I was feeling pretty apathetic about the London 2012 Olympics last summer, but came to the conclusion that I couldn’t avoid it completely, so I should probably just find a way to derive some pleasure from the blanket coverage. The first event shown on TV, even before the official Opening Ceremony, was a Women’s Football match… and I quickly became hooked on the sport. I tried to watch all of the subsequent matches, either on TV or via the interwebs, and even made a small bet on the final outcome (Sweden to win the Gold… they eventually came 7th). Finally, after thirty-or-so years of football-phobia, I had learned to appreciate the nail-biting beauty of the game, while simultaneously enjoying the athletic beauty of the players and referees/lineswomen. Then “The Games” ended and that was that. Aside from one isolated England match a few months back, I don’t think there have been any more games broadcast on terrestrial television… although the BBC have announced that they’ll be following the UEFA European Women’s Championship in July (on BBC2/BBC3), so there’s something to look forward to!
Prior to the Olympics, Women’s Football hadn’t enjoyed much exposure since Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham was released, way back in 2002. Set in a remarkably sunny and picturesque corner of West London, this footie-based comedy-drama tells the story of ‘Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra’ (Parminder Nagra), an 18-year-old girl of Punjabi descent, who dreams of following in the studded boot-steps of her eponymous idol, David Beckham. Her conservative Sikh parents would rather she concentrate on getting into a good college, and learning how to cook traditional dishes, to attract a suitable suitor and follow her soon-to-be-married elder sister ‘Pinky’ (Archie Panjabi) down the aisle. And perhaps that’s how her story would have played out, if not for the timely intervention of ‘Juliette “Jules” Paxton’ (Keira Knightley), a sports-savvy tomboy who spots Jess playing in the park, and encourages her to try out for their local team, the Hounslow Harriers… who are coached by a pouty Irishman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), with a busted knee and a purdy mouth. Crushes, clashes, crises and crossed-wires ensue.
In many ways Bend It is my model of an ideal film… it’s got great gags, solid plotting, engaging emotional arcs, feisty female leads, a multicultural milieu, and a progressive political agenda… so I’m heartened by how warmly it was embraced by audiences around the world, even though films of this quality remain such a rarity. It also helped to launch the careers of several fine young actresses, with Nagra getting snapped up for a long-running role in E.R., Panjabi scoring an Emmy-winning part in The Good Wife, and Knightley becoming a fully-fledged movie-star! Until I listened to the commentary, I didn’t realise that the prominent burn-scar Jess is so embarrassed about revealing actually belonged to the actress herself. Apparently Nagra’s agent was concerned that the sizable blemish would spoil her chances of landing the role, considering all the running around in shorts she has to do, but if anything it’s a boon… it adds a great deal to the character, and never detracts from how beautiful and beguiling Nagra is, both before and after Jess’s make-over.
I’m not a regular Good Wife viewer but it’s still a little jarring to see Panjabi playing such a girly, love-struck character here… canoodling with Kulvinder Ghir, blubbing over cancelled wedding plans, and tolerating a trio of bitchy frenemies, played by Pooja Shah, Preeya Kalidas and Paven Virk! After all the glamorous and sophisticated ladies Knightley has played in the meantime, it’s equally incongruous to see her scuffing her knees and tracking mud around as a short-haired scruff, with her sights set firmly on State-side “soccer” glory. Although it might have been interesting to see how the relationship between Jules and Jess would be effected if one (or both) of them had actually had been gay/bi-curious, it’s probably better that they skirted around the subject without reinforcing any dusty stereotypes. I mean, a person’s sexual orientation can’t be defined by how they look, the career they pursue, or the leisure activities they engage in… unless you count sex as a “leisure activity”, obviously.
There were also some great performances from the elder cast members, including Shaheen Khan as Jess’s strict-but-loving mother, and Juliet Stevenson’s scene-stealing turn as Jules’s hilariously clueless-but-well-meaning mum. I also have to give a shout-out to Nina Wadia, who appears briefly as a random wedding guest… she doesn’t have any lines, but it’s always nice to see her face on screen.