Category Archives: Films by women

Margarita With a Straw (India 2014)

Kalki Koechlin as Laila – experiencing a different kind of sexual excitement for the first time

Kalki Koechlin as Laila – experiencing a different kind of sexual excitement for the first time

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680(This is one of ten reports on films at the 58th London Film Festival – other reports can be found on The Case for Global Film Blog)

It will be interesting to see how this film fares on release in India. The biggest hurdle to a successful release is likely to be the presentation of lesbian sex scenes featuring a Pakistani character. Writer-director Shonali Bose appears fairly relaxed about the prospect, counting on the audience to react sensibly. She may well be proved right since the Indian audience for the film is likely to be confined to middle-class urbanites. I hope it does go wider because it isn’t an art film. I also hope that it gets a significant release in international markets.

The title refers to the alcoholic drink of preference for the film’s central character Laila, a young woman from Delhi with cerebral palsy who is determined to experience everything life has to offer. Laila’s story is a very personal project for Shonali Bose who wrote the film soon after the accidental death of her son and chose to draw on the experiences of her cousin who has cerebral palsy. The film is co-produced by Viacom 18, Jakhatia Group, Bose’s own Ishant Talkies and ADAPT (the Indian agency ‘Able Disabled All People Together’).

The star performance in the film is by Kalki Koechlin as Laila. Shonali Bose was present at the screening in Islington and she answered the inevitable question about why she hadn’t cast someone with cerebral palsy to play the lead role. She explained that she had tried to find the right person but eventually decided that because of the emotional nature of several major scenes, she needed someone with extensive acting experience. Kalki Koechlin is mesmerising and That Girl In Yellow Boots proves that she can do things that many Bollywood stars would find impossible.

The plot sees Laila, a bright and talented young woman in a Delhi college become frustrated by both the academic and creative limitations she faces. In addition she is frustrated in attempts to develop her love life – she is an ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ girl who just happens to be in a wheelchair. Reluctantly her father agrees to her move to New York University on a scholarship. At first her mother accompanies her but soon she has teamed up with a more experienced blind Pakistani student and the two share an apartment. All goes well until the couple travel back to Delhi and several secrets are exposed.

Shonali Bose trained as a filmmaker at UCLA and this is her second film following Amu in 2005 with Konkona Sen Sharma. She spends her time between LA and Mumbai. Her first film was an international festival success but faced censorship in India (it refers to the 1984 attacks on Sikhs following the assassination of Indhira Gandhi). But whereas the first film was mainly in English, Margarita With a Straw switches between Hindi for most of the Delhi scenes and English in New York. Cast and crew are a mix of ‘international’ and Indian. The film is photographed by Anne Misawa, another Californian graduate (who also shot the Korean indie Treeless Mountain (South Korea-US 2008)). Mikey McLeary is a New Zealander working as a music composer out of Mumbai and sound design includes work by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty. Nilesh Maniyar is credited as co-writer and co-director though there is no indication of what this means in practice (he was at the Q&A in London). The cast includes Revathi (Asha Kutty) the experienced star of many Indian language cinemas and recently in 2 States (2014) as the Tamil mother. William Moseley is an English actor and the star of the first two Narnia films. Sayani Gupta, who plays the Pakistani young woman, is an FTII graduate and in 2012 she featured in a Bengali film Tasher Desh, part-produced by Anurag Kashyap Films. Perhaps she met Kalki Koechlin (Kashyap’s partner) at this point?

What all this adds up to I think is something rather more ‘international/global’ than Indian independent. Perhaps her two features place Shonali Bose alongside Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta as ‘diaspora filmmakers’? I enjoyed the film very much and found it very moving. I was slightly worried in the first section because the incident which partly triggers Laila’s ‘rebellion’ seemed such an obvious slight (Laila’s music group is given a prize seemingly because she is ‘disabled’). But of course such stupidity does happen. Laila, through the script and Koechlin’s performance, is a rounded human being – capable of being petty, mean and selfish as much as vivacious, loving and charming. If I have a criticism of the film it is that Laila’s acceptance by everyone she meets in the New York scenes seemed simply too good to be true. I expect that not all the bus drivers, waiters, taxi drivers and shopkeepers in New York are quite so cheery and helpful – they aren’t in London! Just a little grit and rejection would have helped, but this is a minor quibble. The film is a triumph and deserves to be widely seen. I should also mention the music since this is Laila’s unique talent – in the lyrics she writes and in the singing with her mother. The effect of this film is certainly ‘feelgood’ – but not in a contrived, artificial way. Instead we see somebody living their life and not allowing their own physical difficulties or anyone else’s preconceptions stand in their way. You can’t ask more than that in a story.

It looks like an Indian release is planned but I’m not sure if it has been picked up for North American or UK distribution yet. Variety reported in September that WIDE Sales have a deal for Japan in 2015 and that ‘two or three’ distributors are interested for North America and two for the UK. Having wowed audiences at Toronto, Busan and now London you hope that a distributor would get behind it.

Here’s the rather good ‘International Trailer’:

Hannah Arendt (Germany/Lux/France 2012)

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

I fear that I don’t have time to do this marvellous film justice, but I’ll do what I can. At the beginning of the film I found it a little difficult to engage with and I’ve seen criticism of the direction and performances. However, whatever the problem was, I overcame it quite quickly and became completely absorbed. It was only afterwards that I realised what a controversial film it has become. Although there have been the occasional gainsayers, most of the reviews have been very good and Barbara Sukowa gives one of the performances of the year.

Background (There are some spoilers here, but the film is largely based on historical record)

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a brilliant philosophy student in Germany in the 1920s and her PhD was supervised by Martin Heidegger. He eventually joined the Nazis but she was from a secular Jewish family and left Germany for France in 1933. In 1941 she fled France as well when the ’round-up’ of Jews began and landed in the US, eventually establishing herself as the first female university lecturer at Princeton in 1959. In the immediate postwar period she helped Zionist organisations to take Holocaust survivors to Palestine.

The film begins in 1960 when Israeli agents from Mossad captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and smuggled him to Jerusalem where a show trial was organised. Eichmann was one of the principal administrators of the transport of Jews to the gas chambers and the trial was an international event. Hannah was commissioned to write about the trial for the New Yorker magazine. Even before the trial her friends and colleagues were divided about whether and how she should cover it. By this time, Arendt described herself as a ‘political theorist’ – certainly she wasn’t a journalist and the New Yorker had to wait for the long articles that were published first in the magazine and then in book form as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963. Arendt’s arguments in her report proved highly controversial for three reasons. Firstly she criticised the whole basis of the trial, since it was an attempt to put an ideology on trial, but only a man was in the dock. Second, she descred Eichmann as a man who had ceased to behave like a thinking person – in his statements to the court he didn’t display anti-semitism as such and he claimed to be an efficient bureacrat. From this observation Arendt developed her ideas about the ‘banality of evil’. Third, she suggested that some Jewish leaders had, through their behaviour in responding to the Nazis in an orderly manner, indirectly contributed to the extent of the deaths in the Holocaust.

Commentary

The film is not a biopic as such. It focuses mainly on the events surrounding the arrest of Eichmann, the trial and its aftermath from 1960 to 1964. There are also two flashbacks to Hannah as a philosophy student (played by Freiderike Becht) and then to a second meeting with Martin Heidigger in Germany after the war. It is a film largely about ‘thinking’ – and the greatest compliment that could be paid to director and co-writer (with Pamela Katz) Margarethe von Trotta is that she makes long scenes of Hannah smoking and thinking supremely watchable. Margarethe von Trotta is the New German Cinema director who has struggled the most to get a decent film release in the UK. Some of her films have had pretty bad reviews but I’ve only seen the two releases which got some support, Das Versprechen (The Promise) from 1995 which I liked a great deal and Rosa Luxemburg from 1986 which I enjoyed, but can’t remember very well. Rosa Luxemburg was another great German Jewish figure, also portrayed by Barbara Sukowa. Margarethe von Trotta has been careful to avoid the tag of ‘woman’s film’ or ‘feminist director’ but it is worth noting that she works closely with other women as creatives and often features women as central characters in her narratives. Hannah Arendt was photographed by Caroline Champetier and edited by  Bettina Böhler.

