Tackling tradition

Special to The Times

During a recent U.S. tour to promote her film "Bend It Like Beckham," British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha often heard people talk about her movie in the same breath with last year's box-office smash "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

"When the film [made its U.S. premiere] at the Sundance Film Festival this year, the film that kept coming up every time mine was mentioned was 'Greek Wedding,' " Chadha said.

Indeed, there are obvious similarities between the two low-budget independent films. Both deal humorously with ethnic identity: In "Greek Wedding," a woman defies the burdensome expectations of her Greek American family by dating a decidedly non-Greek man. In "Bend It Like Beckham" a young English girl of Indian descent tries to balance her love of soccer with the values imposed by her parents, who expect her to grow up to be a traditionally feminine and compliant Indian wife.

The two films also shared similar success in their respective countries in 2002. "Bend It Like Beckham" became one of the most successful British-financed and -distributed films ever made, grossing nearly $50 million so far.

With the film opening Wednesday in Los Angeles and other major cities, Chadha believes her work can corral a sizable U.S. audience. "Most cities in the world, whether it's Johannesburg, Sydney or Paris, operate on this multicultural level," said Chadha, who directed, co-produced and co-wrote the film. "I reckon that's why the film has been a success in so many places around the world. The 20th century was essentially about national boundaries. The 21st century is about international boundaries and the fact that they are so blurred now."

Parminder Nagra, who plays Jess, the film's young soccer-playing star, said she was heartened to find such a diverse audience for the film in her native England. "I remember sneaking into a cinema one day, and I sat there with people of all races and of all ages," said Nagra, 27. "They were all laughing at the same things."

Chadha said the fact that the film deals with soccer in a soccer-obsessed country was not the reason for its initial success. Other soccer-related films have been commercial failures in England. Plus, there were concerns before the film's release that male soccer fans would dismiss the movie as a chick flick, while girls and women would stay away from it because it dealt with sports. To Chadha, it's the film's humor and universal theme of striving for dreams in the face of challenging obstacles that have attracted viewers.

"Bend It Like Beckham" is partly autobiographical. Chadha, who wrote the film's screenplay with husband Paul Mayeda Berges and Guljit Bindra, grew up in a similarly traditional Indian family in England, where she was beset by many cultural expectations. When Chadha was 5, her mother bought her a whole set of jewelry from India in anticipation of the day she would marry.

"To this day I don't cook chapati, the Indian bread," she revealed with a laugh. "It's terribly messy to make. When I was younger, I used to say, 'Mom, this is so sexist. Men never have to do this. Why should we do it? You don't realize that you're totally oppressed.' She would say, 'Tell your [future] mother-in-law she's oppressed. When you can't cook, who's going to suffer? It's your poor mother who is going to suffer!' "

But Chadha says the film isn't about choosing one culture over another. (In the film, soccer is symbolic of mainstream British culture.) It's more about embracing one's ethnic and national identities simultaneously, which she says she and many other Indian Brits do today.

'Quirkiness can work'

The film takes its name from David Beckham, a star member of England's Manchester United team. "Bend it" has a dual meaning. Beckham is known for his ability to kick a soccer ball so that it strategically bends in flight. In the movie, Jess chooses to bend rather than break the rules in her quest to play soccer against her parents' wishes.

But in the U.S., the name David Beckham is recognized by few people other than soccer followers and perhaps fans of the Spice Girls. (Beckham is married to Victoria "Posh Spice" Adams from the once-hot English vocal group.) Fox Searchlight, the film's U.S. distributor, considered changing the title of "Bend It Like Beckham" in the U.S. but decided against it.

"We decided that quirkiness can work for a title, too," said Nancy Utley, Fox Searchlight's president of marketing. "Nobody knew what the 'full monty' was in America before the film 'The Full Monty,' and now everybody knows." ("The Full Monty" was also a Fox Searchlight film.)

Soccer may not be a major spectator sport in America, but it is a very popular participatory sport among boys and girls in the U.S. This fact and "Beckham's" girl-empowerment message have Fox Searchlight directing much of its marketing effort at teenage girls. The film has been screened for numerous girls' soccer teams around the country. Both professional leagues in the U.S. -- Major League Soccer and the Women's United Soccer Assn. -- have jointly held screenings for season ticket holders and youth players. The movie has also been embraced by American female soccer stars like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain.

Chadha said that the film's success has helped create a groundswell of interest among young girls wanting to play soccer in England as well as in parts of India. "We had the phone number for the [English] Football Assn. on our movie poster in England," noted Chadha, whose previous films include "Bhaji on the Beach" (1993) and "What's Cooking?" (2000). "The Football Assn. said their phones were ringing off the hook with girls wanting to play soccer."

Fox Searchlight isn't targeting just teenage girls. Campaigns to reach art-film audiences and Southeast Asian populations around the country have also been mounted. The film has two trailers. One preview trailer is being shown in mainstream theaters and emphasizes sports and the movie's relatively small romantic dimension in an attempt to woo teenage girls. The other trailer, designed for art houses, plays up the film's multiculturalism, positive press quotes and recognition at film festivals. (It was runner-up for the audience award at the most recent Sundance and Toronto film fests.)

Although Chadha said "Bend It Like Beckham" is not a soccer movie at its core, she and her young actors went to great lengths to present soccer scenes in a believable way. Nagra and co-star Keira Knightley, both soccer novices, practiced the sport with a coach almost daily for two months. "There were some points when I did think, 'Why am I doing this?' " Nagra said. "But it was well worth it in the end."

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