April 19, 2022
“And there is Bhamra, and she scores,” a sports announcer bellows in the opening scene of hit film Bend It Like Beckham. “Jess Bhamra makes a name for herself. And have we discovered a new star here?”
We cut to Parminder Nagra as the soccer-loving Jess Bhamra, not on the pitch but in her bedroom, silently fuming as her mother makes her turn off an exciting soccer game. She rolls her eyes, in her purple tracksuit, bare arms showing. So much of what Nagra conveys is without any dialogue at all. How she stares at her sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi) — a page out of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’s Poo — when she drags Jess to go shopping again. As she smiles when she meets Jules for the first time and considers joining a girls’ team. How she shares a secret look with her father (Anupam Kher) before opening her A-level results.
No one could tell that this was Parminder Nagra’s first acting gig on the big screen. She seemed earnest, real, and raw, and director Gurinder Chadha was there to capture all of it.
Yet, for all the promise of Bend It Like Beckham, the breakaway hit that gave us memorable dialogues and the gift of Jess Bhamra, Nagra didn’t become that promised new star. Instead, the laurels went to Keira Knightley, who played her best friend, Jules, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who played her coach. To this day, fans can’t stop thinking about this one question after they finish their likely hundredth rewatch of the film: how did Knightley and Meyers become overnight celebrities and household names while Nagra was relegated to mostly television?