Editor’s note: This piece reproduces racist slurs that appear in Anita & Me as part of contextual discussion the film.
When Bend It Like Beckham was released in 2002, it became a worldwide hit. The film, about football-obsessed Jesminder (‘Jess’) Bhamra (played by Parminder Nagra) negotiating the expectations of her Sikh family in London spoke to the experiences of many South Asian diaspora folk. Within weeks of its premiere I’d seen it—twice—in a packed cinema, where I and the majority brown audience roared at the in-jokes and collectively gasped at Jess’s hot coach Joe’s (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) white collared shirt. I revelled in the existence of a South Asian lead character who finds her own path. Jess ignores the not-so-subtle paternalism of some of the characters who suggest she take a more Western, individualistic approach—‘If you give up football now, what are you going to give up next?’ her friend Jules (Keira Knightley) espouses to her—and instead comes up ‘with her own unique formula for balancing her heritage and her obsession with football’. By the end of the film, Jess has everything she wants—she’s going to America to play football on a scholarship, with the full support of her family. And what’s more, her hot coach has fallen for her rather than her friend Jules (Keira Knightley)—even as I felt in my bones that in real life, Keira Knightley would be the chosen one, every time.
Rather than crafting a simplistic ‘girl oppressed by migrant family’ narrative, Bend It Like Beckham pokes sly fun at the similarities between Western and South Asian cultures. While Jess’s family want her to focus on her future and her sister Pinky’s (Archie Panjabi) wedding rather than play football, her friend Jules is experiencing similar parental pressure—Jules’s mother (Juliet Stevenson) wishes she was more interested in push-up bras and boys, and ultimately concludes that in the absence of such interest she must be a lesbian. It remains one of the few successful films about ‘women’s sport’ (now, thankfully, just called ‘sport’) and many female football players credit their interest in the game to watching the movie.
Watching the film today, that sense of possibility still permeates. The film makes clear that, in 2002, the only restrictions on Jess’s potential are her parents. While Jess’s mother (Shaheen Khan) has more traditional expectations of her, wanting her to learn to cook a full Punjabi dinner, her father (Anupam Kher) is concerned about the realities of being South Asian in Britain, alluding to the racism he’d experienced in the country, and the structural barriers he sees to be still in place. On his arrival to London, he was not allowed to play in any of the cricket clubs; even now, he says, ‘None of our boys are in any of the football leagues. You think they will let our girls?’ Jess is at pains to explain that things have changed, pointing to Nasser Hussein, at the time captain of the England cricket team. The joke here is Mrs Bhamra’s, who replies, ‘Hussein is a Muslim name, their families are different.’ I remember this line getting a big laugh in the cinema—certainly I laughed, too. Obama was still a few years away, but nevertheless it felt like we had finally entered a post-racial society, focused on what brought us together. For years, I carried the film and its buoyant optimism around as a kind of society-levelling talisman. We could all joke about the insanity of our mothers, date the hot white guy and follow our dreams. Equality had arrived.
For years, I carried Bend It Like Beckham and its buoyant optimism around as a kind of society-levelling talisman. It felt like we had finally entered a post-racial society, focused on what brought us together.
In the intervening years, once the glory of Bend It Like Beckham had subsided and movies with a majority South Asian cast were few and far between, I watched Keira Knightley emote through clenched teeth in countless blockbusters, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers exhibit maximum pout headlining The Tudors and Match Point. Parminder Nagra, meanwhile, was relegated to that most South Asian of roles, a doctor on ER. The post-racial utopia promised by Bend It Like Beckham had not eventuated. Nasser Hussein aside, it turned out Keira Knightley was the chosen one, and the joke was on us.
The same year I watched Bend It Like Beckham, I also saw, to much less fanfare and an almost empty cinema, another movie about an Indian girl growing up in the UK. The film, Anita & Me, was mostly a flop in Australia (and now only watchable via YouTube bootlegs), despite being based on the award-winning, semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by comedian Meera Syal. Anita & Me follows the story of Meena Kumar (played by Chandeep Uppal), a twelve-year-old girl living in the fictional town of Tollington in the English Midlands, a place which used to have a mine but ‘has now got a very good pub instead’. It’s the 1970s and her family are the only Indian family in the town. Meena, belligerent and outspoken, forms a friendship with the cool, blonde, fourteen-year-old Anita Rutter (Anna Brewster), who has a ‘Marianne Faithfull lipline’ and is allowed to wear miniskirts.
