Director: Gurinder Chadha
Cast: Viveik Kalra, Dean-Charles Chapman, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Nikita Mehta, Tara Davina, Aaron Phagura, Nell Williams, Rob Brydon, Hayley Atwell
Bruce Springsteen is one of those artists whose music is famous enough and who has been around long enough that everyone will have at least heard his name. He’s a stalwart creator of bona fide American rock music, his lyrics ranging from love songs and odes and laments to his hometown to socio-political commentaries and easy radio tunes. What you might not think, though, is that he would have much of an influence on the life of a young British-Pakistani Muslim boy in the late 1980s. It’s certainly a story that presents much in the way of movie fodder, but is director Chadha successful in managing to make something so personal come to life for an audience, particularly for those who are not Springsteen fans, or does it fall flat on its face?
Based on the life of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, Blinded by the Light (BBTL) follows student Javed (Kalra) as he begins a writing class at his new school. In spite of his fairly strict Muslim family, Javed enjoys many Western-style hobbies, such as writing poetry, writing lyrics for his friend Matt’s (Chapman) band, and hanging out with his English friends, much to the chagrin of his father, Malik (Ghir). Surrounded by racist bigots in Luton (near London) at the latter end of Thatcher’s Britain, Javed finds himself trapped in a world he doesn’t want to belong to. He’s introduced to the music of Springsteen, aka The Boss, by his friend Roops (Phagura), the only other Asian student at his school. Javed suddenly finds a new world of possibilities opening up to him as he finds himself connecting to Springsteen’s lyrics, particularly those based on The Boss’s own experiences growing up in a place he felt he didn’t belong. As Javed starts to figure out his life and who he wants to be, he wages more battles than ever before as he tries to bring his family round to his new and modern way of thinking that is so different to his own parents’, especially his fathers’, upbringing and expectations.
Frankly, you don’t need to be a Springsteen fan to understand and enjoy this movie. It would be different if it was a movie based on the music of Springsteen, because that would probably only be relatable and enjoyable on a much smaller scale. BBTL makes it known that no matter who you are, where you’re from or what your circumstances are and have been, music is transcendent when it comes to human experience. Chadha pulls the main points of Javed/Sarfraz’s life, i.e. his family, his friends and his surroundings, that weigh him down and uses them as a framework for particular songs of Springsteen’s that then create a picture highlighting Javed’s feelings and putting them into words (literally – some of Springsteen’s lyrics flash up onscreen as they’re sung, bringing to visual life that ‘light bulb moment’ we all feel when we hear lyrics that deeply resonate with us on a personal level). If this method was done for any lesser reason, it would have come across as cheesy and even patronising in some ways, but fortunately this is not the case. One of the best aspects of BBTL is that although it’s based around a young British-Pakistani lad growing up in Luton, its themes and overall message of being who you want to be no matter your circumstances are universal. You don’t have to enjoy Springsteen’s music, but the lyrics alone will ring true for many.
BBTL is just as much Javed’s family’s story as it is his. Assimilating to a new country and system whilst trying to hold true to your own beliefs is a very difficult thing to reconcile, and Javed’s sister Shazia (Mehta) is a character that stands as a gateway to show Javed and the audience just how widespread the want and need to express themselves was/is amongst young immigrants in Britain (and, on a large scale, around the world). It’s something that is just as relevant today as it was then (and probably always will be). It’s also his parent’s struggle – with Javed’s mother Noor (Ganatra) wanting her son to be happy whatever he chooses, and his father wanting to continue family and religious traditions, including controlling the majority of his son’s choices and the direction in which his life will take. In this way, the film becomes so much more than what Springsteen’s music brings to it, so much so that it could stand pretty well on its own if it weren’t to have Springsteen’s music as the push for Javed’s awakening, so to speak.
As always, an excellent story would be nothing without strong performances, and leading the way as Javed is Kalra, a strong actor with a bright future. His performance wavers every so often, sometimes falling afoul of wooden acting (something that often blights British performances), but he always manages to pull it out of the bag again, particularly during a particularly poignant monologue towards the end of the movie. Behind Kalra as Javed’s father Malik, Ghir paints a brilliant portrait of a father going through the motions with his son with the added layer of his son growing up in a very different world than he did. He portrays feelings of frustration not only for his son but also for his struggle to find a job during a time when jobs were sparse for the lower classes, let alone immigrants, as well as the love he clearly has for his family, even if that love is for the family as a unit rather than each individual member, something he has to learn about. Chapman and Phagura are great support in representing Javed’s ability to befriend anyone, whether British or Asian, also each adding some light comic relief when necessary. Overall there is a great supporting cast, many of which are young newcomers who it would be worth keeping an eye on (Williams, portraying Javed’s love interest Eliza, in particular).
The wonderfully chosen mix of Springsteen songs takes us up to awesome highs with Javed when needed, but also brings us down to feel claustrophobic, in a sense, in the way Javed mostly feels about his lot in life. The movie borders on being a musical, much in the same way Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver does because of the way it uses music so strongly as a backdrop. It’s absolutely fine to go to this movie as Springsteen fan, because there is plenty of music to enjoy (and stick around afterwards for some behind-the-scenes facts and pictures), but you will come away from it with more than just reignited love for the music. It’s inspirational and will leave you with a long-lasting feeling of ‘I can do anything that I believe I can do’. It might not be the most original of messages, but the way in which Chadha has chosen to get it across to us is, and it’s not something you will forget for quite some time. And who knows, maybe it will leave new Springsteen fans in its wake. It would be surprising if it didn’t.