Back in 2002, Gurinder Chadha had a huge hit with the film, Bend It Like Beckham, which made stars of Keira Knightley, Parminder Nagra and Archie Panjabi.
I think she has got another big hit with the musical, which follows the same storyline as in the film version, but is actually quite different.
For a start, Gurinder is a very Punjabi person; everything she does is bold, balle balle and Punjabi and this musical, fizzing with energy and plenty of Bollywood dancing, is essentially a Punjabi musical. The tale is located in Southall, with plenty of product placements in the form of posters for Sagoo Shoes, Royal Sweets, Punjab Quality Fabrics, Deepak Accountants and Madhu’s catering.
As everyone knows, the story is about Jess (Jasminder), a Punjabi girl who has the talent to be a great footballer and bend the ball in the air in the manner of David Beckham. But her parents, Mr and Mrs Bhamra, ban her from playing football, partly because running around in the sun will make her darker and ruin her marriage prospects.
Her mother would much rather she learnt to make proper aloo gobi, dal and chapatis that are perfectly round – these are old jokes that have not tired in the telling.
“Anyone can make aloo gobi, but how many can bend a ball like Beckham?” is the question young Jess has to tackle.
My guess is Asian and non-Asian audiences will go away happy for very different reasons.
Asian audiences, who have loved movies such as DDLJ (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge), will recognise Gurinder has tried to tell the story of football-mad Jess much like a Bollywood film, using songs to advance the plot. There is romance, generational and cultural conflict, rollercoaster emotional ups and downs and finally a happy ending. How Indian can you get?
Non-Asian audiences will find the musical life-affirming for entirely different reasons. Despite the racism and the disappointments that Jess’s father had to suffer when he was rejected by local cricket clubs after arriving as an immigrant from Nairobi, Britain is, on the a whole, a much fairer society in which the naked racism of the early years has largely disappeared. Which it has.
As in the film, the musical is set in 2001. But Gurinder, who wants to project the picture of an inclusive, multicultural society, has updated certain aspects of the story. She has thrown in a few young Muslims girls in hijabs which she did not have in the film, and there is also a man wearing a Muslim cap. These are everyday images from modern Britain.
Today, there is also the confidence which allows Gurinder to poke gentle fun at young Asians.
There is an Asian lad who changes his clothes and puts on a chunky medallion so that he exudes more of a “black culture”. Then Jess’s older sister, Pinky (Preeya Kalidas), who is mad about wanting to get married, sticks “innit” into every other sentence.
“What are you doing with the Butch Brigade?” Pinky admonishes her sister, who has thrown in her lot with the Hounslow Harriers.
There is also the Asian girl who keeps adjusting her bra every few seconds to make her breasts more conspicuous. And the boy who admits he is gay got one of the biggest cheers of the evening from the audience. Indeed, Britain has changed.
In real life, the country may have problems with some young Muslim boys and girls who are drawn by the nihilistic philosophy of the jihadis, but that is not the Britain that Gurinder wants to recreate on stage.
Her multiracial Britain has evolved so that Jess is finally able to convince her father that Britain is a much better place than it was in his early days. Which it is, thereby explaining why this musical will have wide appeal.
It also helps that Natalie Dew, the young actress cast as Jess, does not resemble the stereotypical Bollywood starlet, but has a certain innocence and vulnerability. Jamie Campbell, as “Joe” the coach, impressed both with his acting and his singing. He is, incidentally, English in the musical, while he was Irish in the film.
I did wonder how the football, shown spinning through the air in a panning shot on film, would be represented on the stage. The solution is remarkably innovative. You can do wonders with a football-sized ball of light which can be made to travel right across the stage.
Of the songs, my favourites are Just a Game and More Fool Me, but I think I need to listen to them all again to see which one grows on me.
Another difference from the film (other than the singing) is there is much more of a role for the David Beckham character, who is the stuff of Jess’s dreams. Becks and Posh were apparently shown the movie by Gurinder, enjoyed the jokes and will, no doubt, try to sneak in to see the musical. Getting his name into the title has been the magic trick that will ensure the musical is a great success as well.
It is good for Gurinder that interest in women’s football is at fever pitch right now because England women have performed so well in the World Cup in Canada. Perhaps the girls ought to come to see the musical on the same nights as the Beckhams. I wouldn’t mind booking for that night as well. Gurinder’s done good.