One of the social gatherings at Hannah's New York apartment.

One of the social gatherings at Hannah’s New York apartment.

A few days after seeing the film I came across the concept of ‘prosthetic memory’ at the Chinese Film Forum (in conjunction with films about the Nanking Massacre in 1937). This suggests that film and other media can act as a kind of constructed historical memory coming between an individual and a historical event. I was profoundly moved by Hannah Arendt, partly through the excellence of the filmmaking and the performances but also because of my own personal memories. I was 11 when Eichmann was captured and I remember the furore surrounding the trial. I didn’t fully understand it at that age but I was aware of the issue and I think it was a defining moment re representations of the Holocaust (though I didn’t know that term at the time). But perhaps as important was the film’s use of costume and hairstyles etc. My mother was born the year after Hannah and she wore similar boxy suits in the early 1960s. The film brought back a lot of memories associated with that time. Margarethe von Trotta’s direction and Barbara Sukowa’s performance captures a thinking woman, but also a real emotional woman in a loving relationship and with a group of friends and supporters. I believed everything that Hannah said and I followed the arguments carefully – but I also responded to her as a recognisable woman. Her relationship with her husband (an interesting character in his own right as played by Axel Milberg) is also very well presented.

I must have missed the moment near the start of the film when Hannah’s American friend is introduced. She is played by Janet McTeer, a remarkable physical presence who defends Hannah like a mountain lion. It was only afterwards that I realised that this was Mary McCarthy whose novel The Group I read as a teenager. I hadn’t previously researched McCarthy’s interesting political background. The only disappointment for me was that Julia Jentsch has such a small role in the film as Hannah’s loyal assistant. She is one of the many German actors in the film which features both English and German dialogue.

Thinking and smoking . . .

Thinking and smoking . . . (photo: Véronique Kolber)

If Hannah Arendt sounds like a film filled with speech and long periods of solitary smoking, it is – but it’s also about ferocious arguments and it includes one of the most impassioned public lectures you are ever going to have the pleasure to watch. If you can find it in a cinema, go for it – I’m hoping we get it in Bradford in December.

Press pack to download.

Look at Me (Comme une image, France-Italy 2004)

Ettiene (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and his daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry)

Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and his daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry)

I’m looking again at some French ‘comedy’ films as part of work on Cherchez Hortense. In Comme une image, the partnership of Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri offers the same milieu as Cherchez Hortense with Bacri himself as a very different leading character.

Comme une image refers to Lolita, a self-conscious young woman, who is attempting to become a (classical singer). She feels herself to be overweight and unattractive and suffers low esteem because her father Étienne (Bacri), a successful publisher and writer, doesn’t give her much encouragement. (The title could also refer, in a different way, to the father who has a very high opinion of himself – and somehow persuades several others to look ‘up’ to him.) Lolita’s singing teacher Sylvia (Jaoui) is more understanding and through her partner Pierre, also a writer, she meets the publisher. Lolita has a boyfriend who turns out to be interested in her only as a means of getting an introduction to her father. Meanwhile she accidentally meets Sébastien, a young North African-French trainee journalist who she in turn treats badly, though he seems to genuinely care for her. Finally, Karine is Etienne’s new, young and pretty wife, with whom he has a small daughter, step-sister to Lolita. Karine also struggles to maintain her esteem in the face of Etienne’s sarcasm and cruel wit.

‘Comme une image’ is also the title of the novel written by Pierre who becomes drawn into Etienne’s circle. The narrative actually follows the creative projects of Lolita (to sing in a group performance), Pierre (to promote his current title and to start the next) and Etienne (to get over his writer’s block). The strains between the characters culminate in the singing concert at a country church and an after-show party hosted by Eitienne in his nearby country house. The brilliance of the film, directed by Jaoui and co-written by her and Bacri, is in its humanist/realist approach to dialogue and settings. Its conventional staging directs our attention to the swift interchange of lines that seem believable rather than scripted for effect. Bacri is extremely effective as Eitienne who sometimes seems genuinely surprised that others find him cold, cruel, unfeeling etc. and indeed he often speaks and acts in ways that most of us would probably want to emulate at certain times, but are too polite to actually carry through. But if Etienne is at times insufferable, even the most sympathetic character, Sylvia, is capable of anger towards someone else – hurting their feelings (even though she is arguably justified in venting her anger). Most of the characters are simply too weak to risk Etienne’s displeasure – feeling that his patronage will benefit them.

Agnes Jaoui on set (from the blog at http://jaouibacri.blogspot.co.uk/

Agnès Jaoui on set (from the blog at http://jaouibacri.blogspot.co.uk/

I’ve seen Woody Allen mentioned as a reference point for the Jaoui/Bacri films and I can see some resemblances but overall I find the differences more striking. Comme une image is intelligent and serious, yet somehow also light and entertaining. It never strikes me (as Allen’s films sometimes do) as ‘smart’, ‘knowing’ etc. with the expectation of a possible gag or self-conscious aside. (But this may be because I’ve given up on Woody Allen films for many years now.) When I first saw this film on its cinema release I don’t think I was aware of Jaoui’s background which is in part Tunisian-Jewish (the North African Jewish connection is also evident in the backgrounds of Claude Lelouch and Joann Sfar). I don’t recognise any connection to the New York Jewish humour of Woody Allen (I’m sure somebody can correct me on that) but in Comme une image, there is a nicely judged pair of scenes in which Sebastién’s North African heritage is commented on and sensitively ‘dealt with’ as an issue.

Comme une image is a ‘comedy’ because it has a happy ending for two of the main characters. Some of the dialogue is witty but mainly the humour comes from the human frailties displayed by all the characters. I’ve seen the film described as social satire, but I think that usually satire is sharper and more exaggerated. This has an effective satire effect but it is more subtle. I think that the film is a triumph for Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri. He is a very good actor and writer but she manages to sing and to direct as well. Formidable!

Here’s an American trailer (note that the film was a Cannes Prizewinner for the Script):

Wadjda (Saudi Arabia-Germany 2012)

Wadjda and the object of her desire

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) and the object of her desire. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

Undoubtedly one of the most important global films of the last twelve months, Wadjda is highly entertaining and very well-made but also raises a number of questions for film culture and film studies.

Viewed simply as a ‘festival film’ that has ‘broken out’ into wider distribution, Wadjda comes across as a familiar feelgood narrative utilising a neo-realist approach – i.e. taking a simple narrative premise familiar to audiences the world over and locating it in a recognisable ‘real world’ setting. The writer-director is also canny enough to pick up on the success of other recent films in terms of specific story elements. Wadjda is a ten (or possibly twelve) year-old girl who decides that the only way to compete with her neighbour Abdullah is to get hold of a bicycle and race him. Spotting a new bicycle being delivered to a local store in her neighbourhood in the Saudi capital Riyadh she quickly determines that she must somehow acquire the 800 ryals (about £140 or $215) to buy it. Although her family is relatively wealthy, problems between her parents means that they are unlikely to produce the money for her, so she ends up entering a ‘religious competition’ at school in the hope of winning the prize which would be just enough for the purchase. Even though she has no obvious interest in her religion she applies herself to learning to read and recite sura (chapters) of the Koran.

