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“To Follow Your Dreams, You’ve Got to Bend the Rules”

On Bend It Like Beckham's fifteenth anniversary, Geneva Abdul revisits what it means to oscillate between two worlds.

Bend It Like Beckham DVD inserting into DVD player
Gif by Naya Cheyenne

At the age of fourteen, I was playing the game I loved in front of 23,000 people. A sea of red, black, and white chanted in unison and our bodies were pacing up and down the length of the field to the beat of the drums and steel pans as we battled against Chile. The lively mirth had my heart racing for 90 minutes: an evocation of space, a heavenly sphere.

They called us the Soca Princesses, not quite Soca Warriors, like our male counterparts, but a name we accepted with pride for representing a country of only 2 million Trinidadians. The Women’s World Cup anthem wasn’t Shakira’s “Waka Waka,” which was used for the men’s South African World Cup the same summer, but the motto “Girls Can Kick Too.” It was a declaration of our dedication, talent, and love for a game that we were constantly told was never ours to play.

Following my family’s move to Toronto, I picked up the sport in the concrete tennis courts of my elementary school. What was disguised as a sense of belonging in a predominantly white neighborhood was later a realized path of self-discovery.

When I was six years old, Gurinder Chadha was creating a film that would later establish my adolescent identity. In 2003, Bend It Like Beckham premiered in North America, and from it, a space emerged for young women of color struggling with cultural integration. We bear witness as Jess, the main character, played by Parminder Nagra, oscillates between two worlds, juggling lettuce in her kitchen as her mother forces her to learn to cook aloo gobi and jumping into her sari in the football locker room to race back to her sister’s wedding in the final scenes of the film.

But “who wants to cook aloo gobi when you can bend a ball like Beckham?”

To “bend it like Beckham” is a mastery of maneuvering, a slight outward curve of the boot that sends the ball spiraling in the air, traveling as if it’s going steady but then swerving into the unexpected. With no one to relate to or confide in, Jess does just that. Like most children of immigrants, Jess is expected to fit her parents’ archetype of an Indian girl before negotiating her own identity. From purchasing cleats instead of heels for her sister’s wedding to plotting a fake trip with her sister to attend a weekend match in Germany, it is through continuous acts of defiance that Jess gains her independence and flourishes into her own person.

With a Trinidadian father and British mother, I too was taught to weave my worlds together at a young age. I was constantly posed with questions of “Where are you reallllly from?,” “Are you Paki or Punjabi?,” and “Muslim or Hindu?,” and having people tirelessly question my relation to my own parents, ready to fall back on assumptions of adoption or jokes of being swapped at birth. Even on the soccer field, I found myself, at times, as the only brown girl, and like with Jess, it was always relayed to me what a surprise it was that a brown girl could play. And so soccer became my act of defiance.

Half of my family is quintessentially English. They had homes with high beams, radiators, fridges full of Yorkshire pudding, and cupboards topped with canned baked beans. The Trinidadian half has inexplicably large reunions in homes of distant relatives with names I cannot recall, with kitchens full of roti and warm sawine, hints of gold, Bollywood songs playing softly in the background, and plush pink sofas full of relatives waiting to pinch your cheeks, bombard you with questions, and ponder why you’re not cooking traditional dishes for a man of your own.

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“It’s just culture, that’s all,” is the only thing Jess can offer to her teammates to describe the reasoning behind her parents not wanting her to play football, a notion I too find myself falling upon when attempting to explain the inexplicable.

Soccer is a sisterhood bound by sacrifice, made up of girls who wake up before dawn to test the limits of their bodies, who spend hours crammed in backseats en route to tournaments, who aren’t afraid to talk back to referees and boast of their purple-yellow bruises. Girls with shin-pad tan lines that carry merit and a self-worth so sturdy that not even a comment like “I’ve never seen a brown girl into football” can shake it.

I vividly remember the afternoon my father brought home Really Bend It Like Beckham, a tutorial taught by the legend himself. I remember sinking into the brown leather sofa in our living room, thinking, What does David Beckham know about negotiating your identity? I wanted to see Mia Hamm or, better yet, Marta Vieira da Silva. I wanted to see a female athlete on television somewhere other than in a tampon commercial. I wanted to see the women who sweat and bleed on the battlefields historically claimed by men. But the only girl I saw was Jess, and sometimes all you need is someone who looks like you to fight and win.

As the film ends, we find Jess on the pitch. Faced with a free kick that could determine the fate of the championship final, she carefully rests the ball on the grass as a wall is formed ten meters away. Not that of the opposition, but of her mother, sister, and other relatives, clad in saris, bangles flailing as they bicker at her like they always have. A sharp inhale, a quick burst of speed, and she bends the ball over her last remaining obstacle, scoring the game-winner.

Jess’s journey is about the complexity of personal and national identity and about hoping to win and learning to accept defeat, but more important, it’s a reminder that, sometimes, to follow your dreams, you’ve got to bend the rules.

Geneva Abdul is a freelance writer living and working in New York City.