Review: Blinded by the Light
Almost every South Asian has a double life. One life at home with their immigrant parents, one life out in the real world. (I’m sure this is true for most children of immigrants.) Often the doubles lives directly clash with each other. Your parents forcing you to stay home versus wanting to go out and have fun with your friends. Listening to traditional music or enjoying bopping top 40 singles. Dressing conservatively instead of expressing yourself through fashion. With films like the South Asian diaspora classic Bend It Like Beckham and the musical Jane Austen adaptation Bride & Prejudice, Gurinder Chadha made a name for herself exploring culture through humor and heart. Her latest movie Blinded by the Light is based on British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir and it’s exuberant, youthful, and cinematic.
Javed (newcomer Viveik Kalra) is a Muslim teen living in Luton, England. Javed wants to escape his hometown, where Muslims are often targeted for racist attacks. He also wants to experience life beyond the rule of his strict father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir). When his friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) gives him Bruce Springsteen tapes, Javed finds himself drawn to the Boss’ messages of escaping small town life and fulfilling your dreams. Inspired by Springsteen and with the encouragement of his teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), Javed begins to write more and becomes really passionate about it. However, he must hide it from his disapproving father, who believes that Muslims need to keep their head down and work hard.
Admittedly, Blinded by the Light follows a standard outline for a coming-of-age immigrant film. The film shares many similarities with Bend It Like Beckham, substituting Pakistani Muslims and Springsteen for Punjabis and football. While the story itself is a classic tale about finding yourself, Chadha’s keen directorial eye enlivens the film. She shows Springsteen lyrics appearing on the screen, when Javed is listening to these songs or just thinking about them. While that could be hacky and cliché, it helps to drive home the point that these words really matter to Javed, and Springsteen’s poetry encourages Javed on his own craft. Chadha also stages a number of joyous dance numbers that just soar off the screen. The “Born to Run” sequence is the movie’s highlight as is the scene where Javed’s sister Shazia ((Nikita Mehta) takes him to a day party where other South Asian teens dance while their parents think they’re at school. Chadha lets the enthusiasm, the pain, the thrill, and the romance of music (not just Springsteen, but in general) create this safe space for Javed where he can be himself.
For how uplifting and wonderful Blinded by the Light is, Chadha doesn’t shy away from how hard Javed’s family life is. His parents are overworked, and his dad gets laid off after decades of being loyal. Malik is frustrated and unfortunately takes it out on his family. He’s judgmental, unfair, often callous and overly critical. The film is empathetic to his struggle, and how it affects the family, especially his wife Noor (Meera Ganatra, offering a quiet, tender performance). Kulvinder Ghir presents Malik as a man who has been hurt so much in the world that he doesn’t have the tools to deal with it, in a textured, sincere, and challenging performance. I have to say that Blinded by the Light is one of the best depictions of a South Asian father/son relationship.
But we gotta talk about the man of the hour. No, not Bruce Springsteen, but Viveik Kalra. He’s so endearing and earnest on screen, with expressive eyes and youthful energy. It’s truly a star-making performance, and he carries the film with a full heart. The way he shows his excitement and his pain are just infectious and it’s a lead performance that really grabs you. The supporting cast, including Nell Williams as Javed’s love interest, is colorful even though some characters seems superfluous. Overall though, this is a very charming ensemble, with Aaron Phagura being a highlight in the cast.
Blinded by the Light is going to be a crowd-pleaser. It’s dynamic and heartfelt, and pulls on the right strings. But thankfully it’s not generic. This film feels very specific. Co-written by Chadha, her husband and collaborator Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor himself, the script is natural and poetic. The cinematography, editing, background score, and costume design are sumptuous, which is typical for a Gurinder Chadha film. I highly recommend Blinded by the Light—it’s a sweet, wrenching, inspiring movie.