Any story about young people and bicycles has already got a headstart on the opposition. The bicycle offers that sense of freedom for a young person without the means to ride taxis (Riyadh being seemingly without public transport). There are few scenes in cinema as liberating as those featuring boys and girls on bicycles, whether they are Truffaut’s Les Mistons, the messenger in Beijing Bicycle or the Dardennes Brothers’ Kid With a Bike. Wadjda has the two essential ingredients to exploit the the story potential – a winning performance by Waad Mohammed as the girl and a talented creative team with a skilled crew to fully utilise the location and settings. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour then fills out the story with two main sub-plots that arguably act metaphorically to reveal the social conditions and opportunities that face Wadjda (and all other Saudi girls) in the future.

The first of the two sub-plots involves Wadjda’s mother Reema who was married as a schoolgirl but whose husband is now looking for a second wife because Reema is unable to provide him with a son. At the same time, Reema faces problems as a working woman (in a society where women are not supposed to drive cars or be ‘exposed’ to men outside the home). The second sub-plot involves Ms Mussa, the principal of the school, an attractive younger woman (just like Reema) who appears to be a hard disciplinarian with a softer interior and who at one point tells Wadjda that she reminds her of her younger self.

The combination of the three narratives is reminiscent of another film featuring a young woman and a bicycle – Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman (Iran 2000). The school/home axis also refers to the first half of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (France/US 2006). These are both films featuring girls and women growing up in Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran is not an Arab country but girls and women in Saudi Arabia face similar problems created by the restrictions of a highly conservative form of Islam. Herein lies the problem for Western film critics and scholars who have little exposure to the range of Arab film production. Popular Arab films from Egypt are not easily accessible. The films that do reach the West from Lebanon and Palestine often have different concerns with the effects of war and occupation often displacing the kinds of cultural issues central to Wadjda. Missing also is production coming from the affluent Gulf States where film culture in terms of consumption of mainly American movies in new multiplexes is growing quickly.

Director Haifaa Al Mansour  on the shoot with her crew. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

Director Haifaa Al Mansour on the shoot with her crew. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

The result is that a film like Wadjda is singled out and praised as the first Saudi feature film – and a notable film by an Arab woman. The film narrative is then examined primarily in terms of its resistance to the representation of women in Saudi Arabian society. My feeling is that this in fact misrepresents the film itself and the filmmaker – who carries ‘the burden of representation’, being expected to fulfil the role assigned to her by Western media. Wadjda is properly described as a global film. Ironically, its Saudi base is the media company Rotana, arguably the biggest media corporation in the Middle East, which is majority owned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal with an 18% stake held by News Corporation. Rotana is the biggest music company in the region and also produces television series for the Arab world. Reem Abdullah who plays the mother is a leading star of Saudi television. The film is officially a Saudi-German co-production. The department heads and the producers are from the German industry. Haifaa Al Mansour herself was born in Saudi Arabia but educated at the American University in Cairo and then completed a Masters in Film at the University of Sydney. She now lives in Bahrain. This background is important in placing the film’s production in context. It does mean that there is a contradiction between the image of the ‘guerilla filmmaker’ who had to hide from view as she directed scenes on the streets of Riyadh (so as not to offend religious sensibilities) and a production backed by one of the most powerful media interests in the region.

Wadjda's father on one of his irregular visits to the apartment plays a videogame – a family scenario familiar from scenes of middle-class homes in many countries

Wadjda’s father on one of his irregular visits to the apartment plays a videogame – a family scenario familiar from scenes of middle-class homes in many countries. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

Much of the coverage of the film’s appearance at festivals and now on release in the West focuses on the idea that this is the first film to be shot in Saudi Arabia. The fact that it was directed by a woman is then taken to be even more astounding. My point here is not intended as an attempt to downgrade the achievement of the director, but instead to expose the rather simplistic view of film and TV in the region as taken by many in the West. I’m not sure if the film is genuinely a ‘first’. I’ve seen claims that as many as 300 films have been identified in some way with Saudi Arabia and in his useful Guardian piece, Phil Hoad cites two recent examples. Since the 1980s cinemas have been banned in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but they existed for a shortish period before the 1980s and cinema is accessible via satellite and DVD in homes – or over the border in the Emirates or Qatar. In 2009 Rotana did manage to screen one of their films in several Saudi cities. Does it really matter where the film is shot, who financed it or whether it is a co-production? The important point, as Hoad insists, is for Arab filmmakers generally and Saudis in particular, to create stories about themselves and to circulate them so that they can contribute to the creation of identities for Arabs and by Arabs – rather than through a lens controlled by Hollywood studios or constructed by Western critics.

Wadjda learning how to read and recite from the Koran

Wadjda learning how to read and recite from the Koran

Mother and daughter together on the roof terrace

Mother and daughter together on the roof terrace. Photo by Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film

Haifaa Al Mansour has created an entertaining and engaging story which contributes towards the ongoing debate about how women can gain more control over their lives under a regime informed by conservative religious interests. In this sense, the film is similar to those family melodramas that have delved into the changing mores of societies in Asia as well as Europe and the Americas. Here’s the director in the Press Notes commenting on the gender representations:

“Maybe it is a women‘s film! But I really didn‘t intend it that way. I wanted to make a film about things I know and experienced. A story that spoke to my experiences, but also to average Saudis. It was important for me that the male characters in the film were not portrayed just as simple stereotypes or villains. Both the men and the women in the film are in the same boat, both pressured by the system to act and behave in certain ways, and then forced to deal with the system’s consequences for whatever action they take. I do really like the scenes of the mother and the daughter together, and I think that a lot of love and emotion comes through in their relationship, when they are cooking or singing together, there is something very beautiful about it.”

This is certainly how I read the film. The performances are very good and the narrative is very accessible. I hope it gets the wider audiences it deserves. In the UK it is still showing in some cinemas and will appear on DVD in January 2014. Here’s an extract on the Doha Film Institute site:

http://www.dohafilminstitute.com/videos/wadjda-trailer#ooid=oweHNrNzqXY-QlWF1lucf7LkTMgzcY-l

And here are some useful links:

http://auteusetheory.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/wadjda-haifaa-al-mansour-2013.html

http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2013/jul/14/haifaa-mansour-wadjda-saudi-arabia

http://www.sbs.com.au/films/movie-news/907541/wadjda-haifaa-al-mansour-interview

http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-wadjda

http://www.arabnews.com/news/455973

London Indian Film Festival #1: Josh (Against the Grain, Pakistan-US 2012)

Josh

Josh is the first of three screenings of films from the 2013 London Indian Film Festival to be shown ‘on tour’ at the National Media Museum in Bradford and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Screening at 6pm during Ramadan is possibly not a real test of its popular appeal and the local Urdu-speaking audience was not in evidence. For audiences more used to popular Punjabi comedies at the local multiplexes the film may not have appealed even without the difficulties created by religious observance. Josh has been described as a ‘social drama’ and that is a reasonable description of a narrative that takes in class differences, feudalism, violence by the rich towards the poor, the empowerment of women and the youth movement in Pakistani politics. ‘Popular’ themes like the relationship problems of young men and women are included somewhat lower down the priority list.

JOSH

Iram Parveen Bilal on set in Pakistan

Writer-director Iram Parveen Bilal is an American-trained filmmaker (ten years in the US) who returned to Pakistan to make this film based on important local news stories about women as both victims and forceful agents of change. One of the problems about discussing the film is that the Pakistani film industry is still in the early stages of recovery from long-term decline. My local Bradford contact, with direct experience of Pakistani film and television culture, explained to me that in her view cinema was still not really respectable amongst the Pakistani upper middle classes. Television with its long-form narratives is still dominant. This perhaps explains the presence of several women as directors in a Pakistani film industry that is not fully ‘institutionalised’ – and why the lead role in this film is played by one of the big stars of Pakistani TV, Aamina Sheikh.

