing soccer in the park with her Indian friend Tony, Jess is scouted for the local girl’s team by Jules, (Keira Knightley), who becomes her closest friend. Experiencing some of the same maternal pressures to be more ‘feminine’, Jules encourages Jess to lie to her family about what she is doing. Pushing the boundaries, Jess then falls in love with the Irish soccer coach Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Supporting stories with Joe, Tony and Pinky and her fiancé Teetu also involve the characters ‘bending’ what’s acceptable and expected to get what they love.
As in her previous two features Chadha’s concerns are with racism, gender discrimination, sexual lifestyle choices, and cultural identity – particularly in regard to first generation youngsters clashing with their immigrant parents trying to uphold traditional cultural values. Chadha packed her first two movies to bursting with neatly balanced threads of several lively families, characters and their individual stories. Here she focuses much more on the story of Jess and her family contrasting that with the secondary story of Jules and her parents.
A great deal of the humour in this film comes from the contrasting values of old and young and the cultural environments underpinning those values. Jess’ parents (Anupam Kher and Shaheen Khan) are devastated to learn that Jess has been seen in the street, by Pinky’s fiance’s parents, kissing a white boy, upon which shame the engagement is immediately broken off. Indignantly defending herself, Jess asserts she was hugging her girlfriend Jules (blonde, tall and athletic) on hearing some good news. Jess’ mother manages to put both regretful disapproval and blame into her deflated comment: “English girls wear their hair so short!” At the same time, Jules’ mother Paula (Juliet Stevenson) is delighted her tomboy daughter is friends with an Indian girl, whose cultural feminine values she hopes will rub off on Jules. Her comic timing is perfect when she learns Jess is a football friend. Later, when misunderstandings escalate into an accusation that a character is lesbian, an elderly Indian female relative exclaims “What does she mean she’s lesbian, I though she was an Aries!” One of the best comic moments is when Jess’ mother stands in front of a cheesy picture of Babaji in the living room, as dominant as a picture of Christ or the Virgin in a Christian household, holding Jess’ sealed exam results and praying desperately out loud, while Jess and her father wait impatiently beside her, that Jess has gained the all important A-levels she needs to study law. Her reaction when the envelope is finally ripped open is lovely stuff.
There are times when the comic elements hover into melodrama, but overall the lack of sentimentality and the real growth of the characters save the story. There are some lovely sight gags, among the best of which is a wall of Indian ladies in bright saris defending the goal against Jess’ free kick. There is plenty of fancy footwork on the soccer pitch and heaps of energy as the girls go through some serious training. The inspired timing of this movie’s release in the UK and in Australia coincided with the lead up to the 2002 Soccer World Cup.
There are some flaws. The love-story between Jess and Joe is somewhat forced, and never really believable. The chemistry is just not there, and it seems to be more a point the director wished to make about breaking interracial taboos than being absolutely required for the story. Some of the sequencing is disjointed and uneven. The more serious thematic elements are often brushed away with humour along with what slight dramatic tension there is, and credibility suffers. The final soccer match is more than a trifle contrived, but then it is a movie far better in its overall picture and effect than in its details.
On the other hand the performances of the two girls shine with exuberance and the story is joyfully told. No doubt because of Gurinder Chadha’s own experience as Britain’s only female British Indian film director the depiction of the overwhelming passion which can lead to breaking one’s perceived limitations, thus inspiring others to do the same, is faultless.
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