Sita (Nandita Das) and Radha (Shabana Azmi), Deepa Mehta’s Fire
Jules (Keira Knightley) and Jess (Parminder Nagra), Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham
This is a continuation of my previous blog on Indian films: I dealt with Lagaan, Bombay, Guru, included comments on Mississippi Masala and Charulata, with links to Water and Before It Rains; instead of adding yet more comments, particularly since one of my readers complained about the length of the post, I thought I’d make a separate one for the work of Deepa Mehta and Gurinda Chadha, especially since the tabooed theme of lesbianism unites these two films.
I spent Thursday afternoon watching Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham after having read Ratna Kapur’s essay on the firestorm (pun intended) and controversy and violent demonstrations aimed at Deepa Mehta’s Fire, “The Cultural Politics of Fire” — as well as several other essays on Indian films, especially the South Asian, and especially considered from a cultural studies, sexual, & censorship point of view. I here bring this altogether to argue that lesbianism it seems is one of the ‘red flags’ for those who are for male hegemony; just before bluestockings (also a target for rabid cruel attacks). Both kinds of women appear to do without men, not seek families as the center of their existence, find much more personally fulfilling substitutes.
The revealing thing about Bend It Like Beckham, which (like Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice and Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala blends American or a Hollywood style film with Indian motifs) is that no one spoke of the subtextual and sometimes over central themes about homosexuality in the film. Here in the US we are supposed to have an open society: there were no riots; indeed the film garnered popular audiences, but mum was the word about this aspect of what was alluring.
The young Bengali man that the Bengali heroine, Jess (Parminder Nagra)’s parents want her to marry, and who does love her (as a brother or friend), Tony (Ameet Chana) is an unacknowledged homosexual. Jules (a boy’s name for Juliette as played by Keira Knightley) is mistaken for a boy when Jess kisses her. Jess is short for Jessminder, and Jess can be a boy’s name in the US.
Tony does tell Jess he’s gay but he swears her to tell no one else, especially the parents. At the end of the film Jess comes out for truthfulness in front of their Indian parents: when Tony attempts to help her take up an offered athletic scholarship in the US by claiming he and she are engaged and will marry when she returns from the US, she says “no.” That’s not so. She really wants the freedom to travel and live away and there is no guarantee she will be back to marry and live in the Bengali way. But neither she or Tony tells the parents, nor indeed anyone else.
I liked Bend It Like Beckham far more than I thought I would. I had not liked Bride and Prejudice very much: I saw its skillful art, beautiful dancing, and the wonderfully satiric proto-feminist and other songs. But it was silly and had other characteristics like Bend it. Both grated on and off and it took a lot of patience for me not to shut it off. Chadha’s sense of humor is (to me) awful; she invites us to laugh at what should make us pity someone or grow angry at outrageous accepted bullying; she finds obtuseness and social cruelties funny. One might say she is tolerant, but there is a line I’d draw when I feel the vulnerable suffering and Chadha dismisses intangible hurts. They do count, and at any rate I’m not amused. Like Bride and Prejudice, Bend It is very noisy; Jim agreed and said he could hear the decibel level in the front room.
She is all for “winners” (words like “whining” are used for justified protests or unhappiness, though she is too canny to use “losers” for those not so socially and in other ways most admire successful). Chadna’s films are incessantly upbeat in the worst way: all of us can have it all it seems. At least the male coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) at the end though of course offered the high big place coaching men for soccer, decides to stay where he is with women: he wants to be a big fish in a littler pond and on the “cutting edge” of sexual politics (lest we think he wouldn’t go for the biggest prize in the room).
Worst of all, in Bend It, the husbands and fathers are all wise, and we are to laugh at mothers who are stupid stick-in-the-muds, sarcastic, bully their husbands (oh yeah — this from women who have no income too) and it’s Dad who saves the day for both our girls. Juliet Stevenson was (I hope) paid a lot for being a dope mother (Jules’s) who wants to put falsies on her daughter, but deprived wears them herself. It’s she who goes bananas when she thinks Jules kissed Jess; then told it was a mistake, she reverts to her (hypocritical though she does not know it so we are supposed to forgive this) toleration of lesbians as long as it’s not her daughter.
Juliet Stevenson as Jules’s thick absurd mom
Frank Harpet as Dad who saves the day.