Fatima (approaching from the background) and a local street artist

Fatima (approaching from the background) and a local street artist

The plot outline of Josh sees Fatima (Aamina Sheikh) as a wealthy young woman in Karachi, still living at home with her widowed father, a leading lawyer. Fatima is a teacher in an English-medium secondary school. She hasn’t married, but has a boyfriend Adil, an aspiring artist who may be about to leave for America. She has friends in the Westernised milieu of upper middle class Karachi and is introduced to Uzair, a rising politician representing the Pakistan Youth Party. Uzair is played by Aamina Sheikh’s real-life husband Mohib Mirza (also a well-known actor in Pakistan). The equilibrium of Fatima’s comfortable life is disrupted by the disappearance of her ex-nanny Nusrat, a woman who has been heavily involved in trying to alleviate the suffering of her home village community outside Karachi. When Fatima discovers what has happened to Nusrat (who she considers her ‘second mother’), she finds herself in conflict with the village landlord and his group of armed thugs. Who will help Fatima – her father,  Adil or Uzair or her other friends? Can the villagers help themselves in their struggle?

This bald outline of the plot connects Josh to Hindi social films and Indian parallel cinema. It isn’t a ‘popular film’ in the Indian sense. Although there is some use of music that might correspond to contemporary Bollywood (i.e. in a montage sequence as might be found in independent Indian films), on the whole the music is used more in a Western mode – and there are no dance sequences. In fact I was a little disappointed in the music soundtrack, a mixture of Pakistani songs and Western film scoring. Despite the presence of Pakistani star names, the film has a low budget feel. The image was soft (and appeared to be projected from a DVD or Blu-ray disc) but more of a giveaway was the uneven sound recording. In one scene involving a conversation between two people, the background sound was completely different for each of the speakers in the same location. A quick glance online reveals that Bilal as producer-director had great difficulty getting financial support together and that the film’s completion was dependent on funds from Netflix administered through The Women in Film Foundation.

Given Ms Bilal’s difficulties in raising funds – and the important nature of her social issues-based themes – I’m a little reluctant to criticise the film. I will say that I was engaged throughout and the emotion of at least one scene brought me to tears. On the downside, I didn’t enjoy some of the montages that used ‘flash editing’ – sequences comprising shots only a few frames long, producing a kind of strobe effect. I could work out what they were supposed to mean but they still irritated. Equally, I was dismayed when I learned after the screening that the lead actors were married when they created so little erotic energy on screen. The rest of the cast seemed much more ‘authentic’ – perhaps there is a clash of acting styles? Overall, I think that the film tries to do too much and in doing so loses some of its potential to move the audience.

In trying to categorise/classify the film it is worth considering Ms Bilal as a diaspora filmmaker. The film’s narrative makes only limited references to studying/working abroad, themes common to some of Mira Nair’s films (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding etc.) but there are aspects of the film that suggest American style filmmaking and several of the key technical staff work mainly in the US. It seems unfair to compare a young filmmaker with established names such as Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta – and anyway the context of filmmaking in the sub-continent has changed markedly since those directors made their first Indian films back in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. Thinking about the national identity of the film also means that a more appropriate reference point might be a Pakistani diaspora director such as Jamil Dehlavi (Jinnah 1998). We might ask why the London Indian Film Festival decided to include a Pakistani film for the first time. Personally, I’m glad they did because I got a chance to see it. A release in both India and Pakistan has been announced for the Eid festival period. I fear for the film’s reception in India and I’m not sure what to expect when it is seen in Pakistan. It has however been a festival success, first at Mumbai in October 2012 and then at various other festivals.

Iram Parveen Bilal is clearly a talent to watch and there are various ways in which to explore her background. She has a website here. The official website for the film lists many of the positive reviews. Here is the trailer from the London Indian Film Festival:

And here is a set of interviews with the filmmakers. Bilal herself describes the film as a ‘mystery thriller’:

The social issues that the film tackles are very important and the current coverage of the campaign led by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who refused to be silenced by the Taliban emphasises the auspicious timing of the film’s release. Josh didn’t start out as a feature film and it will be interesting to see if by presenting the social debates in this way they get wider coverage and more attention. Despite its flaws, it would be good if it attracted audiences in the sub-continent and in the UK. 

Stories We Tell (Canada 2012)

Sarah Polley (right) with cinematographer Iris Ng. Image from National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

Sarah Polley (right) with cinematographer Iris Ng. Image from National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

I was very much looking forward to Sarah Polley’s film. I hoped that I would enjoy it and I did – very much. This is a wonderful film in many different ways. A great deal has been written about the film and so I’m wary of spoilers. Having said that I found that the ‘twist’ in the final frames that I’d heard about didn’t seem very surprising after what had gone before. It’s very difficult to say anything about the film’s formal qualities and its overall approach without a SPOILER about how scenes are presented. So if you want to see the film ‘unprepared’, read no further until you’ve seen it all the way through.

At one point in the film Sarah Polley is interviewing her brother and he suddenly stops and says “what is this film about?” (in that Toronto accent that I can’t work out how to write down). Polley hesitates for a moment and then says that it is about many things – and indeed it is. It’s produced by the National Film Board of Canada, famous for the quality and range of its documentary projects. This ‘project’ started in 2007/8 and has had a long time in preparation, shooting and editing during which time Sarah Polley an actress and filmmaker best known for fiction material joined a documentary filmmakers ‘lab’ and was mentored by, amongst others, Wim Wenders.

Ostensibly Polley’s film is a story about the Polley family from roughly 1967 to the present day. It begins as a story told by Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, literally by him reading a narration, presumably based on his own memoir, in a recording studio under his daughter’s watchful eye (and being asked to repeat lines – she’s a perfectionist). But gradually a cast of characters appears, commenting on aspects of the story and in particular on their memories of the only missing family member, Sarah’s mother Diane who died when Sarah was only 11. Eventually too, the story will change its focus to become not just an investigation of the mystery of who Diane was and what she did, but also the truth behind a long-standing family joke that Sarah doesn’t resemble her father.

It did occur to me at one point that this was at least associated with a Rashomon type of narrative – the same story as seen by different witnesses. As similar questions are asked of a group of interviewees, they give similar and sometimes one-word answers. Polley cuts them together in a staccato montage – just as one of the interviewees predicted she would. Now if all the answers to all the questions were the same it wouldn’t be at all like Rashomon, but in fact they do differ slightly at first and then much more as the narrative develops. This is sophisticated filmmaking.

Sarah Polley with the Super 8 camera in one of the interview locations (love the cat).

Sarah Polley with the Super 8 camera in one of the interview locations (love the cat).

At the beginning of the film, Polley ‘exposes’ the artificiality of the interview process. We see the cameras, lights, microphones etc. and hear the embarrassed asides of some of the interviewees. But in the closing sequences of the film, when Polley returns to showing some of these distancing devices, we realise that the layers of meaning and the artifice of constructed documentary realism is much more subtle than we had imagined. We know now that one of the things the film is ‘about’ is documentary itself as a narrative form. The most obvious instance of this – which has certainly ‘shocked’/puzzled audiences – is that Polley has interwoven ‘real’ home movie Super 8 footage of the Polley family with ‘staged’ scenes similarly shot on Super 8 in which actors play the principal ‘characters’ in important scenes set back in the 1970s and 80s. The actors are very carefully chosen and no indication is given as to which footage is ‘real’ and which is ‘reconstructed’. Added to this are further sequences taken from other film archives (Sarah’s parents were well-known Canadian actors and they appear in some of these clips) and footage taken by Polley herself on Super 8  – we actually see her with a camera on a few occasions. Sometimes she cuts between these different sources of digital film and Super 8, showing the same scene in the different formats. The producer Anita Lee tells us in the Press Pack that: “the Super 8 film format is loaded. It already comes with this notion of nostalgia and the past. It’s a medium of a certain time. We associate Super 8 with home movies lost in basements, and we literally searched through people’s basements for the right Super 8 camera”.

