The Untold Story of Bend It Like Beckham

By Kieran Theivam, The Athletic

“Anyone can cook aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”

It’s a line synonymous with one of the most loved football films of all time. Some 18 years after its release, Bend It Like Beckham remains a firm favourite but what is less appreciated is that, for some, it was the first time they had ever seen women on a football pitch.

“It was also about speaking out, camaraderie and going out there and not always doing as you’re expected,” writer and director Gurinder Chadha tells The Athletic. “It was a game-changer in so many ways.”

From pop royalty Robbie Williams nearly getting a starring role to a future England manager seeing an early cut, this is the untold story of Bend It Like Beckham…

The film’s title very nearly featured the name of a different Manchester United star – Ryan Giggs.

But Chadha knew that she wanted to have the golden boy of English football involved, a player who was making waves at Manchester United in the mid-1990s when she first approached him.

“David was this young kid from Essex, he was living the dream at Man United, and what I liked about him is he had become a gay icon and he wasn’t fazed by it, he accepted it, plus he was going out with a Spice Girl,” she says. “Here was this concept of him being ‘the new man’. He was challenging femininity and masculinity in an interesting way, and that’s why I went for him.

“When we approached him and asked him if he would support us, his agent wrote back and said he would because anything that gets families back on the terraces is something he wanted to encourage. That’s why he got behind the film.”

When she finally completed Bend it Like Beckham in 2002, one of the first things Chadha wanted to do was to show the man in the title what he had backed all those years ago. Chadha, her husband Paul (one of the co-writers) and Parminder Nagra, who played Jess, went to Manchester for a private screening with Beckham in the VIP area of a local cinema. Chadha recalls a mountain of popcorn and nachos had been laid on.

“It’s just meant to be David and us,” she says. “Then David came in with Victoria and he brought these two young boys with him, and I was like ‘who are they?’ They all jumped on the food. I said to Paul, ‘why has he brought these young boys with him?’ That’s when he kicked me and said, ‘that’s Gary and Phil Neville’. That was how little I knew! It’s so interesting with Phil’s job now (head coach of England women), he saw the first print of the film.

“They all loved it and I think David was, 1) shocked seeing his face everywhere on the screen, and 2) genuinely impressed with the football. It was at that point I could breathe. It was OK. He had seen it, he liked it, and that was important to me.”Years passed between Chadha first approaching Beckham and the film actually being made.

“I kept being told ‘sports films don’t work’,” she says. “But I said it wasn’t just about football; it was about women, masculinity and femininity. I kept making those arguments and people were not interested.”

Chadha was hitting a brick wall and she couldn’t figure out why. She was at the Rose Bowl for the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final in Los Angeles, which was attended by a record crowd of more than 90,000. She submitted her script to the National Lottery Heritage Fund, run by the UK’s Arts Council. But she got word that the script would not be supported. It was claimed she would never find an Indian girl that could bend a ball like Beckham.

“Do they think Harrison Ford jumps out of helicopters and does James Bond do his own stunts?” Chadha tells The Athletic. “I went and saw John Woodward (future chief of the UK Film Council) and told him, ‘you can’t reject a film on this basis!’”

She won. The council’s committee decided to back the film but Chadha then needed to cast her lead characters.

Nagra and Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham

A teenage Keira Knightley auditioned alongside 30 other actresses for the part of Jules but Chadha knew the Indian girl she wanted to bend it like Beckham. She had been tracking the work of Nagra, an actress in her mid-twenties who had primarily done theatre work.

“I was doing a show at the Lyric Theatre (in Hammersmith, west London) and Gurinder came up to me at a press night and said ‘I am thinking of doing this project about a young Indian girl that plays football, do you think that might be something that you’d be interested in’?,” Nagra tells The Athletic. “I went ‘yeah’ but in my head, I was thinking ‘why would you want to do that?’ I was thinking, ‘are people going to want to see that?’

“I think it may have been a year later when a script lands on my doorstep and lo and behold, here was this story and I was like ‘wow, it looks like this is probably going to happen.’”

Nagra had one concern, and it wasn’t the fact she had never played football. A childhood accident had left her with a scar on her leg. The incident is written into the story of the film where Nagra’s character Jess speaks about making beans on toast and setting her dress on fire. All of this is true, except it wasn’t beans she was making — it was chapatis.

With Nagra and Knightley both on board, Chadha had one of her biggest challenges – turning them into footballers.