The main problem with the movie for me is that Chadha panders (we get the ectastically expensive happy wedding) even as she urges women (it seems) to accept their totally unfeminist sisters: all Jess’s sister (played by Archie Panjabi who was Ghita in The Constant Gardener lives for is marriage, pregnancy; another female relative is a nasty cock-teaser who thinks this is the way to live too, and we see her making-out busted up by her parents who try to destroy the camera that took pictures. We are to accept this as part of the picture — not that it’s not or we should not, and it did somewhat deflate the absurd wedding. Jules and Jess are presented as not all that unusual for wanting to break tabooes and seek something beyond cosmetics, getting men and babies. They want to play football, to be applauded and admired, to complete and if they are both attracted to Joe, marriage is not the end of their being, and they are bored bored bored with the role of mother, daughter &cc, want to go to university and travel.
Two Sisters: Chadha says the film is her most autobiographical
At the same time, Bend It is, though, also seriously about the pains of assimiliation, some of the character portraits are very well done, and it has its adult moving moments. I was struck though by how it also touched precisely on the issues that Fire dramatized. Jesse is attached to her family and she cannot get herself to hurt the individuals who feel tender affection for and loyalty to her, so she must participate in their cultural rituals. To walk away from their lifestyle would leave her without a lifestyle to belong to, for Joe himself is someone cut off from his father. UK families are no haven.
Jess’s Dad a Sikh man is a moving character: he is against his daughter playing football because when he was young and came to England, he was excluded from cricket on the grounds of his race. He mourns his having given up, and at the of the film we see Joe (making himself acceptable as a coming son-in-law) teaching this man to play cricket well.
In the essays on censorship the authors discussed the Hindu right, its parties, political arms, and the curious forms of censorship that stick, for example, the forbidden kiss. It stands for privacy, what goes on in the house. It’s okay for a woman to dance in sexy clothes and expose much of her private parts, but not
okay to kiss on the mouth anyone, nor men. I noted the Bend It played with non-kisses and it was not till the last moment that Jess and Joe kissed and then the camera insisted we watch it carefully close up.
Jess and Joe, a loving interracial couple (the actor projects a curious louchness and wildness, and is effeminate in his brooding features; he was brilliant a disturbed near homocidal maniac from the experiences of civil war in Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil)
So Chadha does participate marginally in precisely what Mehta is doing. I have not yet seen Fire, only Water (see previous blog). I thanked Fran for her corrective comments on some of the reviews. It is not true that the women’s husbands are paragons; that does change the meaning of the film. Kapur perhaps wanted it to be more free-choice lesbianism. Instead the women turn to one another in reaction to the miseries of heterosexual marriage.
On WWTTA we talked about how such films and lesbianism and women’s friendship related to Jane Austen’s Emma. Emma has been interpreted from a lesbian standpoint (by Juhasz who is a lesbian herself); and Ruth Perry demonstrates how women’s friendship can’t last in the structures of society, not easily. Miss Taylor’s first loyalty must be to Mr Weston; her time is his; Emma turns to Harriet, but when Harriet emerges as a rival, and then marries a farmer, Mr Martin, she begins to keep her distance. Your first loyalty is to family and that means the males in charge too. In Bend It Chadha downplayed rivalry except for sexual jealousy between Jess and Jules over Joe, but that almost lost them the game.
Recent novels by more alert women (thinking) de-emphasize this rivalry I think; in Bell Jar (for example), Plath may show her mid-century placement and be using stereotypes and she herself (I understand) could be awful about and to other women (but her biographies are just as agenda-ridden by the authors as Dickinson). The psychologists say how important supportive friendships are for women, so this persistent divide-and-conquer is all the more poignant and hurtful for women. At the end Austen has Emma as the complacent winner, and I’m with a number of readers who find that ending grating (what did she do to earn anything) and while I wish it were ironic, I don’t feel it is. Austen herself dismisses what Perry is right to say is in the text (how women need women friends, how these relationships are broken up by patriarchial and class structures) and instead ends on one of Mrs Elton’s supposedly funny sneers at Emma, jealous of her as ever, and hoping Emma’s marriage will fail. Austen is also ambivalent about spinster old maids, for older unmarried women can be rendered as dignified women with a meaningful life too.
In my comments I add some on another recent American “women’s film”: a film dealing centrally with women’s issues and containing a positive or sympathetic portrait of women apart from men.