The reception of the film is interesting. I suspect it is slightly different in Canada where Sarah Polley is a leading figure in the Canadian film and TV industry, but in the US and here in the UK, while the majority of critics have lauded the film, a minority have seemed to find it slight or indulgent or just not interesting. I can only think that they just haven’t seen things in the film or that they don’t have any interest in families or memories or ‘truth’ – fundamental I would have thought to our existence.

Sarah and Michael Polley in a family photo

Sarah and Michael Polley in a family photo

The film opens with a quote from Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace (which Polley is set to adapt) and soon after, Michael Polley quotes Pablo Neruda “Love is so short, forgetting is so long”. Polley skilfully pulls at the different skeins of wool in the ball to reveal the complexity of memories and viewpoints and indeed who it is who is trying to exert control over the narrative. Contrary to the reviewer who moaned that the film is too long, I immediately wanted to watch it all over again. On a second and third viewing I think I will learn even more about how the different viewpoints are developed. Polley is fortunate that her siblings and her ‘fathers’ are highly articulate and also, for me at least, very engaging characters. This is certainly one of my films of the year. Please go and see it, and if you haven’t already, do try and catch up with Take This Waltz (2011) and Away From Her (2006), her fiction features which apply the same intensity to family relationships but as comedy-drama and melodrama. Stories We Tell confirms Sarah Polley’s talent as a filmmaker and also marks a triumph for the National Film Board.

Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002) – Narrative, Genre and Representation

Jess is surrounded by her teammates when it looks like she will be unable to play.

Jess (Parminder Nagra) is surrounded by her teammates when it looks like she will be unable to play.

This is one of our occasional archive publications of notes on specific films for film and media studies students. These notes were originally published in 2004.

Introduction
Bend It Like Beckham (BILB) is in many ways an excellent case study for British film, in terms of both ‘industry’ and ‘culture’. The release of the film in the UK in 2002, during the run-up to the football World Cup (at a time when David Beckham’s injury was front page news), represented something of a gamble for the distributor Helkon, with a wide release on over 380 prints – the kind of release usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. The gamble paid off so well that the film became the most successful ‘non-Hollywood’ British film of the modern era with a UK box office of over £11 million. The ‘universality’ of the central theme then went on to win large audiences in North America where the ‘Beckham factor’ was (then) of little importance. An American box office of $32 million and healthy returns in Australia, India, France, Italy and Germany guaranteed that director Gurinder Chadha would have carte blanche for her next project. Keira Knightley, the second lead in the film also become ‘hot property’ with subsequent starring roles in major American films. (Parminder Nagra had success on US TV, but nothing like that of Knightley.)

The success of the film was also associated with the way in which it presented aspects of British Asian life in accessible ways for a mainstream audience – attracting little or no controversy in the process (cf East is East, 1999). These notes will discuss the film in terms of narrative, genre and representation and also raise questions about contemporary British Cinema.

SynopsisSPOILERS (These notes discuss the film’s narrative in detail, so this is a full synopsis)

Jess Bhamra is an 18 year-old school-leaver who dreams about football and being able to ‘bend’ a ball like David Beckham. Her mother expects Jess to follow tradition in their Punjabi Sikh family and prepare for marriage, like older sister Pinky (but only after she has got a degree). One day in the local park, Jess is spotted playing football by Jules who is a member of the Hounslow Harriers women’s football team. She invites Jess to watch the team play and persuades the coach, Joe, to give Jess a trial. Jess is accepted but she decides to keep her new activity secret from her family. Mother finds out and tries to stop her, but Jules persuades her to carry on (being similarly under pressure from her own mother, who worries that Jules is too ‘tomboyish’). Preparations for Pinky’s wedding are in full swing, but Jess uses her clothes budget to buy new football boots – angering her parents. Jules gives her some suitable shoes but the two are seen by Pinky’s future parents, who thinking Jules is a boy, declare that Jess brings shame on the family and they call off the wedding. Jess is banned from football. Joe visits the family to plead her case. He fails, but Jess is determined to carry on and secretly joins the team on a trip to Germany where Jules sees for the first time that Jess and Joe are attracted to each other.

Mr Bhamra has worked out what is happening and meets the team on their return. He despairs of Jess and Pinky. Meanwhile, Jules falls out with Jess. Mrs Paxton overhears the row, convinced it is a lovers’ tiff. Jess confides in her cousin Tony and discovers that he is gay – but his family don’t know. Jess is playing in a game when her father sneaks in to watch. Jess is pumped up and gets sent off. Father discovers Joe comforting Jess. When they return home, Teetu’s family have come to rescue the marriage. The new wedding date clashes with the final of the football competition. Jess gets her A Level results, but Jules is looking forward to the American scout seeing her play.

On the day of the wedding, Father relents because Jess looks so unhappy and he allows her to leave the reception to play. Jess scores the winning goal – ‘bending it’. Jules and her mother arrive at the wedding and cause a scene because Mother sees Jules kiss Jess. At Jess’ house Tony tries to help Jess by telling the family that they are getting married. But Jess wants the truth – she announces that she has won the scholarship in America and her father says she can go. Jess goes to see Joe – she tells him she can’t start a relationship, but she offers hope. David Beckham is glimpsed in the airport as the girls fly off.

Gurinder Chadha
Gurinder Chadha was born in Kenya, but brought up in the UK, in Southall, West London. She first came to attention as a features director in 1993 with the release of Bhaji on the Beach, a social comedy which followed a group of Asian women on a day trip to Blackpool. In the best traditions of the genre, the narrative of this film provided the opportunity for women of different ages to exchange ideas about men and their own lives. The Blackpool setting also allowed some comic moments of culture clash. Overall, however, the film offered a serious discourse about the issues facing Asian women in Britain and it found an appreciative audience, despite restricted distribution.

“You have tradition on the one side and modernity on the other, Indianness on the one side, Englishness on the other, cultural specificity and universality – but in fact there is a scale between each of these polarities and the film moves freely between them.” (Gurinder Chadha quoted on www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/502103/)

In 2000, a second feature, What’s Cooking? moved Chadha to Los Angeles and a multi-strand narrative about four families from different ethnic backgrounds experiencing familiar domestic problems which are brought into focus by the pressures of Thanksgiving Dinner. Again more of a critical than a commercial success, What’s Cooking confirmed Chadha’s skills as a filmmaker and her ability to explore cultural diversity without emphasis on cultural difference.

Recipe for Success

It’s difficult to escape from culinary puns in describing Gurinder Chadha’s work and Bend it Like Beckham was presented with the tagline “Who wants to cook aloo gobi when you can bend a ball like Beckham?”. Much of the success of the film derives from perfect timing in combining an interest in football and celebrity, at a time when ‘Beckham mania’ was beginning to peak in the UK, with the increasing popularity of Indian culture and all things ‘Bollywood’. A further significant factor in easy recognition in the UK was the success of the television series Playing the Field (1998-2002) created by Kay Mellor. This series had already introduced the idea of women’s football as an interesting site for dramatic narratives. Although the series generally concentrated on older women players, it was important in appealing to a female audience, especially an older audience, notoriously difficult to attract to cinema features.

