How real is "Bend It Like Beckham"?
By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

You've heard about it. Maybe you've even seen it on the big screen. "Bend It Like Beckham," the story of two young British women who overcome a variety of obstacles to succeed at soccer, has been perhaps the most successful soccer film ever in the U.S. (It's grossed over $32.5 million in the States alone, not bad for a film with a budget of about $6 million.) It recently came out on DVD.

"Bend It" is a contemporary sports dramedy, one that clearly aims for a high level of realism in depicting British-Indian life and girls/women's soccer in the U.K. Does it succeed? You decide.

Jess celebrates knocking one home in "Bend It Like Beckham".
In Reel Life: The movie is, obviously, titled "Bend It Like Beckham."
In Real Life: There was serious talk about changing the title in the U.S., the idea being that most Americans don't know who David Beckham is and don't understand what "bend it" means. However, Fox Searchlight execs decided to keep the title (although they considered "Move It Like Mia"). In Germany, however, the film was released as "Kick It Like Beckham."

The Hindi title, translated, is "Football -- Shootball Hai Rabba." (Or, "Football, Shootball Oh God!") It derives from a line uttered by the mother of the main Indian character, Jess (Parminder K. Nagra). At one point, Jess's mother says, "What is this football shootball rubbish?"

In Reel Life: In her bedroom, Jess has a shrine to Beckham. Jules has a similar shrine in her bedroom, devoted to Mia Hamm.
In Real Life: Permissions proved a minor, but important, problem for the film's co-writer and director, Gurinder Chadha. While Mia Hamm immediately and unconditionally approved the use of her name and images in the movie, Chadha had to wait a long time to get permission from Beckham. But in the end, he said he would do it to support women's soccer. He donated his royalties to charity, attended a pre-screening, and publicly endorsed the film.

In Reel Life: In a dream sequence, Jess's mother (Mrs. Bhamra, played by Shaheen Khan) appears on a British soccer television program, and lectures the commentators for encouraging her daughter's obsession with soccer.
In Real Life: The program, "Match of the Day," a highlights show, has been a BBC staple since 1964. The regular anchors, Gary Lineker (former soccer great and England team captain), Alan Hansen, and John Barnes, play themselves in the movie.

In Reel Life: Jess plays soccer in the park with the guys, but doesn't play on an organized team.
In Real Life: Soccer isn't nearly as popular a participatory sport among British females as it is in the U.S., so it wouldn't be uncommon for a teenager to have difficulty finding a team on which to play.

In Reel Life: Jess's friend Jules (Keira Knightley) encourages Joe to play for her team, the Hounslow Harriers. The coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), is Irish.
In Real Life: In the original script, Joe was British. But during rehearsal, Rhys-Meyers ad-libbed a line about being able to understand what it was like to be a minority in London. This happened when Jess, upset about being called a "Paki" during a game, says that Joe wouldn't understand. "Of course I understand, Jess," he said. "I'm Irish."

In Reel Life: Jess, Jules, and the other young women, indeed, do appear to be very skilled at soccer.
In Real Life: Neither Nagra nor Knightley had played soccer before being cast in the film. They trained for 10 weeks with Simon Clifford, who runs a Brazilian soccer academy in England. (Clifford's school teaches Futebol de Sal„o , a version of soccer played on a hard court.) Pop star Shaznay Lewis, the songwriter for All Saints who plays Hounslow Harriers team captain Mel, was a skilled soccer player who was good enough to be invited to play with Arsenal Ladies when she was a teenager.

Nagra said she thought soccer was "pointless" before she did the film, but grew to like the game. "We learned all the moves," she said. "I can do the Maradona, where you literally dance on the ball to get past a defender, and the Ronaldo, where you use the sole of your foot to take the ball forward."

Jess & Jules
Jess (left) can now be seen on ER; Jules (right) starred in "Pirates of the Caribbean".
By the end of training, said Clifford, Knightley "could do things some Premier League players can't do. I taught her moves I've worked on with Michael Owen, and he found some of them harder to master than she did." Clifford also said, "If I'd trained her from the age of 10 or 11, without a shadow of a doubt Keira could have been a pro."

