It’s the ultimate underdog story about an underdog story.
Made for about $6 million, director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham follows a British-Indian girl named Jess (Parminder Nagra) as she struggles to reconcile her love of football with her love for her traditional immigrant family. Along the way, she befriends her teammate Jules (Keira Knightley), strikes up a relationship with her hot coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and learns a little bit about herself. Not only did the film become a feel-good global smash and launch Knightley to stardom, but it stands as a coming-of-age classic.
“I think people underestimated the power of girls wanting to see films where they were empowered,” Chadha says now. “Those hardly ever existed.”
As part of EW’s Untold Stories special issue, Chadha, Nagra, and costar Archie Panjabi look back on the film’s unlikely winning streak and how it broke boundaries by bending the rules.
After making her directorial debut with 1994’s Bhaji on the Beach, Chadha wanted to make a film inspired by her adolescence. She co-wrote the script with her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, and Guljit Bindra; they cast theater actress Parminder Nagra as Jess, a then-unknown Keira Knightley as her best friend, and Archie Panjabi as her older sister, Pinky.
GURINDER CHADHA: It came from me sitting down and saying, “I want to write the most commercial film I can with an Asian woman in the lead.” In Britain, things had really been shifting and changing. For many years, football was very much about hooligans and sort of right-wing people. Anything to do with football was a no-go area if you were a person of color. I decided this was an interesting area for me, and started thinking, “All right, how can I make this story work for me?”
PARMINDER NAGRA: Gurinder approached me and said, “I’m thinking of doing this film about an Indian girl who plays soccer,” and I was just like, “Why would anybody want to watch that?”
CHADHA: I pretty much knew when I was writing it that I wanted to cast Parminder. When I met her, she said, “Oh, yeah, I know how to play football.” Of course, she didn’t. [Laughs] But it was fine. I bought it.
ARCHIE PANJABI: What I loved about my character was that she still ended up having an arranged marriage and was quite Indian and proud of it, but she’s also vivacious and feisty and mouthy and obsessed with boys and makeup. It kind of broke [the mold of] a lot of the Indian characters we’d seen… up to that point.
Knightley and Nagra hit the field immediately, training with a coach and a local women’s soccer team (who played Jess and Jules’ on-screen team, the Hounslow Harriers) to get their football skills up to scratch.
NAGRA: We ended up [training] at the local park, Clapham Common. It was me and Keira, and it was a trainer. We had to get changed at the local pub down the street.
CHADHA: We had a few scary moments. Keira was practicing headers at one time because she had to head a shot, and she got a concussion.
NAGRA: I remember going to train with [the women’s soccer team], and that was a shocker because they were looking at me, like, who the hell is this girl who’s turned up who thinks she can play football? [Laughs] There was a little bit of smirking going around, but we became very friendly.
Because Jess’ story centered on bending her family’s rules, Chadha turned to a British icon well-known for “bending” things (the trajectory of a soccer ball, social mores): Manchester United midfielder David Beckham.
CHADHA: We’d started working on the script quite a long time before because it took us a long time to get financing for the film. At that point, David Beckham was like nobody. In soccer, people knew him. But [most audiences knew him because] he had a girlfriend who was in the Spice Girls, and he’d become a bit of a pinup boy. And he was starting to do ads for Calvin Klein underwear, and he’d become a bit of a gay icon. Originally, the other writer Guljit, who was into soccer, she had been all over Ryan Giggs. I changed it from Ryan Giggs to David Beckham because of the girl power and because of his whole being comfortable being a gay icon. [Beckham] gave us permission initially to use his name because he wanted to promote girls’ soccer, and he wanted more families to come and see soccer matches. But it could have easily been Ryan Giggs!
But shortly before the film’s U.K. premiere — and the World Cup — Beckham broke his foot.
CHADHA: The next day, of course, my phone started ringing at half seven in the morning, and all these journalists were like, “Oh my God, what are you going to do? David Beckham is not going to make it to your premiere, you must be devastated!” And I immediately said, “Well, I am, but never mind my premiere — what about the World Cup?!”
PANJABI: David Beckham injured his foot, and that was all over the press; there was just this burst of interest. Everywhere you’d go, people were talking about the film. It was only the second film I’d done, so I thought every film does as well.
CHADHA: The newspapers and the tabloids picked up the story, and that’s when you started getting “Mend It Like Beckham” and “Break It Like Beckham,” so of course we ended up with so much press from that. We could never have paid for that. Although when I went to America, nobody knew who David Beckham was. I was doing press, and a journalist said to me, “Who is David Beckman?”
Beckham went on to earn a whopping $76.6 million at the global box office, blowing past its single-digit budget and later spawning a West End musical. But the film didn’t lead to more diverse, female-fronted films, as its creators had hoped.
CHADHA: Time and time again, if I pitch a story, I’m told it’s too small — and that’s why Bend It Like Beckham didn’t get financed for ages. It’s a miracle the film even got made. I don’t think it would ever get made today.
NAGRA: When Bend It first came out, there was interest in a magazine doing a cover story, and [the marketing team talked] about putting me on the cover. They were told that actually, it would be better to put Keira on it because they would get more bums in seats. It was just hurtful, like, Wow, okay.
PANJABI: I can’t think of a film that has had a young Indian woman as the lead since then, or one that has been as successful. And that’s sad because a lot of people thought [Bend It] was so groundbreaking, like it could really rewrite the rules. And I don’t feel it has. Having said that, I feel that things are slowly changing, with diversity being talked about so much.
CHADHA: The thing that’s important to remember is the film came out just after 9/11, at a time when America was really broken. It was traumatized, and culturally it was in a really weird place. And along comes this film, which is very much about diversity, and it’s humanizing people — people you might be scared of because they’re brown. In America, I started getting letters from Sikhs saying, “Thank God for your film because you are showing people who we are and how different and united we all are.”
PANJABI: Every time I meet women who watched the film when they were younger, I hear so many of them telling me how it inspired them to pursue their dreams and to challenge their parents — to bend the rules.
NAGRA: I think people love a story about an underdog. Billy Elliot did it. Rocky. Somebody who has to struggle and is going up against everybody else’s version of what they think that person should be. And I think that’s what resonates with people: If you put the hard work in and the persistence, eventually it’ll pay off.