Overall, BILB can be seen as a British ‘feelgood’ film which appealed to audiences much in the same way as The Full Monty (1997) and Billy Elliot (2000). It differed in being ‘Southern’ rather than ‘Northern’ and female-centred rather than male-centred. It is also ‘feelgood’ in a British Asian context. The more affluent Punjabi/East African Sikh family setting also distinguishes the film from the other major British Asian comedy success, East is East (which like the other two examples represented Northern working class life). For the British film industry, the most important difference between BILB and the other films mentioned here is that it was made and distributed without Hollywood studio money. The rather complicated financial arrangements saw the lead taken by the German media group, Helkon AG which set up a distribution arm in the UK, eventually taking a 51% stake in the UK ‘start-up’ company, Redbus (which itself had hired staff from the disbanded Polygram distribution arm in the UK). Helkon has since gone into bankruptcy in Germany, but Redbus survived (and was sold to Lionsgate in 2005). German and British money went into BILB, but essentially it is a ‘British’ film.

It is worth noting that BILB breaks many of the ‘rules’ that low budget British films being ‘groomed’ for feelgood success are normally expected to follow. The film is arguably too long for its subject matter at 112 mins (80-95 mins. is the norm for a film of this kind in the UK). It does not boast either the ‘star’ cameo performance of a Julie Walters in Billy Elliot (Juliet Stevenson could be argued to fill this role, but her star status was less established) or the leading role recognition of Robert Carlyle in The Full Monty. Similarly, the film lacks the range of familiar ‘character actors’ and the ‘gritty’ social realism of films like Brassed Off (1996).

BILB is in many ways a youth picture, but one more in the mould of a Hollywood ‘teen picture’ rather than a British ‘social problem’ film. (Youth pictures in the UK have often concentrated on the problems associated with young people – drugs, delinquency etc. – rather than on their aspirations.) Youth pictures, by their very nature feature tend to feature younger, lesser known actors. They also tend to feature popular music and this is certainly the case with BILB which not only sports an extensive range of music clips, but also uses them in a series of montage sequences, often associated with football training and action from featured games. The reliance on these montage sequences is perhaps the defining stylistic feature of the film. (The film is in the main very conventional in terms of aesthetics. It is filmed on location with studio inserts for the Bhamra home. Apart from a couple of crane shots and extensive steadicam work on the football field, camerawork is not particularly expressive.)

Narrative

The central idea of BILB is the linking of two ‘conflict narratives’ – effectively doubling the narrative potential. The first narrative concerns the attempts of Jess (Jasminder, played by Parminder Nagra) to live her life ‘independently’, according to her own interests rather than those expected of her by other family members, and especially by her mother. The second narrative concerns the possibility of women’s football as the basis for a successful career (i.e. rather than as a recreational activity) – something which is extremely difficult in a British context.

A different way to present this ‘double’ would be to assess the problems or barriers facing Jess. She wants to be a footballer, but not only is she a woman, but she is an Asian woman. Note that the image of ‘Asian woman footballer’ has to contend not only with the concept of a young woman challenging traditional roles for women in British Asian families, but also the almost complete absence of Asian role models in professional British football. In this sense, the narrative of BILB is set up like a traditional Hollywood ‘quest narrative’. Jess might as well be tackling dragons and wizards, so fantastical does the challenge sound.

The other characters in the film are all developed in relation to Jess’ quest. Jules, played by Keira Knightley, at first appears to have so many advantages in her parallel quest for football success – not least her greater experience and her height and athleticism. But Jules has to contend with her mother and her fears about lesbianism. Mrs Paxton provides a kind of counter-balance to the similar negative feelings of Jess’ mother.

It is noticeable that in contrast to other British Asian films (My Beautiful Laundrette, East is East, My Son the Fanatic) – all of which feature British Muslim families – the main dramatic focus is on the mother figure. This does not mean that father does not have an important role, only that the opposition to Jess comes mainly from her mother. Interestingly, it is only via the father and his memories of playing cricket in Kenya that the film makes direct reference to forms of institutional racism. Father is a patriarchal figure in this Sikh family, but he is also prepared to be flexible in dealing with his daughter.

The other characters in the film have similar personal battles that contrast with those facing Jess and to some extent provide other dimensions to her struggle. Sister Pinky offers a stereotype of a young British Asian woman who can be both ‘modern’ (in dress and appearance and in attitudes towards sex with her boyfriend) and ‘traditional’ in the way she accepts that she must marry according to the customs of her community.

Tony carries a secret that he cannot reveal to anyone other than his cousin, Jess. His gayness is even more unacceptable to the family. Joe carries several burdens – he is estranged from his father, has had to give up his career as a player and is unsure about his future as a coach. In dramatic terms, both Tony and Joe are seen as supportive of Jess – almost as if they sympathise with her position or because they want to see her succeed where they can’t. The male power in the film lies with Mr Bhamra and it is because he is understanding that a resolution is possible.

The two narratives come together in the final act with the crosscutting between the wedding and the football final.

Representation

The representation issues in the film clearly relate to gender and ethnicity. Less obvious are the questions about social class, which are raised less by the film itself and more by audiences attempting to read the film. BILB is essentially a (young) woman’s film. Gurinder Chadha herself has said that she got the idea for the film after watching the reactions to England’s failure in the 1996 European Nations Cup. She was intrigued by the prospect of putting an Indian girl into the ‘testosterone-fuelled’ world of British football. At the centre of the film is the mother-daughter relationship in the Bhamra household. The similar relationship in the Paxton household emphasises this relationship. For Jess, the alternatives seem to be the life as mapped out for Pinky or the camaraderie of her teammates.

Shaheen Khan as Mrs Bhamra, playing older than herself and representing a woman of her own mother's generation.

Shaheen Khan as Mrs Bhamra, playing older than herself and representing a woman of her own mother’s generation.

Chadha has also stated that many of the lines of dialogue attributed to the two mothers came from her own experience – listening to her own mother and the mothers of her (white) friends. She suggests too, that young British Asian women went back to see the film for a second or third time, just to hear how Jess’ mother berates her. (Comments taken from the DVD commentary.) Here we have confirmation of one of Richard Dyer’s arguments about representation. Gurinder Chadha as writer/director ‘speaks’ in the film. Hers is the authentic voice of a woman brought up in an Asian family in Britain. This is further emphasised by actors playing older than their real ages (Shaheen Khan as Mrs. Bhamra and Harvey Girdi as Teetu’s Mum) – effectively playing their own mothers. How audiences read these scenes depends very much on how ‘real’ they take the situations to be. (It might be argued that while the plot is formulaic, with its expected actions and its repetitions, the confrontations themselves ring true.)

The contrast between Jess and Pinky is expressed in a number of ways. Dress and appearance are important, but casting and acting style contribute as well. As Pinky, Archie Panjabi has to suggest the modern/traditional contradiction of a particular kind of Southall girl. Parminder Nagra was 27 when she played Jess as an 18 year-old and she has an uncanny ability to look even younger at times – to be almost childlike. But in some of the later scenes with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, with her hair down, she looks much older (older than him in fact). This switching suits her character which is innocent and direct, but also capable of maturity. In this respect she represents authenticity – Pinky seems a much less mature woman. Other issues surround Pinky’s behaviour. She hasn’t gone to college which might affect her ‘marriageability’ and she has also slept with Teetu, another mark against her in the marriage stakes for a traditional community. Yet, she does love Teetu and she wants to marry him for love, not just because the families approve. So there is an ‘authenticity’ about her behaviour.

The running joke about food also becomes part of the discourse about gender and ethnicity. In the famous line that developed into the tagline for the film’s poster campaign, “Anyone can make aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”, Gurinder Chadha is again making a reference to her own childhood and the traditional view that a young girl must be taught by her mother how to make a ‘full North Indian meal’. The DVD commentary is again interesting on this point and provides an explanation for the scar on Jess’ leg. The explanation in the film is that this is the result of an accident when she was heating up baked beans as a child and her trousers caught fire. Gurinder Chadha tells us that this is what really happened to Parminder Nagra.