Knightly told Interview magazine she came to the movie with some soccer experience. "I was captain of the girls team in primary school," she said, "but we never actually scored a goal. We only kicked people."

In Reel Life: The Harriers appear to be an established, well-organized team.
In Real Life: Most of the players -- even a few who have some lines -- are experienced footballers selected from the rosters of Queen's Park Rangers, Slough, Bushy and the Arsenal Academy.

In Reel Life: When Jess visit's Jules's house, Jules goes on and on about how women can play pro soccer in America, and even shows Jess a WUSA highlight tape.
In Real Life: True, of course, at the time the film was made, but no longer so. The WUSA folded, at least temporarily, late last summer. However, opportunities for female soccer players are clearly better in the U.S. than in England, which has only one women's pro team, the Fulham Girls.

In Reel Life: Jess has a copy of a magazine that appears to be called "Kicks."
In Real Life: The magazine was "She Kicks," a new women's football publication at the time of the filming. The magazine has since gone under and has been resurrected as "Fair Game" magazine, focusing on women's football in the U.K.

In Reel Life: Jess's father, Mr. Bhamra (Bollywood star Anupam Kher, starring in his first English-language movie), is an Indian who grew up in Nairobi.
In Real Life: This echoes the family background of writer/director Chadha. They came to London in the 1960s, via Kenya. Many Sikhs live in Kenya, having emigrated there originally as soldiers representing the British crown, which had colonized India and Kenya among many other countries. Chadha's father experienced discrimination almost immediately upon arrival in Britain; despite being a thoroughly trained professional in the field, he was denied a job at Barclay's bank because he wore a turban.

In Reel Life: A large painting of Guru Nanak Dev dominates the Bhamra's living room wall. Mrs. Bhamra often prays before the painting.
In Real Life: Guru Nanak Dev, born on April 15, 1469, founded the Sikh religion. He was born a Hindu living in a Hindu and Muslim community, and Sikhism arose out of his desire to find common ground between the two. The religion recognizes one God. According to the Web site, "Sikhism condemns blind rituals such as fasting, visiting places of pilgrimage, superstitions, worship of the dead, idol worship etc."

In Reel Life: In the house, there are both a model of and a painting of The Golden Temple.
In Real Life: Known as Harmiandir Sahib, the Temple, in the state of Punjab in India, is the religious center of Sikhism.

In Reel Life: Jess initially refuses to play wearing shorts. She explains this to Joe, showing him a big scar on her thigh, the result of a burn suffered as a child.
In Real Life: Nagra's leg is scarred, and she was initially worried she wouldn't get the part because of it. But Chadha decided to write the scar into the film, and the story Jess tells of how she got it -- an accident that happened when she made beans on toast as an eight-year-old -- is the true story of how Nagra scarred her leg.

Both the girls received some serious soccer training before filming this movie.
In Reel Life: Jess's mother makes a big deal out of teaching Jess how to cook a "proper Indian meal."
In Real Life: This was snagged straight from Chadha's family life. "The most important thing to my mum was that I learn how to cook Indian food, but I refused," she told Newsweek. "I'd say, 'What you don't realize, Mum, is that you are oppressed.' She'd say, 'When you get married and can't cook, you tell your mother-in-law she's oppressed, because I'm the one who's going to get a bad name, not you.'"

In Reel Life: One of the taglines used for promoting the film is "Who wants to cook Aloo Gobi when you can bend a ball like Beckham?"
In Real Life: If you do want to cook Aloo Gobi, a delicious, spicy potato and cauliflower combination, give yourself 25 minutes, and voila!

You could also rent or buy the DVD and watch a 15-minute instructional film, starring Chadha, on how to make the dish. Her mother is even there to criticize the way she prepares the dish -- should the potatoes be peeled or unpeeled? How big should the cauliflower pieces be?

