To "bend" a ball the way British soccer star David Beckham does -- kicking it so that it arcs midair, curving its way around opponents -- requires sliding your foot alongside the ball while lifting it. Do it right and it resembles a foot-tossed curveball.

Do it wrong, and you could end up with soft tissue damage -- which actress Parminder Nagra learned while filming the hilariously charming new movie "Bend it Like Beckham."

Ball-bending "was really hard," admits the lovely Nagra, 27, who seemed entirely recovered last week while visiting Washington with co-star Keira Knightley. Mastering the skill couldn't have seemed harder than getting cynical Yanks -- who think "multicultural" means white, black and, just recently, Latino -- to embrace a feel-good flick about an Indian schoolgirl who idolizes Beckham and finds herself, and an Irish beau, on a London soccer field.

Actually, it's been easy. Ecstatic reviews and great word-of-mouth have made director Gurinder Chadha's "Beckham" -- the top-grossing British-financed and -distributed film ever -- an American hit. Appearing at only 216 theaters, the movie last week earned more than $6,000 per screen, more than twice the amount made by the nation's No. 2 movie, "Phone Booth."

Even my hip-hop-loving, Vin Diesel-admiring son loved it.

Perhaps audiences are captivated by the film's suggestion that most of us are benders -- not of balls but of ourselves. Heroine Jess (Nagra) feels so pulled between her parents' cherished Indian and Sikh traditions and her own decidedly un-feminine dreams of soccer stardom that she hides her participation with a women's team.

But isn't bending part of living? For years, I shaped my speech patterns according to who I was with -- whether my parents or friends or less-affluent classmates or preppy co-workers. Shifting cadences, softening or sharpening my "g"s, I'd decide, moment by moment, which me to reveal.

Recently I phoned a relative to whom I was close as a child, and was stunned when my voice was entirely unrecognizable to her. Had I gotten that "proper"?

The more we talked, the more I found my voice bending, sounding more like the girl who's still a major part of me.

But who is as simple as he or she seems? Co-star Knightley, who in "Beckham" plays a girl whose ultra-feminine "mum" confuses her daughter's athleticism with lesbianism, has a supermodel bone structure that recalls Winona Ryder's. ("That's great," Knightley quips, "as long as I don't start shoplifting.") At 18, Knightley has a youthful blond beauty that could label her shallow -- until she reveals how inspired she is by 80-something Katharine Hepburn and how as a child, she memorized entire taped texts to hide the fact that she couldn't read because of undiagnosed dyslexia.

Knightley loves quoting a psychoanalyst who prescribed the upbeat "Beckham" to her depressed patients.

"She said every single one of them came out with a smile on his face," Knightley says. "It's amazing being a part of something that makes people feel that good."

Any woman who has envied the camaraderie and physical release that organized sports has long provided men -- and now girls in the post-Title IX era -- might thrill to the film's fierce, all-female sports scenes. Yet the movie managed to look lovingly not only at the rebellious Jess, but at her sexy, marriage-bound sister and their harping mother, who believes all an Indian girl needs to know is how to prepare a decent chapati.

Real women run the gamut. "Beckham" doesn't judge us, no matter where our souls lead us.

Nagra and Knightley, in town to join the great Mia Hamm in making the opening kick in a recent Washington Freedom pro soccer game, were amazed when hundreds of autograph-hungry girls, women and guys mobbed them.

The movie's popularity had preceded them. Just like in Calcutta when Nagra visited the Indian metropolis while filming the TV drama "Second Generation" with Indian cinema legends Om Puri and Roshan Seth. At a rooftop party, a local journalist asked Nagra, "Do you realize how much people love [Beckham] in India?"

Nagra, who grew up in an Indian neighborhood in industrial Leicester, had been too busy bending to notice. "The motherland," which she half-jokingly calls India, felt oddly foreign and yet entirely familiar. Luxurious residences loomed beside destitute hovels; one poverty-stricken mother begged Nagra to spirit her small daughter back with her to England. The actress avoided riding in rickshaws until she realized the conveyances provided much-needed wages to the men pulling them.

"I started realizing how English I am -- and how Indian as well," Nagra recalls. On the street, she found herself gesturing widely with her arms and hands when she spoke, just like the locals. "Then I'd go in my hotel and have tea and my arms would go in.

"I was so similar yet so different."

Spoken like a true bender.