This Movie Changed Me

Rajpreet Heir

Bend It Like Beckham

Last Updated

September 18, 2018

Original Air Date

September 18, 2018

As an Indian-British-American girl, Rajpreet Heir didn’t feel like she fit anywhere. But Bend It Like Beckham spoke to her across continents. The movie helped her embrace an important truth — that she was never defined by a single identity.

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Rajpreet Heir is a TED conference coordinator and writer. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. She was also an Indianapolis 500 Festival Princess, part of a program to celebrate “Indiana’s most civic-minded, academically driven young women.”


[music: “Jind Mahi” by Malkit Singh]

Lily Percy, host: Hello, movie friends. I’m Lily Percy, and welcome to This Movie Changed Me. I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with Rajpreet Heir about the movie Bend It Like Beckham. It’s okay if you haven’t seen it; we’re gonna give you all the details you need to follow along.

The coming-of-age story in movies has become a bit of a cliché. You often see a rebellious teenager fighting against tyrannical parents — parents that don’t understand him or her. But Bend It Like Beckham is a very different coming-of-age story. It features a character that loves her family, loves her culture, and really wants to be a part of that, but then also wants to explore her own identity and her growing love of football — or, as we call it, soccer, in the U.S.

[excerpt: Bend It Like Beckham]

The character at the center of Bend It Like Beckham is Jess. And Jess is this really lovely, kind woman who is exploring her relationship with football and discovering that she is really good at it — just like the one and only David Beckham, which is who the movie is named after. As she’s exploring her love of football, she meets Jules.

[excerpt: Bend It Like Beckham]

[music: “Do Your Thing” by Basement Jaxx]

Jess and Jules’s friendship is so important to the movie because it showcases the difference between their two identities. Jess is an English Punjabi Sikh woman who is part of a very traditional family, and Jules is part of a white, middle-class, English family. But both of these girls are exploring what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a part of a culture in football that doesn’t necessarily accept and welcome women, and both of them are trying to push against the limitations of their backgrounds and their genders.

[excerpt: Bend It Like Beckham]

[music: “Tere Bin Nahin Lagda” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan]

The idea of exploring your own complex identity really rang true for Rajpreet Heir. Like Jess, she comes from an English Punjabi Sikh family, but she’s also American. The multitude of those identities really shaped who she is, and she saw that in the character of Jess in Bend It Like Beckham.

Ms. Percy: I’d like to take you back in time for a minute by asking you to think about that first time you watched Bend It Like Beckham. Just think about where you were and how old you were, and — I’d love to think about this almost as a mindful exercise. So if you want to close your eyes and just, for ten seconds, think about that. I’ll prompt you again when the time is up.

Rajpreet Heir: Okay.

Ms. Percy: What memories came up for you when you were thinking about that first time you watched Bend It Like Beckham?

Ms. Heir: I watched it while I was in England. Then the movie was released nearly a year later in the U.S., and I watched it a second time, back home in Indiana.

Ms. Percy: Wow. So you got a preview, really, of what was to come, a whole year before.

Ms. Heir: I did, yeah, because the World Cup was going on that summer when I was in England. To watch it while I was there, it just felt so meant-to-be.

Ms. Percy: This is 2002.

Ms. Heir: In 2002. And I was getting to go to all these Indian weddings, and I was a part of the British Indian experience, just getting to see houses and residential areas — we weren’t in London; we were in the Midlands. To watch it that summer — it just captured so much of what I had felt and seen. And then, to watch it a year later in Indiana, miles and miles from England — it just made me miss England so much and all the fun I’d had with so many of my family members.

Ms. Percy: You write about — in the piece that you wrote about Bend It Like Beckham and how this movie changed your life, in this piece for The Atlantic — it’s such a beautiful piece, and you talk about so many important things around identity. One of the things you write is, “As an Indian British American girl, what I was beginning to realize, at that age” — this would be when you were 12 — “was that I didn’t seem to quite belong anywhere. Yet, after watching Bend It Like Beckham in my last few days in England, I came to realize what transiency was, in some ways, a gift. In the absence of a place that reflected who I was, perhaps I could make my own.” Talk a little bit more about this gift that Bend It Like Beckham gave you.

Ms. Heir: I think it’s such a positive message of the good that can come from talking to people who are different from you. Also, Jess, the main character — she doesn’t want to break from her culture, break rules. She wants to bend them and make her culture work for her. I thought that was such a good message because I didn’t really want to completely cut out my Indian influences, British influences, or American influences — or Indiana, specifically, influences. I wanted to find a way to kind of make them work together and harmonize. This movie showed me that, yes, it’s hard, but it can work — and that it really teaches you a lot along the way.