In Reel Life: Jules's mother, Paula Paxton (Juliet Stevenson), concerned about Jules being more interested in soccer than fashion, says, "Remember, Sporty Spice is the only one without a fella."
In Real Life: Maybe it isn't because she's sporty -- in November, 2002, a survey revealed that Britons thought Mel C and Ozzy Osbourne had the worst teeth in England.

Sporty Spice, or Mel C (Melanie Chisholm), contributed a song, "Independence Day," to the soundtrack, and was invited to an advance screening. According to Chadha, the whole room was silent when the line was said, but Mel C burst out laughing.

In Reel Life: During one scene, "She's a Lady," a late-1960s hit for Tom Jones, plays in the background.
In Real Life: It's clearly not the Tom Jones version of the song, which was written by Paul Anka. "The amount of money they wanted to put Jones' version of the song (in the film) was phenomenal," said Chadha. So they recorded a version by Austin Howard. Never heard of him? That's the point -- "Bend It" is a low-budget film.

In Reel Life: Jules has some pimples.
In Real Life: Another consequence of a low budget. Knightley, in "Pirates of the Caribbean," a big-budget Disney film, exhibits flawless skin. "What was most shocking is that in 'Beckham,' you can see I have spots," she told Newsweek. "But in 'Pirates,' they were like, 'Don't worry, we'll CGI them out.' 'CGI out my spots? Wow, you can do that?' To get up in the morning and not worry about that, it's like, whoa."

In Reel Life: The film is in English.
In Real Life: "Bend It" has been enormously popular in India, as well, and plans for the Indian release -- with dubbed versions in Hindi and Punjabi -- were built into the original planning for the film. "I had definitely planned an Indian release for this one and that's the reason I employed Anupam Kher (Jess's father, a huge Bollywood star) in it -- to add the Indian flavor," said Chadha. "And also to give a familiar face the Indian masses can relate to."

In Reel Life: The Harriers go to Hamburg to play a match; and after the game, they party in a nightclub.
In Real Life: The club, called "The Bunker," is a huge, exclusive club located in a real World War II bomb shelter.

"Bend It Like Beckham" was directed by Gurinder Chadha.
In Reel Life: Jules's father, Alan Paxton (Frank Harper), diagrams for his wife how the offsides rule works, using sea-salt and mustard jars on a picnic table.
In Real Life: "People laugh in the cinema about this, because people still get confused by the offsides rule," says the film's co-writer, Paul Berges.

In Reel Life: Jules and Jess are scouted by, and receive a scholarship offer from, Santa Clara University, "one of the top teams" in the U.S.
In Real Life: In 2001, when the film was produced, Santa Clara was the top college women's soccer team in the U.S.. Late in the year, the Broncos beat North Carolina to win their first national title. They'd been to the semifinals seven times before that victory.

It's unlikely, however, that a Santa Clara scout would be scouring Europe for players. In 2002, the Broncos had 13 California natives on a roster of 23, and all the other players were from the U.S.

In Reel Life: Jess bends the ball like Beckham, around a clothesline in her backyard.
In Real Life: Nagra didn't have to do this scene -- she could have used a double. But she said she insisted on doing it herself. "The crew were all blokes looking at me and thinking, 'There is no way this is possible,'" she said. "The first time I did it, I pranged my toes and lost my confidence; but after some expert coaching, it happened -- it was the most amazing feeling."

Bending the ball is similar to throwing a curveball -- it involves, mainly, the Magnus force. Lots of soccer players can bend it, but few can do it like Becks.

If you want to make a baseball film similar to "Bend It Like Beckham," you might want to call it "Curve It Like Koufax."



Jeff Merron Archive

Merron: Radio in real life

Merron: Seabiscuit in Real Life

Merron: Lowdown on the 'Junction'

Merron: Waking up Rudy's echoes

Merron: Keeping it real on 'Sports Night'

Merron: Footballs won't fly on 'West Wing'

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