Byline: Lorraine Ali
Jess is having one of those dreams that make her kick the covers off the bed. She's embroiled in a crucial soccer match, her teammate, U.K. football hero David Beckham, at her side. The stadium goes wild as she maneuvers past packs of grunting players. Then whack! She kicks the ball past a flummoxed goalie, and the 5-foot-3 Indian girl from suburban London scores the winning goal for Manchester United.
Indians--let alone Indian girls--don't play on English soccer teams. It's a scenario found only in dreams, and in Britain's unlikely, irresistible indie hit "Bend It Like Beckham." The movie, which was directed by Gurinder Chadha, is the story of 18-year-old Jess (Parminder Nagra), a tomboy who wants to play soccer but is forbidden by her Sikh parents. Jess dodges finger-wagging, sari-clad mums and leering British boys. She befriends a blond London girl named Jules (Keira Knightley), who's bent on bolting to America because her homeland doesn't have a pro team for women. She acts a little like Rocky. She learns a little about romance--and a lot about girl power. "When Gurinder first approached me, I was thinking, 'Who wants to see an Indian girl kicking a football around?' " says Nagra, 27. "I know," says Knightley, 18, who was sitting next to her in a Manhattan cafe last week. "I was personally worried that people would laugh at it. But they were amused and intrigued. Or maybe they just wanted to see a bunch of girls running around in shorts."
"Bend It" took just eight weeks and $4.5 million to make--and it has grossed $50 million overseas since it opened abroad a year ago. Last month the movie debuted in the States in just six theaters. "Bend It" has been expanding cautiously around the country, but it's already made $3 million here and has been selling two or three times as many tickets at each theater as the run-of-the-mill fare currently in the top 10. "Bend It," which was largely financed by the British Film Council, may or may not go the big, fat, Greek distance, but it's already jump-started Knightley's career. She's got a lead role in Jerry Bruckheimer's summer swashbuckler, "Pirates of the Caribbean," which hits theaters in July. By then Knightley will be something of a star if "Bend It Like Beckham" keeps riding the wave.
Director Chadha began writing "Bend It" six years ago, inspired by the themes of her own adolescence. "The most important thing to my mum was that I learn how to cook Indian food, but I refused," says Chadha, who used her mother and her aunts as extras in the film. "I'd say, 'What you don't realize, Mum, is that you are oppressed. …