Ethnicity

BILB is a film in which, although ‘ethnic difference’ is several times the basis for comedy or dramatic effect, it is almost never a ‘problem’. The film is set firmly within the community that has produced both the filmmaker and the story. Gurinder Chadha is completely ‘at home’ and the narrative is infused with her love and affection for her family. There are only two moments in the film where racism becomes an issue.

One is when Mr Bhamra recalls his own treatment as a cricketer from Nairobi who is excluded from a local club in England. He goes on (with complete justification) to point out to Joe that there are no British Asian players in the Premiership. “They won’t let our boys in, so what hope is there for Jess?” Jess responds by saying that Nasser Hussein became the England cricket captain. The argument ends, but in the credit sequence at the end of the film, we see Joe bowling to Mr Bhamra on the green outside the Bhamra house, with all the players properly dressed in cricketing whites. (The same experience is also used in the closing scenes to explain why Mr Bhamra let his daughter play in the final – he wants her to make decisions in which she wins and doesn’t regret.)

Mr Bhamra (played by Hindi cinema star actor Anupam Kher) backs Jess partly because of his own frustrations over institutional racism that stopped him playing cricket.

Mr Bhamra (played by Hindi cinema star actor Anupam Kher) backs Jess partly because of his own frustrations over institutional racism that stopped him playing cricket.

The second moment of potential conflict over racism comes when Jess is sent off in the match watched by her father. After the game, Joe berates her. She tells him that he wouldn’t understand, because the opposing player had called her a ‘Paki’ and that is what caused the incident. Joe responds with “Of course I understand. I’m Irish.”

It could be argued that in both these instances, the reference to racism in UK society ‘works’ in a narrative sense, especially in the case of the father’s actions. However, it could be argued that both offer a fairly rosy view of UK life from within an established and confident community. Racism in UK sport is still very much a ‘live issue’ and the different experience of immigrant groups in the UK is not to be discounted. These representations also become problematic for audiences in other territories (see comments below on social class).

Social class

Issues of social class remain a problem for UK filmmakers. Despite the protestations of politicians about the creation of a ‘classless society’, most British films are read by audiences in class terms. In other words, audiences make sense of what happens on screen because of their own knowledge of the nuances of social behaviour and they choose the films they want to watch, partly at least, on the basis of what they assume to be the audience address of the film. So, for example, films such as Notting Hill (UK 1999) or Love Actually (UK 2003), written by Richard Curtis are perceived as ‘middle class films’. In the most extreme recent example, most (middle class) UK film reviewers fell upon the comedy Sex Lives of the Potato Men, which they identified as a ‘working class film’.

Many of these differences are difficult for overseas audiences to follow. This is important because most British films need overseas sales to make significant profits. Successful films abroad have tended to celebrate a certain (arguably nostalgic and certainly ‘realist’) view of working class communities in the North of England or selected areas of London. Alternatively, they have attempted to promote a generally affluent England (i.e the South East) with as few local ‘quirks’ as possible. BILB falls some where between the two. It is set in a definable and recognisable place – the borders of Southall, Heston and Hounslow, west of London. The houses where the two lead characters live are ‘semi detached’ and suburban. The Bhamra house looks out onto an attractive green or common. Location, and especially housing, have always been key indicators of class in Britain.

Given the high cost of housing in contemporary London, these houses scream ‘middle class’, especially to audiences outside the capital. Yet, the narrative information suggests that the Paxton family is to be read as ‘nouveau riche’ ( a view supported by the DVD commentary). Social class in the UK is judged not by money, but by education, taste, ‘lifestyle’ etc. The gauche behaviour of Mrs Paxton (plus her accent, dress etc.) are crucial. The Bhamra family is rather different. In East Africa the family would have been relatively wealthy. On arrival in the UK, they would have had to rebuild their lives – thus the early struggle and the need to work overtime etc. Because of the extended family system and the family work ethic, as well as other factors, many such Punjabi and Gujurati families have been able to achieve material success in the UK relatively quickly. The development is emphasised in BILB by the fact that Jess is qualified to enter university, unlike her older sister. Mr Bhamra’s uniform suggests that he has progressed in his Heathrow job, although precisely what he does is not clear. Note also that he reads the Guardian – a sure sign that he associates himself with a liberal middle class. It isn’t possible to pigeonhole the Bhamras. ‘Lower middle class’ might be the best description. What is important is that the film goes to some lengths to avoid the possibility that audiences will make an automatic assumption about social class and ethnicity. In this respect a comparison with My Son the Fanatic (UK 1998) is useful. In this contemporary melodrama, the Bradford setting for a taxi driver’s family suggests a more traditional Northern working class community in which a second generation Muslim youth is growing up (although again this film shows different experiences within the Muslim community).

The confusions in BILB for North American audiences are neatly summed up in these two quotes from review articles:

What sets Bend It Like Beckham apart, however, is that director Gurinder Chadha exposes the social and historical context that drives this personal story. In a brilliant scene not central to the plot, Chadha subtly draws attention to Jess’ class background when she reveals a gruesome burn that she suffered as a young girl fixing her own dinner while her mother worked the night shift at London’s Heathrow Airport. Chadha is equally skillful in revealing the racist white English culture that keeps the girl’s parents, despite their rise from their working class immigrant roots into the middle class, in a space of cultural seclusion.

It is a theme to which many Asian Americans can surely relate. Perhaps it was easier for Asian American college students to buy into the hype of Better Luck Tomorrow (US 2002) because of that film’s middle class ennui in contrast with the immigrant politics of Bend It Like Beckham. (from: ‘Better Buzz Tomorrow’, Anmol Chaddha, 6/5/03 on Alternet.org)

and . . .

In promoting Bend It Like Beckham, Chadha implores, “the film celebrates the processes of cultural change, the experience of living in a diverse environment from one generation to another and not only the difficulties involved but also the pleasures in becoming more integrated.” Yet surely the film shows that whites next door to a south-east Indian wedding celebration can continue to live in blissful ignorance of the party going on next door. Where interracial alliances are shown, we find the new lower middle class in England comprising well-educated visible minorities reading the Guardian alongside the Del-boys (or Boycies) made good – white English (who are impressed by the respect for elders in ‘exotic’ cultures) or Irish (who are allowed to – absurdly – explain that they understand what being called a ‘Paki’ means) individualists from working class backgrounds. (Daniel McNeil, University of Toronto, in The Multiracial Activist, April/May 2003)

The first of these quotes is from an Asian American, praising BILB in comparison with a recently released Asian American film. The second is a Canadian postgraduate student who clearly knows British culture very well. Taken together (and putting aside understandable American confusion with class boundaries in the UK), the comments are reminiscent of those in the debates that surrounded The Cosby Show on US (and UK) TV in the 1980s. Bill Cosby was at the time, the highest paid performer on US television and he produced his own show which a middle class African American doctor and his beautiful and talented family in a sitcom. Black audiences were divided between those who enjoyed the assertion of family values and saw the show as ‘aspirational’ and others who were concerned that it was not representative of the lives of most African Americans at the time. Similar feelings were expressed in the UK.

Jess and Pinky (Archie Panjabi) represent nuanced differences in second generation British Asians – but the wedding is a possible shared experience if it wasn't for football.

Jess and Pinky (Archie Panjabi) represent nuanced differences in second generation British Asians – but the wedding is a possible shared experience if it wasn’t for football.

