Belle of the Ball

updated 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

High Scorer: In the movie Bend It Like Beckham, Parminder Nagra, 27, plays a British Sikh teen who dreams of playing soccer like her idol, English star David Beckham. A hit from the U.K. to India, the comedy has won Nagra raves—including an award from the world soccer federation for encouraging girls in the sport.

Training Days: The Leicester, England-born actress practiced for months to learn how to "bend" the ball (put spin on a kick). On the set "the crew was all blokes," she says. "It was 'Bird [girl] football—can she do it?' I kicked the ball, and it literally bananaed into the goal."

Art Imitates Life? Nagra's parents, Sikh immigrants from India, weren't thrilled with her decision to move to London at age 18 to pursue TV and stage roles. "Mum said, 'Why are you putting yourself through this?' " says Nagra. When she argues with her soccer-scorning onscreen kin, "that was her really talking about her quest to be an actress," says Bend It director Gurinder Chadha. Now Nagra calls her family "really proud."

Romance: Nagra, who split with actor Kieran Creggan last year, long ago nixed her parents' suggestion of an arranged marriage. "My mum's not breathing down my neck."

Gooooal! At a screening, Nagra met Beckham. "He said, 'Really well done,' and shook my hand," she says. "I went, 'I'm never going to wash my hand again!' "

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