Ms. Percy: That was one of the reasons why Gurinder, the director, Gurinder Chadha, named the movie Bend It Like Beckham — was that idea of bending. Talk a little more about what you saw Jess’s character do that really gave that example to you.

Ms. Heir: Well, I think what she’s doing, why the movie was so successful — it’s universal. It’s someone who’s trying to work toward a dream and faces so many obstacles to get there. Specifically with her, and I think, as Gurinder — I think she had a quote about how women, in general, can’t go straight towards a goal. Jess has to bend around her culture and bend around rules for women in order to follow her dream. The movie just does this so beautifully. I marvel at it each time I watch it.

[excerpt: Bend It Like Beckham]

Ms. Percy: Yeah, you point this out in something that I’m thinking of right now. The way that Jess does that so well is in the ways she integrates, whether she’s with her football, soccer-playing friends, or if she’s with her family; she’s always bringing both worlds into it. You see that in various scenes, where it’s always present. It’s not like a separation.

Ms. Heir: Yeah, so she’s dusting off her cleats in her backyard, or she’s doing knee-ups with a cabbage while her mom is cooking a dish that I actually recognize, which is very hard to cook, I might remark. [laughs] I’ve had to make that one. Or, I don’t know, you see her putting on a sari in a locker room. What a beautiful image for people to see. You see both worlds coming together there.

And then, in the most important scene, when she’s about to do her free kick, and she sees her sister, her mom, and then, I want to say, her grandmother and maybe her future sister’s mother-in-law, out there on the field. You get to see how both worlds are combining. I think it happens a lot on the field, especially. The field seems to be a place where worlds can come together, and men and women can play sports, and, potentially, things can become — you can overcome obstacles on the soccer field. It’s an equalizer.

[excerpt: Bend It Like Beckham]

Ms. Percy: Since you saw this movie in England originally, when you were 12, and then a year later in Indiana, I’m curious as to how it actually changed, maybe, even the way you presented yourself to your friends. Or did anything change for you after seeing it?

Ms. Heir: When I watched it in England, I’d spent the whole summer mostly around Indians, and it made me feel so excited to be part of that culture. And then when I watched it in Indiana, where there surprisingly weren’t very many Indians, it made me really miss it — but also feel proud that that is my background. I hadn’t felt that way, necessarily, before. It always felt kind of like a barrier, to be different. But I felt as though it would be OK for me to talk about the food we ate or the music we listened to. I liked telling people, “Oh, my parents are from England. And this is my background. And have you seen this movie?” It made me excited to be a part of that culture.

Ms. Percy: There are so many things that I love about Bend It Like Beckham. But two of the things that really stand out for me is — the celebratory nature of it. It’s celebrating life in a lot of ways, but really, the community at the heart of it. You don’t get the sense of oppressiveness that often happens when you’re telling a story of immigrants, to be honest. This idea of very conservative religious parents — Jess’s parents aren’t presented that way. Her father is such a tender, caring man. Even her mother — her concern for her daughters is really out of concern. That really stands out, and I think it’s why it’s such a joyous movie. I just wonder what scenes or characters really stand out for you, when you think of the movie.

Ms. Heir: When you were talking about the parents, I just thought again about how the parents were dancing in all the celebrations and excited for Pinky’s engagement and her wedding.

Ms. Percy: Pinky being her sister.

Ms. Heir: They weren’t being stern. They were being energetic and part of the action. I think it is really celebratory, and I think it’s especially great that it was directed by someone who has personal ties to those experiences because I think only an insider could really celebrate the culture in those specific ways.

Ms. Percy: And the portrayal of a Sikh family because that’s the other thing that you don’t often see.

Ms. Heir: You don’t, yeah — specifically, that sort of background, because that’s mine, as well. I watched it with two friends, as I mentioned, last night, and they were like, “Wow, I want to go to an Indian wedding.” They would get excited during the scenes where they’re celebrating things. And then there’s this great point where the camera pans out from the engagement celebrations in their backyard, and you see next door, there’s just a neighbor hanging up her laundry. You can compare and contrast. Yes, they’re outsiders, but also they have fun.

[excerpt: Bend It Like Beckham]

[music: “Darshan” by B21 and Jassi Sidhu]

Ms. Percy: Did you ever watch this movie with your family, with your parents?

Ms. Heir: Yeah, when I watched it in America in 2003, I did go to see it with my parents.

Ms. Percy: What was their reaction?