It seemed that two movies in one year about the Indian immigrant experience was an overload for some—David Stratton commenting in his review that ‘this kind of cross-cultural friendship film is getting to be a bit of a cliché’—and the film does sag under the weight of too many subplots (among them, a new baby brother who gets little screen time, various quirky neighbourhood figures and even a Boo Radley-style recluse). But despite its limitations, Meena and Anita’s friendship, which has more in keeping with My Brilliant Friend’s Lila and Elena than Jess and Jules, feels as if it presents race relations in a manner that is more pertinent to our current political moment.
In 2020, the painful truths of Anita & Me and its obvious racial disharmony feel closer to the present than the 2002 of Bend It Like Beckham.
From the beginning, Anita represents everything Meena wants to be, and Meena goes out of her way to ingratiate herself with Anita and become part of her gang. While Meena’s parents encourage her to study for a private school scholarship that might be their ticket out of Tollington, Meena steals sweets from the local sweetshop and jumps over the fence of the local haunted house to impress Anita. Both girls recognise a wildness in each other—a similar feeling of unbelonging. After they become friends, Meena details their plans to have a flat in London ‘on the Kings Avenue in Chelsea. We’re gonna wear high heels, have loads of boyfriends and a pony…and never come back.’
As Meena spends more time with Anita and her behaviour worsens, Meena’s mother (Ayesha Dharker) forbids her from seeing Anita, asking her, ‘Is this Anita going to hold your hand when the dark days come?’ They come sooner than we anticipate, revealing Anita as the instigator. Throughout the film, the casual racism of the 1970s pervades the air, with insults like ‘darkie’ and ‘Paki’ nonchalantly thrown about. This blooms into a full-on racist incident where one of Meena’s family friends is beaten and left for dead. Later, Meena overhears Anita tell one of her sidekicks about ‘that night we went Paki bashing’. Heavy, yes. In 2002, I left the cinema thinking that this was all a bit much—Anita & Me wasn’t the hilarious, irreverent take on immigrant culture I’d been promised. Mistakenly, at the time, I thought we’d moved on.
Anita & Me is as confronting as Bend It Like Beckham is joyous. It’s painful to watch Meena’s visible difference on screen, her obvious and complete isolation. It’s hard seeing her try to impress Anita in a friendship that becomes increasingly one-sided. But we also know that it is Meena who will leave Tollington and move onwards and upwards, while Anita, like many others in the working-class town, will not. Meena knows too, telling Anita, during the biggest of their fights, that there will never be a flat in London for her. Unlike Bend It Like Beckham, which ends with both Jess and Jules following their dreams in America, Meena and Anita’s friendship is zero-sum. Meena gets a scholarship and the family moves away. The day before they leave, Meena stops off at Anita’s house, and talks to her through the front door. Anita is on the other side, tear-streaked. ‘We can’t be friends anymore, not now,’ Meena says to the door, with the terrible acceptance of one who, at only twelve, has awakened to the truth of how the world treats people like her.
I thought that by ignoring these differences I could write myself into a story of whiteness. It was easier to believe that we could all win rather than confront the possibility that some of us were losing.
In 2020, the painful truths of Anita & Me and its obvious racial disharmony feel closer to the present than the 2002 of Bend It Like Beckham. It feels disingenuous now to assert that, as in Bend It Like Beckham, we can all be winners—the many tragedies that 2020 has exposed have made clear that this is not happening—and that we can paint over our differences. I’ve realised how in the past I’ve tried to sweep under the carpet discussions about race, especially with white friends, and to reach for our commonalities, much like Jess. I didn’t want to be that ‘difficult’ brown person who cast any challenges I’d experienced in a racial light. Perhaps, as Neel Patel so eloquently writes in The Paris Review, I thought that by ignoring these differences I could write myself into a story of whiteness. It was easier to believe that we could all win rather than confront the possibility that some of us were losing.
In the climax of Anita & Me, Meena confronts Anita about her friend’s beating. Anita says to her, ‘That Paki was no one—you’re not like the others.’ And Meena grabs her by the ear, almost screeching, ‘I am the others.’ I’ll continue to watch Bend It Like Beckham year after year and appreciate Jess’s delicate cultural balancing act, but in 2020 the movie’s easy resolution seems out of reach. It’s Meena standing up to Anita that makes me think of the world today, where more of us are standing up to our own Anitas and saying, I’m not like you—and, finally, I don’t need to be, either.