The main ways in which the film represents Punjabi identity is through the narrative leading up to the wedding. The sights (and sounds) of the wedding party in the Shepherd’s Bush gudwara seem very familiar to any filmgoer with more than a nodding acquaintance with Indian Cinema. Even those British arthouse audiences who would not normally see a Bollywood film, would have enjoyed a similar spectacle in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). Crucially what the wedding celebrations emphasise is the confidence of the Punjabi community in a set of traditions that are at the same time able to refer to a rural past and to embrace a modern future. The wedding is just as ‘at home’ in Southall as in New Delhi. Because of partition in 1947, Punjabis are scattered around the globe, but family and religious celebrations keep the community together. The wedding and the references to food and music (see below) are part of what has been argued to be cultural diversity rather than cultural difference. The community celebrates in a traditional way, but is also happy to participate directly in the culture of the ‘majority’ or ‘host’ community. The images of Southall Broadway – a ‘real’ London high street with national chainstores and Asian grocers side by side – at the beginning of the film represent the sense of a hybridising of UK culture. Punjabi culture contributes to and draws from a new culture which mixes traditions. (Difference still exists in the lack of comprehension shown by both white and Asian characters towards the behaviour of others, but mostly this is a factor in older generations, not the second generation characters like Jess and Tony.)

Music

Music is essential in BILB, not just to provide ‘background’ for montage sequences of football training etc., but also to represent the ‘feelgood’ ethos of the film and also to promote the ‘hybridity’ that Gurinder Chadha obviously supports. Again the DVD commentary provides some explanations of why particular tracks have been used. Throughout the film there are musical sequences which combine traditional film music scoring with Punjabi popular music. There are songs written for the film (e.g. from Melanie C.) and examples of songs from other traditions given a Bhangra treatment (e.g. ‘Hot, Hot, Hot’ originally a hit for the Trinidadian Soca star Arrow in 1983 and then used as the theme for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico – a link in BILB to ‘Nessun Dorma’, used so successfully in the BBC coverage of Italia 1990 and here signalling the moment of Jess’ triumph with her ‘bent’ free kick).

Perhaps more about ‘personal politics’ is the use of Curtis Mayfield’s 1971 hit ‘Move on Up’. Chadha states that this song was particularly important for her because of the singer and the context of the original song. Curtis Mayfield was for many African-Americans one of the major voices of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the lyrics of this song are all about ‘empowerment’. It plays in the film as Jess sets off for football training for the first time and again at the end of the film when the two girls fly off to America.

Genre

Issues of narrative and representation are also bound up with questions of genre. BILB is a ‘feelgood’ film. This isn’t a traditional generic category, but it is certainly a recognisable set of elements, especially in the context of contemporary Hollywood. The ‘feelgood’ narrative often centres on the ‘quest’, clearly evident in BILB.

Gurinder Chadha has been quoted as referring to the film as a ‘teen comedy’ and this may be the most useful focus for a genre analysis. ‘Teen comedy’ is a Hollywood concept, usually associated with a high school setting, but also applicable to a range of other settings and mixes with other genres, including science fiction and the combat film (e.g. in Starship Troopers, US 1997) and the whole cycle of ‘teen horror’ films.

The term ‘youth movie’ is a useful broad category term and fits BILB well. Several aspects of the youth movie repertoire are referenced in the film:

  • generational conflict, parents v. daughter
  • forms of ‘rebellion’ by daughter
  • focus on clothes, food, use of language to represent ‘difference’
  • narrative with time constraint – takes place over the summer holiday before university
  • climax at major social event – wedding/football final
  • extensive use of popular music

These are elements found in a whole range of youth orientated films. ‘Youth movies’ usually set out to target a youth audience and so alienate older audiences. BILB clearly appeals more broadly, even though it has all the other elements in place. This is partly explained by the added ingredient – the focus on the Punjabi family and the importance of elements of the Bollywood formula, especially the wedding as climax of the narrative. BILB has been described as a ‘Bollywood film’, but this is only valid in terms of the wedding and the internal family conflicts. The musical sequences, for instance, are derived from Hollywood cinema, not Bollywood.

The American dimension

BILB was successful in North America for different reasons than those which helped The Full Monty etc. Rather than a ‘British film’ adapted for an American market or marketed as ‘distinctively British’, BILB was conceived with aspects of the American market already addressed in the script. Gurinder Chadha’s husband and writing partner, Paul Mayeda Berges, is American and Chadha herself had previously made an American film, the Los Angeles set What’s Cooking? After living in America she was aware of some of the audience needs. Although the Beckham name was not so important in North America and the title of the film would baffle most American audiences, Chadha also knew that ‘soccer’ in America is arguably more important as a participatory game for women and girls, than as a male spectator sport. It is very much a ‘college game’ and therefore it is important that the film ends with the two protagonists flying off to a ‘soccer scholarship’ in California. The women’s game in America also has a professional presence and the stars of the American Women’s team that won the World Cup in 1999 are household names in America. In Jules’ bedroom she has a poster of Mia Hamm, who for most of the late 1990s was the best known female sportsperson in America.

In preparation for BILB Chadha watched sell-out women’s soccer games in California and she knew an audience was there. As part of the promotional tour for BILB in North America, Parminder Nagra made a public appearance at a men’s professional league game and launched a new season with the kick-off (see www.filmjournal.com)

What may seem puzzling from a UK perspective is that the US release, several months after Europe and therefore not related to the World Cup, followed the huge American success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Some American audiences took BILB to be primarily a feelgood comedy romance about an ‘immigrant community’ and its wedding conventions.

Conclusion: BILB and British Cinema

Since there are very few British films that have massive international success (BILB’s cinema box office was ten times the production budget), it is inevitable that each ‘winner’ will become the next film to be emulated (or rather imitated). In the case of BILB this is going to be very difficult as can be perceived from the ‘success factors’ apparent in the film’s production and reception by audiences:

  • relatively low budget production (£3-4million)
  • writer/producer/director with knowledge of subject
  • all the benefits of ‘hybrid culture’ without the possible barriers
  • ‘feelgood’, upbeat narrative
  • well targeted for audience plus possibility of ‘universal appeal’
  • good timing for release re Beckham/World Cup etc.
  • full distributor support for release

Gurinder Chadha herself used the success and her new status to get finance for Bride and Prejudice (UK/US 2004) – a Bollywood version of Jane Austen. Whilst this film was still under the creative control of Gurinder Chadha, it had US (Miramax) money in from the start as well as an Indian star. It was certainly not a low budget ‘British’ film. BILB is likely to remain a one-off until another combination of factors produces a similar success in a few years time. Other attempts to carry on in the same way have not succeeded at the box office (e.g. Peter Cattaneo followed up The Full Monty with the relative flop Lucky Break in 2001 and Damien O’Donnell followed East is East with the little seen Heartlands (2002).

Questions for discussion

1. In what ways is Bend It Like Beckham clearly targeted at an audience of young women?

2. Using specific scenes from the film as examples, show how Pinky and Jess have different attitudes towards their parents ideas about marriage.

3. Discuss the ways in which camerawork, music and editing are used to link the two main narrative lines in the film during the wedding/football final.

4. How would you analyse the concept of ‘hybridity’ in relation to Punjabi culture in Britain as represented in the film?

Resources

There are many reviews and interviews on websites. This is a selection of some of them (including those quoted in the notes above):

www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/502103/

www.alternet.org/story/15835/better_buzz_tomorrow

www.multiracial.com/readers/mcneil5.html

http://www.scope.nottingham.ac.uk/filmreview.php?issue=may2003&id=717&section=film_rev

film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,4120,682376,00.html

Claire Monk’s generally negative review of the film in Sight & Sound May 2002 is an interesting example of the problems associated with ‘judging’ a film on a preview screening. It is difficult to argue with any of Monk’s general criticisms of the film (“. . . artless and mediocre . . . unsatisfying viewing for thinking adults”), but she can’t predict its power to move audiences.

Bend It Like Beckham is available on DVD from Helkon (the DVD includes a very useful director’s commentary). All text in these notes © 2004 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated. Images © Helkon.