Ms. Heir: They really liked it, and we especially liked the soundtrack. We would play it a lot in the car. We especially liked the song “Noorie.” We would play that one a lot. I still listen to it a lot, actually, the whole soundtrack. I listened to it on repeat when I was working on the article.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] That’s great. It is amazingly joyous music. I have to say, as someone who doesn’t speak the language, who doesn’t know what is being said, I’m just like, I can dance to this. This is great.

Ms. Heir: Well, the thing is, I don’t understand the language that well, either, and I don’t know what they’re talking about. But I like it.

Ms. Percy: Yeah. [laughs]

[music: “Noorie” by Bally Sagoo, featuring Gunjan]

Ms. Percy: I hope you’re enjoying our conversation on Bend It Like Beckham. If you’ve liked this or any other This Movie Changed Me episode, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, or share us with a friend on Spotify. It helps us reach new listeners and build our movie-loving empire.

[music: “Hot Hot Hot” by Bina Mistry]

Ms.Percy: I’m curious as to how this movie has continued to shape your identity. You first saw it when you were 12. And now, in your 20s, when you go back and watch it, what does it bring out in you? What does it still teach you?

Ms. Heir: When I first watched it, I just focused on Jess, and I thought, wow, it’s so great she plays sports, because I played sports. There’s that opening scene where she’s just out there in the park playing sports with all these boys. That just felt so amazing for me to see because that was me in my neighborhood in Indiana. I have two brothers. There were only boys in my neighborhood, and there were two boy cousins that I had in the neighborhood. Then, as I grew older, and as I watched it again — I want to say, in grad school — I thought about just how amazing it is that all these cultures were conveyed, and the cultural arguments. Now I see all the other, little stories going on: Tony coming out to Jess; and then Joe talking about how he was forced to play soccer; and Jess is just dreaming to play soccer, and that contrast — plus all their other struggles.

And I empathized — I saw more of what the parents are going through. I used to laugh at Jess’s mom for being so ridiculous and overbearing because she’s comical. But there’s also a sadness to why she’s just gesturing so wildly and so emphatic with her language. It’s because it’s culture shock. She doesn’t want her daughter to be taken away from a culture that she sees as so valuable, and it’s what she knows.

[excerpt: Bend It Like Beckham]

And also, I was highly amused with Jules’s mom in a way I hadn’t been before. I couldn’t stop laughing any time she was on camera.

Ms. Percy: She’s equally kind of overbearing and over-the-top. Both the mothers in the movie are.

Ms. Heir: Yeah, and it shows that Indian culture is not, itself, conservative. The movie holds up a mirror, I think Gurinder said in some interview, and it shows what society is like. There are points where Jules’s mom is also conservative. It’s not just Indian culture that’s labeled as just “bad” and the “wrong” one. Jules says really stereotypical things to Jess, like, “Oh, I made a good curry last night,” or, “Are you going to marry a handsome Indian doctor?” She doesn’t even let Jess answer for herself. She just thinks she knows so much about what it means to be Indian. And so you see conservative viewpoints in multiple areas. There’s also this moment where Pinky says about Joe, “He’s English or Irish. Doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing.” And that’s limiting because England and Ireland are so different. Joe reminds the audience of that in a really important moment.

[excerpt: Bend It Like Beckham]

Ms. Percy: Something I really appreciated last night, rewatching this movie again, was how the love story is in the backdrop, but it’s not the principal point of the movie. The whole point of the movie is not for Jess to get with Joe, which could’ve easily happened. But really, for me, the whole point of the movie is for her to come to terms with her two cultures.

Ms. Heir: I totally see that too. It’s heartening to see. The point of the movie isn’t a happy ending with the prince, and they live happily ever after. It goes an extra step, and — she turns him down when they’re on that field, and he wants to keep seeing her, and he wants to kiss her, and she’s like, “Well, hold on. I’ve got to do this other thing first.”

Ms. Percy: Well, and also, that she loves her family so much, and she’s already asked so much of them — which I so appreciated, that she was thinking of her family.

Ms. Heir: Yeah, that’s really great, because again, she’s not breaking from her culture. She wants to keep it and keep the essence of who she is and not just completely say, “Oh, everything Indian about me is wrong,” because that’s, at the end of the day, not good for her. Or, at least, she’s taking that stance, and I agree with it.

So for her to take baby steps and go at the pace she wants, and basically make Joe try to understand that, and if he sticks around, then, great, and if he doesn’t, then, oh, well — that’s really bold of her, and so progressive. What an amazing movie to do all this, and so quickly. And it’s just short.

Ms. Percy: You don’t really see that in romances, a woman willing to turn down a man in order to pursue her own dreams and her own goals, and also, for the sake of her family. I also love that at the end, when we’re seeing the end montage, that we see Joe playing cricket with her father — that healing moment for her father, because he had tried to play cricket when he moved to England, and he’d been rejected because of who he was. It was beautiful to see that at the end, them coming together.