The thought of taking footballers and trying to turn them into actors had never crossed her mind. She enlisted the help of football coach, Simon Clifford, who had opened a number of Brazilian-style soccer schools around the country teaching a type of football very similar to futsal in which a smaller, heavier ball is used.

Clifford was introduced to Knightley and Nagra in March 2001 and only had a few months to get them up to speed before filming started. He knew he had a job on his hands.

“I looked at the script and I said to Gurinder it would be hard to do, even with actors who could play football,” Clifford tells The Athletic. “I met Keira and her mum and said ‘no matter how good your acting is, the film will fall because of the football, so you will have to listen to me.’ She got it. She was in year 11 (aged 16) at the time at school, but they understood what I said. I said the same thing to Parminder, she got it too.”

With the film on a tight budget, the trio trained in public spaces. Nagra recalls she and Knightley having to change in a pub toilet before training on Clapham Common in south-west London. They would practise for a few hours in the morning and again in the afternoon, with Clifford giving them programmes to follow at home.

“I treated the two of them as though we were a real team,” says Clifford. “I started to take it really seriously. One day they said ‘this guy has just been over and asked which team we are from… He feels sorry for us because only two people keep turning up for training!’ I think they were thinking like footballers, and they both got to love it.”

Training didn’t go without incident, however. Clifford says he received a call from Chadha saying Knightley’s dad had been on the phone. The film’s star was in hospital with concussion from having repeatedly headed the ball in training.

The coach of the girls’ team, the fictional Hounslow Harriers, was initially going to be older — modelled on Sir Alex Ferguson. Once it was decided he was going to be younger, singer Robbie Williams was suggested as a possible candidate, but the role was eventually played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Nagra recalls the first time she met Meyers. “He literally raced across the football field and tackled me to the ground,” she says. “All I could think is ‘you’re crazy’.”

One of the scenes in the film sees Nagra’s character Jess bending a ball around a washing line. According to Clifford, Nagra initially couldn’t get the ball off the ground. “I had never had a pupil like that,” he says. “I remember going back to a video of Pele where he used chalk on the boots of these kids. So I put marked her boots to show the part of the foot she needed to kick with and she started to get it off the ground. By the time we got to filming some of the last scenes, she could hit a bin I’d put in a top corner eight out of ten times.”

Nagra recalls that scene with the washing line. Despite it coming near the end of the film, it was one of the first they shot. She remembers a male-dominated crew watching behind camera as she looked to nail one of the first scenes that involved her having to demonstrate what she had learned.

“This was going to be the moment that was going to solidify the whole film,” says Nagra. “I will never forget it, I am so glad I had Simon there. I just kept looking at him. We had a crew that was a lot of men that were clearly thinking, ‘yeah, let’s see how this goes’. They didn’t say that to my face, but you could feel it.

“I put the ball down and before the shot starts, I look back at Simon and he nods his head. I kicked the ball and this was the first take, it went straight through, around that washing. I just thought immediately ‘don’t ruin the take, you have got to keep acting’. What I really wanted to do was leap up and be like, ‘OH MY GOD, CAN YOU BELIEVE I JUST DID IT!’So I just grabbed the basket and walked off. Then Gurinder yelled ‘cut’ and the whole crew was like, ‘yesss!’”

Nagra would go on to win a FIFA honour for her efforts.

“I went to Madrid to get an award,” she says. “I was the first female to have ever got it, it was bizarre they were giving it to me. The company I was working for said, ‘the only way you are going to get her is if you send a private plane’…so they did.

“They sent a limo for me in the morning and it wouldn’t fit up my road. We flew there and I met Sepp Blatter (former FIFA president), held the World Cup, honestly it was one of the weirdest things. Mia Hamm was there and when I had to give my speech, I was a nervous wreck.

“I walked to the stage and I saw Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Figo, Zidane, all these amazing players and I am sure they were all looking at me thinking ‘who the hell is that and why does she have this award?’ I still can’t believe it. I think Ronaldo got an award that night and I made a really shit joke with him, something like ‘my award is bigger than yours’ – and he’s probably thinking ‘who are you and why are you here?’ I sometimes forget it happened.”

Filming took place throughout the summer of 2001, the same year The Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) commenced — America’s first professional women’s league. Jess and Jules sit down to watch a montage of clips from the inaugural season and in that montage is a 22-year-old Kelly Smith.

“I was gobsmacked to be in that clip alongside Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm,” the former England and Arsenal striker tells The Athletic. “In my eyes, football was really big in the US, I got the exposure to what winning the World Cup had done for them, but back home the game was incomplete and not taken seriously.

