Blinded by the Light (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
Fifteen to twenty minutes into Gurinder Chadha’s Bruce Springsteen love letter “Blinded by the Light,” I was unmoved and unimpressed. It throws one cliché after another right onto our laps: a syrupy flashback—narration and all—of childhood friends who dream of escaping from their boring hometown one day, sixteen-year-old Javed (Viveik Kalra) living in a Pakistani household ruled by a patriarch (Kulvinder Ghir) with an iron fist, Javed walking down a school hallway—in slow motion, no less—during his first day of college… and then laying his eyes on a girl who would later become his first love (Kit Reeve). These are nothing special. Tired, dull. They are, at best, situations we come across on silly television pilots where half the viewership is gone even before the episode is over. But then the film comes alive the second Javed inserts the “Born in the U.S.A.” cassette into his portable player and “Dancing in the Dark” begins to play.
From here the picture shows an understanding of why this particular story, set in 1987 Thatcher era, needs to be told. It is not just about a boy who listens to Springsteen and falls in love with The Boss’ music. It is about how Javed comes to terms with his identity—as a budding writer, as a Pakistani living in Britain, as a son and brother, as a friend—Springsteen’s music just so happens to serve as catalyst. At the same time this coming-of-age story is not afraid to be political. Workers lose jobs as a result of specific government policies. Racists hold rallies demanding that they want their country back—whatever that means. There is threat of violence. At times violence is enacted. Even white children are shown urinating into their brown neighbors’ home.
We are given a thorough look into Javed’s home life. Malik, the father, is proud that he is able to leave Pakistan and start a family in Britain. He loves his family, but we also get an impression that he rules them. It is expected that money earned by his wife (Meera Ganatra), daughter (Nikita Mehta), and son be handed to him. No questions, no complaints. The camera fixates on his hands as money is handed to him. This Pakistani family adheres to tradition. Deviating from it would result in dire consequences—precisely why our protagonist is so moved by Springsteen’s songs because many of them are about rising up against The Man, the establishment, the norm, tradition. As a result, Javed and Malik are often at odds.
But because the screenplay by the director, Sarfraz Manzoor, and Paul Mayeda Berges makes a point to underscore the humanity of each character we meet, not once do we forget that the central conflict is rooted in love. To Malik, success is hand-in-hand with money. There is an amusing—and accurate—exchange between father and son when the former claims he gives the latter so much freedom because Javed is not required to become a doctor. He can choose to be a lawyer, an accountant, or a real estate agent. And so Javed should be thankful to his father for being so charitable. It goes to show that sometimes it is more compelling to see two characters who deeply love each other clash than it is to watch enemies. There is more at stake.
We come across the usual lip-synching and dancing in between comic and dramatic moments, but these are executed with high energy, infectious joy, and freshness. Look at the way the lyrics dance around characters, for example. These are presented differently with each song and depending on the mood of a scene. Notice that sometimes Kalra is actually singing the songs—his voice may not be particularly strong but it feels exactly right because the performer gets to interpret the feeling of the words and phrases instead of simply moving his mouth and allowing Springsteen to interpret for his character. It makes a whole world of difference. It is astute decisions like these that make “Blinded by the Light “ absolutely worth seeing.