Ms. Heir: Yeah, Jess gets to follow a dream her dad couldn’t, and for her dad to see his daughter do that, maybe that inspired him to let go of some of the things he had been feeling and see her as an example. And yeah, it is amazing, because he did face racism when he got to England. He had been a top cricket player in Africa, where he had come from as a laborer. So it’s great that he can get over — not get over that, but just heal.

[excerpt: Bend It Like Beckham]

[music: “My Final Peace” by Gunjan, featuring Bally Sagoo]

Ms. Percy: I wonder, did this movie help you look at your parents differently? Or did it give you any new perspectives when it came to your own family?

Ms. Heir: Kind of. My parents were born in England, whereas Jess’s parents were born in India. So there are some distinct differences in — my parents, they wear Western clothes; whereas, in the movie, you see Jess’s parents wearing traditional outfits. But I think, with watching my parents try to figure out, “What’s best for our kids?” and “How much of our culture do we want to hang on to, versus how much are we Western?” — yeah, it definitely did; maybe not as much when I was 12, because I didn’t really have the vocabulary or cultural understanding or education to really understand all this, but it was a way — a start.

Now I definitely can see it — how scary it must be to raise a kid somewhere different from where you grew up and to negotiate what you want to keep as a parent, because they’re even more of a go-between. My parents’ parents were born in India. My parents were born in England and then moved to America. So they were first-generation, and I’m first-generation, and that’s an intense immigrant experience.

Ms. Percy: No kidding. Now you’ve got to move somewhere else and have kids. [laughs]

Ms. Heir: Exactly. We’re so far removed from India, but upon face value, people see “Indian.” I’ve never actually even been to India. England’s more a part of my life than India, the country, itself.

Ms. Percy: That’s so fascinating. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about Bend It Like Beckham that you want to say?

Ms. Heir: I guess that Jess and Jules are different. There’s still the distinction of Jess being Indian and having the extra, direct ramifications for breaking out of her culture that Jules doesn’t necessarily have, even though being a woman’s hard. But Jess leaves the house, and she’s a woman, and she’s Indian, and there’s that difference.

I also wanted to note that all the conversations they have — they all have these little mini-epiphanies, and I think the movie communicates how important it is to talk to others about our differences, and that even — Indians can be closed-off. Joe’s knocking on their door — he’s literally Western culture, knocking on their door. And he comes into this house that is so Indian. The shows they watch are Indian. They have Guru Nanak in a framed picture above the mantel. The mom dresses in Indian clothes, still. And then, Joe is an outsider, and they’re not very welcoming of him. So there’s closed-mindedness on so many different parts and different sides that — the movie is so holistic, is what I just kept thinking last night, when I watched it.

Ms. Percy: That’s a really great point. And so much of it comes out of fear — the fear of the unknown and of the outsider.

Ms. Heir: And what’s so great about this movie — well, it came out shortly after 9/11, where people were — there was heightened awareness of stereotypes of Indians, and people. There was violence. There was actually a real problem. The movie is like this — it seems so funny and silly, but they really help, because people understand more about this “other,” this culture that they don’t understand, these people they don’t understand. You can’t expect someone who hasn’t really met very many Indians or been around many Indians to just completely understand where they’re coming from or who they are. They’re a mystery. They’re an “other.” Movies like this make us realize how relatable everyone is, and that’s important because it’s not just funny and a fun thing to watch — it actually affects how people treat others.

[music: “Inner Smile” by Texas]

Ms. Percy: Rajpreet Heir is a TED Conference coordinator and writer. You can find her work in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. And, fun fact, back in the day, she was also an Indianapolis 500 Festival Princess.

I’m really excited about our next conversation because we’re going to be talking with the Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla. He’s the man behind the music for Brokeback Mountain and Babel. The movie that changed him is Wings of Desire. It’s a German movie, so it might not make sense how this Argentinian man has been changed by a German movie. But once you see this movie, you’ll understand why Gustavo chose this. It’s so in-line with his own music and has clearly influenced the career that he’s had. You’ve got two weeks to watch it, and you can find that on Amazon, iTunes, or FilmStruck.

This Movie Changed Me is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, and Marie Sambilay, and is an On Being Studios production. Follow us on social media if you want to continue the conversation after the episode is over. We’re on Twitter @TMCMpodcast or Facebook and Instagram @thismoviechangedme, all one word.

I’m Lily Percy, and I’m gonna go dance to the Bend It Like Beckham soundtrack.

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