“For me to see that film back in England and me as the known name at the time, flying the flag for women’s football in England, it was a proud moment because women’s football was on the TV. It was the first time a movie said, ‘women do play football, so here you go’.”

That scene wasn’t just important for Smith. It also planted the seed for some promising players wanting to go to America.

“I remember Jess and Jules watching the footage in the film and I saw the stadiums and the big crowds,” says Birmingham City’s Lucy Whipp. “That inspired me a bit more to want to play abroad.”

Whipp would live that dream by going to St John’s University in New York in 2015, the same facility that England’s Rachel Daly attended. Whipp’s former teammate at Everton, Caitlin Hayes, now of Lewes, also attended Mississippi College.

“I play ‘Move On Up’ by Curtis Mayfield before every one of my games, which is in the film and is my all-time favourite anthem,” says Hayes. “Something in that film triggers the emotion of going for it.

“When I was 16 I had the opportunity to go to Chelsea and go to college for two years, but I wanted to stay at Everton to learn from the senior players and then go to America. I was so driven to go there and the only exposure I had to it was through Bend It Like Beckham.”

Neither Chadha nor Nagra were aware of just how much the film means to some players.

“I remember in the film Jess is surprised when Jules comes over in the park and she’s like, ‘oh you have a proper kit and you have boots,’” says Whipp. “That was the first time I was like, ‘oh, they have kits like the men, they have training!”

“Not only are there women like that who are inspired to play professionally,” adds Chadha, “but these leagues started in places like Africa and India. There was a Bend It Like Beckham league in Delhi, where these women got together in a home compound and they just started playing. I am so proud of that film.”

Bend It Like Beckham was released on April 11, 2002. It went straight into the UK film charts at No 1.

Nagra remembers the exact moment she realised she had signed up to something bigger than she had imagined it ever would be.

“I saw a London bus with a poster of Keira and my face drive past,” she says. “For me that was like ‘wow’ and the way our Indian community responded… it was the first time for a lot of Indian kids to see someone that looked like them on the big screen.”

The film would spend a second week at No 1, which was the same week Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s film The Scorpion King was released. It went into the charts at No 2, behind Bend It Like Beckham. This gave Chadha leverage when trying to sell the film in the US.

“I couldn’t understand why no one would buy it in the States when women’s soccer was so big,” she says. “An English guy, Peter Rice, used to run Fox Searchlight (now Searchlight Pictures) and in the meetings they were asking why The Rock wasn’t number one in England when it was everywhere else. Peter was telling them that we were a British film and they should keep an eye on it. He came and said ‘we are going to buy your movie and make it a hit’.”

The film hit a snag initially, with the US market not familiar with David Beckham. There was a suggestion of changing the title to link it to US star Hamm – Move It Like Mia – but Chadha was insistent it stayed the same. In the end, from a budget of £4.8 million, Bend it Like Beckham made more than £60 million at the box office globally.

	All Saints singer Shazney Lewis, who played Mel, alongside Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra at the UK premier of Bend It Like Beckham.
All Saints singer Shazney Lewis, who played Mel, alongside Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra at the UK premier of Bend It Like Beckham.

The film had exceeded all expectations. It had put women’s football on the map and it also delved into a number of other subjects – gender, sexuality, race and religion. Nagra says her 10-year-old son watched in a few years ago but became upset because “why wouldn’t they let the girl do what she wanted”.

It was important to the Asian community, too. Chadha says she is aware the scene where Ameet Chana’s character Tony tells Jess he is gay has helped some Asians come out to their families. The relationship between Jess and her sister, Pinky, polar opposites in terms of how a young Indian woman should be perceived, was also a key theme throughout the film which culminates in the two big events – a wedding and a cup final.

“When I didn’t know how big it would get,” says the writer and director. “All I used to say is, when you’re a girl, everyone has an opinion of how you should look, how you should dress. Society expects certain things. But the film is about saying ‘I want to do it this way.’”

The film’s impact on today’s players is something neither Chadha nor Nagra could have foreseen. The film was made into a West End musical in 2015, with England’s Lionesses attending one performance – Alex Scott and Jordan Nobbs are said to be big fans.

Kelly Simmons, the Football Association’s Director of the Women’s Professional Game, was on board from the off but even she did not predict the film’s impact.

“There is no doubt that it broke down barriers and inspired girls to take up playing the sport,” says Simmons. “When we look back at the history of the women’s game, Bend It Like Beckham played its part in creating better opportunities for this generation of girls and women.”

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Bend It Like Beckham