Blinded By The Light

Gurinder Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor’s Blinded By The Light (2019) is the coming-of-age story of Javed (Viveik Kalra), a British-Pakistani teenager living in Luton. It’s 1987 and Javid is starting college, starting to question the decisions of his “traditional” father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), and is about to be introduced to the music of Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen. A prolific writer since the age of 10, writing is Javed's escapism, a way to put down the thoughts and ideas he doesn't express aloud. Based on Manzoor’s 2007 memoir, Greetings From Bury Park, Race. Religion. Rock 'N' Roll. - we are guided through Thatcher's Britain, experienced by first and second generation immigrants, exploring anxieties, embrace and assimilation.

Digital illustration of Blinded By The Light, Viveik Kalra’s Javed.
Blinded By The Light, digital illustration by Hamish Mèk Chohan.

The film is strongest when showing the dynamics of the family, especially between Javed and Malik, father and son. With high unemployment rates we see the fall of the patriarch, and what Ghir manages to capture is defeat in so many subtle ways, especially physically in his walk or the quaver of his expression. There’s a genuine conviction to his portrayal and the film really allowed me to understand an element of the first generation’s decision to come to England. Never being close to my grandmother, before her passing, I am not in a position to ask questions. I am simply here; this is my home and I’ve nowhere else to fuck off back too.

However, whilst I enjoyed watching the film, there was something about Blinded By The Light that didn’t sit right with me. Caught between blunt reality and effervescence, there’s moments of real darkness experienced by the protagonist and South Asian characters which are overshadowed by whimsicalness and twee. A love letter to the lyrics of Springsteen, Manzoor has written about the universality of the film and his surprise in it appealing to non-British Asians in his article, My Film Is Bridging Cultural Divides. This Gives Me Hope In Such Polarised Times (2019).

The film is uncompromising in its cultural specificity - and given its subject matter, one would assume it would mostly appeal to British Asians who lived through the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen fans, and in particular, Asian Bruce Springsteen fans who lived through the 1980s. What I had not appreciated was the power of storytelling to engender empathy.

Excerpt The Guardian, My Film Is Bridging Cultural Divides. This Gives Me Hope In Such Polarised Times, by Sarfraz Manzoor

It’s a film depicting tribalism, the plight of the working class, racism, generationalism, and everything else one cares to throw at the awkwardness of navigating teenage years. Through sheepish conversations with the girl Javid fancies to the influence of suddenly hearing a record that truly speaks to him, just at the right moment. Is it any wonder people have found something of their own in the film as well?

Beth in Missouri had a pithier summation: “Worlds apart but the same.” In telling a very specific story, it turned out, I was actually telling a universal one.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. After all, I was deeply moved and affected by This Is England, Wild Rose and Annie Hall, even though I am neither a young white English skinhead, a Scottish country-music-loving single mum, nor a neurotic middle-aged American-Jewish comedian.

Excerpt The Guardian, My Film Is Bridging Cultural Divides. This Gives Me Hope In Such Polarised Times, by Sarfraz Manzoor

What sets Blinded By The Light apart from the likes of Shane Meadows's This Is England (2006) or Tom Harper's Wild Rose (2018) is its delight. It’s a joyous film which ironically contributes to its detriment. Chadha has no qualms in depicting some truly abhorrent displays of racism - continual usage of a racial slur towards South Asians, racist graffiti, targeted abuse from children urinating in a letterbox, scenes of being spat on, Javed menaced by the National Front and skinheads. Maybe I’m just desensitised to the shocking nature of these images, but they are also offset by dance numbers to Springsteen records who phantom-like serenades and croons throughout.

It’s not so much distracting, especially as I happen to like Springsteen’s music, it just felt like there was no real decision as to whether the dance numbers were part of reality or part of Javed’s escapist fantasies.

One can’t help the choice of music they align themselves with and had this been a musical theatre piece, maybe the space would have allowed for a different appreciation of the work. It’s just that for me, Springsteen is anthemic rock, yes, his music is raw and touches on blue-collar life, but it’s also doing so via an extortionate ticket price today, as well as in 1987.

However this has bugger all to do with how I feel. I'm one South Asian voice who still managed to see my journey reflected on screen, in places. And if I happen to write about discovering Ian Dury in my teens, in the early 2000s, I wonder if the journey wold be reflected upon in the same way in 2040?

Blinded By The Light is a film I'll revisit, one I enjoyed and I think had some really lovely stylistic choices not seen in previously in Chadha films.