Introduction: Migration and Diaspora studies are more relevant than ever today, with approximately 4 percent of the world’s population or 272 million international migrants globally; according to the United Nations (2020). Roughly 17 million Indians live abroad, making India the world’s‘ largest source country for international migrants globally’; an increase by 143 percent from 1990, around the time of economic liberalization in the country (IndiaSpend, 2018). Naturally, studying issues related to migration can help better understand the problems faced by this group and provide them with plausible solutions.
Bend it Like Beckham, released in 2002 and The Namesake, published in 2003; provide insights into the lives of Indian immigrants, showing us the good, bad and ugly of being an Indian in the west. As a 21-year-old Indian aspiring to make the move abroad for my higher education, I felt these two works I grew up loving deserved to be revisited to help me understand what lies ahead better. Both were released a year apart with protagonists on the cusp on adulthood, just like me; making it especially relatable and relevant to my life.
Summary and analysis
Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham highlights important issues regarding gender and race among others through protagonist Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra’s journey. However, the most obvious and important theme in the movie, that centers around an Indian-origin girl in England; deals with migration. Jess is caught between two cultures. Caught between the expectations of being the ‘perfect Indian girl’ who knows her way around the kitchen and has the potential to be a good wife to an Indian man; and her love for British football, Jess struggles between balancing tradition with passion on a daily. Either too ‘Indian’ for her teammates, or too ‘British’ for her family, she is seen to carve her own hybrid identity through the movie. Her family, part of the Indian diaspora; have trouble coming to terms with her wanting to pursue football professionally as it was not common for Indian girls her age to be ‘prancing around the field with half-naked boys’ (Chadha, 2002). Her teammates hardly understood her culture and even called it ‘backward’ (Chadha, 2002). Jess wants to embrace her Indianness, but at the same time; she does not want that to be all she is. Chadha shows Jess integrating her culture with her football dreams throughout the film. She is seen dribbling cabbage on her knees in the kitchen as if it was a football while her mother tries to coach her to become a perfect wife, and practices the sport even while drying clothes. Jess’s dilemma of identity is beautifully captured through her multiple brushes with racism. The film ends with both her worlds colliding when her father encourages her to leave her sister’s Indian wedding reception to play an all-important match and her British teammates helping her wear her Sari after the match. Jess does not just bend the ball like Beckham; she bends gender norms, identity stereotypes and so much more in the film.
The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri tells the story of an Indian immigrant family in the United States of America. Contrasting experiences of two generations of the Ganguli’s give us a glimpse into all sides of the Indian immigrant experience. Ashima and Ashoke’s characters represent first-generation, immigrant parents, while their children Gogol and Sonia’s characters perfectly embody second-generation Indian-Americans. Multiple symbols throughout the book show us the loneliness and alienation felt in common by both generations. When Ashoke and Ashima move to the United States, everything was fairly new for them. Cut to a couple of years later, Ashima still struggles with her new reality and bitterly misses the country she was born in. Her character in the book portrays the struggle involved with fitting into a new, alien space having a vastly different culture and its own norms while desperately trying to hold on to her Indian roots. Her son Gogol’s character, on the other hand, finds it much easier to identify with western culture. In fact for Gogol and Sonia, India seems to be a foreign and alien concept; they hardly acknowledge their Indian roots, rather they are constantly reminded of it by their white friends. Time and again, they embrace their American side far more than their Indian side. Ironically, while the siblings identify as American; to Americans, they are outsiders and are almost always associated with the culture they find hard to relate to. Multiple instances in the text inform us of the fact that they do not belong to either-they belong to the ‘other’ category. For instance, Gogol is once asked which part of India he was born in, despite being born and raised in the States. This difference in attitude with a change in a generation is common amongst most immigrants. Children of immigrant parents settle more easily when compared to their first-generation immigrant parents, having been exposed more to the global reality at a younger age. Gogol is seen to struggle with his immigrant identity though much of the book and his search for home ultimately leads him to the culture he once so desperately tried to dissociate from.
Reflections and Conclusion
The pursuit to obtain a higher education or a better quality of life takes countless Indians abroad. Globalization has opened the doors of the world, forming an integrated global network everyone aspires to be a part of. The American dream is dreamt by millions around the world and to arrive in the west, is to have made it. For most Indians, a move abroad is a sign of success and the accompanying glory. Most of our country men take pride in sending their children abroad. Moving abroad is generally associated with better salaries, better marriage offers and what not. Seldom do we realize how difficult it is to completely displace ourselves from the world we know, into a world we are never completely accepted in.
An identifier as elementary as a name carries so much value with respect to forming identity. The protagonists in both Bend it Like Beckham and The Namesake; westernize their traditional Indian names in order to better fit in with their peers. Jesminder becomes Jess and Gogol changes his name to Nikhil. A name is immediately equated with your cultural background even today. The first question I am invariably asked when I tell people my name, is ‘Are you Muslim’? or ‘Mehak is a very North Indian name, no?’ Both the protagonists realized that there was no room for a Jeswinder or a Gogol amongst all the Hilary’s and John’s; a Jess would fit in much easier. If I were to move to the west, my name would be an instant give away of my cultural heritage. I would immediately be associated with being Indian or South Asian, at the very least just like Gogol’s character was automatically assumed to be born in India simply because of his name.
The fact that Chadha and Lahiri both struggled with their immigrant identity while growing up, helps the immigrant story be told better. Both their stories of identity were based off their own experiences growing up as Indian-origin settlers. As someone extremely confused about my cultural identity, I found great comfort in Jeswinder and Gogol’s stories, often relating to specific instances in their journey. In times when global migration and the diasporic dilemma is more common than ever, ‘home is where the heart is’ seems to make more sense than it ever did.
(2020). Retrieved 31 January 2021, from https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/wmr_2020.pdf
Chadha, G. (2002). Bend it Like Beckham [DVD].
IndiaSpend, T. (2018). As India becomes wealthier, 17 mn leave the country to settle abroad. Retrieved 31 January 2021, from https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/as-india-becomes-wealthier-
Studies, M. (2021). About MDS – Migration and Diaspora Studies. Retrieved 31 January 2021, from https://carleton.ca/mds/what-is-migration-and-diaspora-studies/