Blinded by the Light: A Tale of Finding Oneself, One Lyric at a Time

By Jennifer Allen

Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Nell Williams, Meera Ganatra, Rob Brydon, Nikita Mehta, and Hayley Atwell

Co-written and Directed by: Gurinder Chadha

Also co-written by: Sarfraz Manzoor, based on his real-life experiences

Anyone who knows Gurinder Chadha's films knows that she prefers to delve into “genially subversive" topics with feel-good stories that also tackle racism, sexism, class systems, and cultural differences. While many of her films are set in England, they are more often about South Asian characters that live there.

So, it seemed a perfect fit that she would tackle such a story as Blinded by the Light. The film is based on the real-life tale of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who as a British-Pakistani Muslim teen became inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen in order to cope with not only the economic recession of late 1980's Britain, but also the racial hatred that many South Asians had to deal with (and still do) on top of it.

Newcomer Viveik Kalra plays a somewhat retold version of Manzoor's life as Javed Khan. He is a shy kid whose family lives in the small town of Luton. To deal with the turmoil he endures both a school and at home, he writes a daily journal and poetry. He lives in an almost stereotypical Pakistani household with his parents and two older sisters. His father (played to perfection by Kulvinder Ghir) is a patriarch who has a practical frame of mind: you work to bring money in for the family, and never for personal gain.

The later years of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister saw her wanting to dramatically cut down inflation in the country. Unfortunately this economic decision eventually brought about huge layoffs for blue-collar workers, and Luton was one of those towns hit hardest. Javed's father loses his job from the car factory he had put in 16 years of tireless work for. This means that his wife (Meera Ganatra) must work twice as hard sewing clothes and the girls must pick up jobs to help pay the bills.

But Javed doesn't want any of it. He wants, above all else, to be a writer and in a bold move enrolls in an English Literature class at school. On his first day, he bumps not only into a spicy political activist in the form of Eliza (Nell Williams), but also into a Sikh classmate named Roops (Aaron Phaguara) who tells him about “The Boss" and then hands him two Springsteen cassettes (Born in the USA and Darkness on the Edge of Town specifically) as if they were religious relics.

What follows are beautiful scenes of Javed, with headphones in place, listening to “Dancing in the Dark" and “The Promised Land" as if somehow this man from New Jersey understands his pain. He walks along with each line of lyric flittering either around his head or on the side of a house. As Javed hears those words and finds emotional attachment to them, we are there… experiencing it with him as each line of text hits the screen in beautiful detail.

Now while Springsteen's music did have a huge impact, the movie also shows that Javed's English teacher (a charming performance by Hayley Atwell), Miss Clay helped uplift his dreams by encouraging him to write more, and get his work published. If it weren't for her, I doubt he would have ever become the journalist he, or more appropriately Manzoor, is today.

Another charming aspect of the film is the many musical montages built around Springsteen's songs. Probably the most memorable is the “Born to Run" sequence which is built like a cross between a Bollywood number and a stage musical. Javed, Roops, and Eliza sing and dance their way through Luton while various inhabitants join in. I caught myself singing along with them in the theater “'Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run." I sympathize as a fellow a Springsteen fan, thanks to my mother who played the entire Born in the USA album in the house so many times that the cassette wore out.

The film also tackles realistic depictions of racism, which shows how Luton's Pakistani community has simply become accustomed to it. Mean kids pee through the mail slot at a friend's house, and the wife simply grabs towels to pat it up from the plastic mat specifically in place as this is a regular occurrence. A protest from Britain's fascist National Front movement storms through the town, disrupting the wedding of Javed's older sister.

While you don't have to be a Springsteen superfan to appreciate the film, the music does provide a mesmerizing backdrop for a feel-good film that's all about the importance of forging your own identity which is inspired but never fully dominated by the things you love. Kalra's performance as Javed is immediately endearing, and the film is probably Chadha's best since Bend It Like Beckham. Enjoy it for what it is, and maybe even you will find tranquility one day while enjoying a good song from The Boss.


Jennifer Allen works at Saathee and is also a Podcaster, Blogger, Photographer & Graphic Artist.