Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bend It Like Beckham Is A Colonialist's Dream

Bend It Like Beckham is an excellent example of a film that espouses old-school British colonialist values. It depicts the struggle of an Indian family to hold onto its culture against the pervasive and stifling British culture that attempts to absorb the Indians into itself, and is ultimately successful in doing so. Furthermore, the Indian parents trying to raise their daughters as Indians are consistently portrayed as stifling their daughter’s dreams, while British culture—represented largely by a football team—is depicted as free-spirited and liberating.

The film refers briefly to a period in British culture where minority immigrants were excluded from and shunned by mainstream British society; Mr. Bhamra*, the heroine’s father, tells a story of being expelled from a British cricket club and Jess herself says “It’s not like it used to be”, referring to once-nonexistent diversity in British sports. This period has been succeeded by a shift in the dominant culture. Instead of excluding its immigrants, at the time of Bend It Like Beckham, British society seeks instead to assimilate its immigrants and make them indistinguishable from native Brits in terms of their culture.

The battle between the dominant British culture and the enveloped Indian culture is fought in the hearts and minds of the Indians’ children. For many—indeed, most—of the Indian teens and twenty-somethings in this film, British culture has already won out. The ‘kids’ (for want of a better term) speak in British accents, dress in British fashion (Pinky’s friends dress and speak in slutty fashion, and Tony’s friends are typical Western douchebags) and adopt non-Indian names (Jess, Pinky, Tony). Moreover, they display materialist obsessions typical of capitalist society, fawning over and desiring such things as hair and nail treatments, shoes, bras and fancy clothes.

Jess, however, is still deciding between the two worlds she is presented with. Her Indian parents attempt to influence her throughout the film by teaching her to cook Indian food, to dress in Indian fashion and to respect her elders. They are consistently depicted as restrictive of Jess’s desires, uncaring for her needs, and in the words of Jess’s teammate, “backward”. Jess resents this treatment and dreams of playing football openly in America; never in the film is she seen to take pleasure in an Indian custom or routine.

By contrast, once she is exposed to the world of clubbing, football and friendship that defines this movie’s British culture, Jess is a convert. Although she’s initially uncomfortable with the team’s culture, particularly in the case of locker-room nudity, Jess overcomes her initial misgivings and is accepted into a nominally color-blind team (it’s captained by a black girl, but most of the rest are white).

Jess’s struggle is emblematic of the struggles of her generation as a whole, specified through the experience of one Indian family. She has no interest in learning about her native Indian culture, as can be seen throughout the film. Rather, her inclination the entire time is to embrace what is portrayed as liberal, color-blind British culture rather than “backward” Indian culture. In that sense, the battle has already been lost on the level of Jess’s heart. But the deeper loss comes in the climax of the film, where Jess’s long-suffering parents cave and allow her to play soccer professionally. In essentially giving up on the idea that Jess will follow the Indian path, the Bhamras are also abandoning their attempt to preserve their culture in the person of their daughter. They are surrendering influence over her life to British values rather than Indian.

Although the Bhamras’ other daughter Pinky has been married off in Indian fashion, she is more squarely aligned with British values (materialism, concern with Western dress, British accent, snogging before marriage) and represents another failure to preserve proper Indian custom. Both her friends and Tony’s friends, the primary groups of young Indians seen in the film, also fail this standard as discussed above.

Of all the Indian youth seen in the film, only one measures up to proper Indian standards. Tony is quiet, polite, listens to his mother and is a model Indian youth in his elders’ eyes. However, he’s also either gay or bi (this isn’t quite clear) and thus an imperfect specimen of Indian youth (again, through his elders’ eyes, although they aren’t made aware of his sexual orientation in the film). This means that although the parents do not realize it, their sons and daughters have universally failed to become “proper Indians”. All of them have been ‘tainted’ by British culture.

Jess was the last, best hope to carry on the wishes of her parent generation and become a model Indian lady. With her ‘switching sides’, the victory of British culture is complete. Every Indian youth in the film has been assimilated into the dominant culture, and Indian custom and mindset survives in the minds of the children only in diluted form. Bend It Like Beckham perfectly illustrates the assimilation of the children of a group of immigrants, and depicts the victory of British culture in the war for the hearts and minds of its immigrants’ sons and daughters.

*The Bhamras are the Indian family in question; Jess is their daughter, Tony is a friend of Jess's, Pinky is Jess's sister.


Caroline said...

Is it still colonialist if the family chose to live in England?

Andy said...

I think so. Britain isn't trying to conquer India as a nation, but British culture is trying to conquer this family on a personal level.

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