A little less than a year ago, a sweet cross-cultural football (that is, soccer) movie called Bend It Like Beckham became the biggest-grossing British-made film in U.K. history. To director Gurinder Chadha, “that was a breakthrough. Beckham is a British movie. It was financed in the main by British money, and it was distributed by a British distributor.”

“Films like Billy Elliot or The Full Monty were financed by Hollywood studios and distributed by studios in Britain,” explains Chadha, an exuberant woman with an easy laugh who arrived in Washington amid the mid-February snows to discuss her third feature. “The fact that Beckham was released the way that studio movies are released in Britain was a big change. The British public, and the press on the whole, took to the film. It surprised me the way the tabloid papers were ready to rah-rah-rah about a British hit. It was very different from 10 years ago.”

That was when Chadha directed her first fiction film, Bhaji on the Beach. “When I made Bhaji, it was released on five prints. Beckham was released on 450. At that time, people would not go see a British film because it was bound to be on television soon. So they’d go see a Hollywood picture. But now people actively go to the cinema to support British movies. I think Beckham hit at a time when the country was ready to get behind something that was authentically British.”

A second-generation British Indian, Chadha admits that she wasn’t a football fan when she conceived the idea for the film, the story of a West London teenager, Jess, whose traditional Sikh family forbids her to join a local girls’ soccer team. “If I knew as much about football as I do now, I don’t know if I would have made it,” she muses. “I probably would have been intimidated. But I valued what football represented. Since 1996 to ’97, football has taken on massive national proportions. Whenever England plays, especially against Germany or Argentina, it’s like war.”

In Britain, football fandom has sometimes mingled with nationalism as well as with racism. “The idea of supporting England was always a bit weird for black people in Britain,” the director says. “But in the ’90s, things started changing. I was in a pub, cheering England vs. Germany. This crowd was black, Chinese, Indian, white, everything, all going, ‘En-ga-land, En-ga-land.’ The notion of identity, Britishness—which my work has always been about—had turned a corner.”

Chadha decided to make a film that drew on football’s widespread appeal—”a populist movie that would play in multiplexes in Britain,” she says. “But because [football is] such a man’s world, I wanted to open it up and put an Indian girl right in the middle of it. And I wanted to make a teen movie, in a way that was extremely accessible to everybody, but at the same time still be as political, if you like, as my previous films.”

Jess’ hero is David Beckham, the British football star who married Posh Spice. “Beckham, quite frankly, is God in Britain,” Chadha says. “He’s a fabulous husband, devoted father, kind to his in-laws; he’s got a good job and earns a lot of money. So he is, in fact, the

perfect Indian son-in-law. In addition to that, he does play really good football.”

Beckham’s style of play also inspired the director. “I chose him because of his ability to bend the ball,” she says, using the term for the english a great player can put on a shot. “He can kick it and hit the goal without the goalie knowing where it’s going to hit. For me, that was a wonderful metaphor for girls. We sort of have to do the same: Twist and turn and bend the rules and get the goal in before anyone can see that we’ve got there. Which is kind of what my career’s been about, I guess.”

Chadha began her career as a news reporter for the BBC, first in radio and then in television. “I found the newsroom very restricting,” she recalls. “It was like telling the same stories over and over again. I wanted to tell other stories, and I wanted to go wider with my storytelling. I wanted to get behind the camera and make films about people who looked like me.”

The director went from TV news to documentaries to fiction films without any formal training. “Every film I make is very instinctive,” she says. “It’s only now that I’m learning more about using the camera in particular ways. But I have to say that journalism has really helped me with filmmaking. It helped me with writing. It means you don’t stray from the story. And I’m quite ruthless in the editing room. If it doesn’t move the story, then I’m the first person to go—” She runs her finger across her throat.

Between Bhaji and Beckham, Chadha directed What’s Cooking, which observed four ethnically diverse Los Angeles families as they convened for Thanksgiving. She says working in Hollywood was essentially the same as working in Britain, but she remembers one difference. “I said to the line producer that I would like a really mixed crew. In England, I go out of my way to have all kinds of people in there, men and women and straight and gay, whatever. And he looked at me like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I thought, Oh no, that’s going to be a bit of a battle. But of course, because it’s L.A., it was completely diverse.” She laughs. “The grip came in and he was a burly black guy, and one of the electricians was Native American, and another was Korean.”

Chadha was also nonplused by the attention she attracted on the set. “In England, of course, everybody just does their job. In L.A., people were just constantly interested in what I was doing, what I was saying, and how I was dealing with people. I thought, This is so great. People are so excited about what I’m doing. Then someone said, ‘No, actually it’s because everyone wants to be a director, and so they’re watching you to see what you do.’”

Ironically, Beckham took Chadha to Germany, England’s great football rival, for a game between Jess’ team and a Hamburg girls’ squad. “In the script, it was actually Norway, because girls’ soccer is quite big there. But we couldn’t get any money out of Norway, so we changed it to Germany.”

To Chadha’s amusement, the make-believe game became a source of real rivalry. “I knew what scenes we wanted to cover in the script—i.e., they lose—but it was the last day these girls were going to play together as a team. So they were terribly emotional. And when we got there, they were like, ‘Well, we’re not going to lose. We’re not losing to Germany.’

“I said, ‘You have to—it’s in the script.’ So they said, ‘Shoot your shot, and then we’re going to play.’ And I so finished the shot, and I said, ‘Cut,’ and they totally ignored me and carried on playing. And these are the actresses! I was like, ‘Well, we’ve got to stop this.’ And I turn around and the whole of the crew is cheering, ‘Come on England!’ One minute they’re these lovely liberal film people, and the next they’re these nationalist English bulldogs. That’s the passion for football.”

Chadha’s own passion is for music, and she drew Beckham’s soundtrack almost entirely from her own collection. “The music is as important as, if not more important than, the script and the dialogue for me,” she says. “My films are about showing you something that you think you know and then turning it around. The music is an opportunity to add another layer.”

Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” serves as the film’s unofficial theme, but most of the soundtrack is British. “It’s all songs that make sense to me,” Chadha says. “It’s very diverse. It’s Indian-meets- garage-meets-soul-meets-DJ-meets-the-Spice Girls—which we had to do because of Beckham.”

Although Chadha concedes that she doesn’t like the Spice Girls’ music, she hails their impact. “I have to stand up and be counted on this,” she says. “I think the Spice Girls have been phenomenal in their influence on the psychology of young girls. I’m talking about 9-, 10-, 11-year-olds. I do believe that the whole concept of girl power, which you might think is quite trivial, has given young girls this real sense of confidence. And this movie is a girl-power movie.”

In the United States, Chadha realizes, the Spice Girls mean more than Beckham. “I was at a high school in Dallas, and one of the kids said, ‘Who is Beckman?’” She laughs. “And I was like, ‘Have you heard of the Spice Girls?’ And they were like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s the guy who married Posh Spice.’ The majority of people here know him as the husband of one of the Spice Girls. He would be just devastated to know that.” —Mark Jenkins