Britain brings a winner to the field

By the time Fox Searchlight was ready to release “Bend It Like Beckham” in the United States, it had become Great Britain’s biggest-ever homegrown hit and gone on to top the box office in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

Still, director and cowriter Gurinder Chadha says she fully expected Searchlight to suggest changing the title, which presented something of a marketing challenge in this country, as in, “What in the world does ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ mean?”

“I had to explain it to them,” says Chadha, digging into a salad at Birmingham’s Rugby Grill. She had traveled here expecting to introduce her third feature to University of Michigan film students in Ann Arbor, only to discover that an absentminded teacher had scheduled the screening during spring break.

“I said, ‘Well, David Beckham is like the Michael Jordan of soccer, as you call football here, and that’s his posters who are all over my little heroine’s bedroom wall. And, oh, yes, he’s married to Posh Spice (Victoria Beckham).’ And they had a vague recognition, and they sort of went, ‘Oh, OK, well, that makes sense; let’s just leave it, then.’ Truth is, I was fully prepared to change it. We just couldn’t come up with anything better.”

“Bend It Like Beckham” is the story of Jess (Parminder Nagra), an English-born teenage girl of very traditional Indian parents not unlike Chadha’s own. Though she is expected to conduct herself as a proper Indian girl, to prepare for marriage to a nice Indian boy and to learn Indian cooking, she spends all her free time in the park playing soccer. Her hero is Beckham, star of Manchester United, who is known for the way he “bends it,” a move in which he deftly – magically, some fans would say – employs the side of his foot to curve the ball past goalies and into the net.

Jess is discovered in the park by Jules (Keira Knightley), whose mother is similarly opposed to her soccer aspirations; Jules’ mom is afraid she’ll turn into a lesbian. Jules takes Jess to meet the coach of her amateur team (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who immediately recognizes Jess’ talent and recruits her for the team. But Jess’ mother refuses to allow her to play. Ultimately, she is forced to choose between her family and her gift, a choice complicated by her attraction to her coach.

“I remember watching the 1998 World Cup matches at a pub and being astonished at the impact they had on the fans; when Manchester lost, the nation sort of went into mourning,” says Chadha, who was born in Kenya and raised in England. “Not long after, this friend of mine told me her daughter (Guljit Bindra) was interested in writing movies, and would I talk to her? It turns out, her story was football.”

Chadha, a former BBC news reporter, had begun making short films for the BBC and England’s Channel 4 in the early ’90s and directed her first feature, “Bhaji on the Beach,” about a group of Indian women on an English bus tour, in 1993. In 2000, she directed and cowrote her first American film, “What’s Cooking,” which wove together the stories of Indian, American and Chinese families preparing Thanksgiving dinner in Los Angeles.

Having decided she was not going to make “another art house movie,” she was intrigued by Bindra’s idea, “a story of an Indian girl who loves football and who goes to Ireland, where she has a lesbian relationship with another player.

“What I liked about it, though, was the way it explored the culture clash of one generation, while looking at the ways these very different cultures have become so entwined in England. I really wanted it to celebrate the whole multi-culti concept, and I wanted it to be funny and romantic and commercial so that lots of people would see it. I mean, the dad in the movie, that’s my dad, and the mother, that’s my mother.

“And the idea of a generation in conflict with the traditions of the previous one, and feeling a bit of an outsider in your own country as well as your own home, obviously those are things that are very personal to me. My mother dearly wanted me to learn to cook, and all I could make was beans on toast.

“But in the end, I wanted to make a movie that had wide appeal, that would be about following one’s passion despite everyone telling you to conform. So Guljit and I just sat together at the computer, working this thing out. And when we were done, we had my collaborator and husband” – American-born Paul Mayeda Berges – “take a look at it, and he added some ideas, including the bit about the girl’s immigrant father wanting to play cricket, being ostracized by the Brits, which is my dad’s story. And we made the coach of the girl’s soccer team a little younger, so there could be the promise of a romance, and another layer of conflict with that.

“And then it was just a matter of raising the money to make a movie about an Indian girl and English girl who live for football, and finding the perfect girls to play them.”

The former proved more difficult than the latter, though Chadha did get help from the British government’s film council to supplement financing from British and German investors. She had seen the youthful-looking Nagra (who at 26 is almost 10 years older than the character she plays) in a play in 1997 and had her in mind to play Jess. So, when she spoke to the actress in 1998, two years before filming began, she was relieved to be told that Nagra played football.

“It turned out to be a lie, of course,” says Chadha, laughing. “But she wanted the role badly enough to fib and then practice like mad, so that was good enough for me.

“We wanted someone very suburban-British to play Jules, who is one of those girls just full of self-confidence and determination, so we expected we would have to cast older as well. Keira Knightley turned up to audition and was just perfect, so self-possessed and athletic-looking, and she turned out to have just turned 16. But of course she didn’t play football, either.

“Keira was so devoted. She would train every day at the same time she was studying for her GCSEs,” the British equivalent of the SAT. “She got a concussion from butting the ball with her head, but she wouldn’t quit. In the end, I’m proud to say, we never used one double for the match scenes. It’s all them.”

Since Chadha had deliberately crafted the film as an audience-pleaser, she was not altogether shocked when the film took off in England. She was more surprised when it became a hit abroad, including India – where it was retitled, to Chadha’s amusement, “Football, Shootball, Oh God!”

She is stumping the States on her film’s behalf because soccer-themed movies have never connected with U.S. audiences.

“Yet everywhere I’ve gone to introduce the film, someone stands up and says, ‘You know, I’m Jewish, or whatever, and that was my family you put on screen up there.’ Soccer is just the means of telling the story; it’s really about family – and race, gender, sexuality, the diaspora, diversity.”

Chadha will address some of the same issues in her next film, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” that she describes as “Bollywood meets ‘Fiddler on the Roof'” – Bollywood being the generic term for the lavish, melodramatic musicals that are the staple of the Indian film industry.

“It should be completely over-the-top, but I want it to reflect the cultural reality,” she said. “Miss Bennett will be an English Indian and Darcy an arrogant (jerk). Entertainment that gets at something real.”