Blinded By The Light movie review: Gurinder Chadha explores familiar beats, but with incredible passion

 
Blinded By The Light movie review: Gurinder Chadha explores familiar beats, but with incredible passion

Blinded by the Light feels like Gurinder Chadha perfecting the British-Asian formula she toyed with in Bend it Like Beckham. That is hardly a derision, considering the far-reaching impact of the 2002 romantic sports comedy — it was the first western film to play on North Korean television.

Where Blinded by the Light departs from its spiritual predecessor is in its story of discovery. Where the cultural struggle in Bend it Like Beckham stemmed from Jess (Parminder Nagra) having a pre-existing love for football and David Beckham, Chadha’s 2019 update Javed (Viveik Kalra) is struck by the lightning that is Bruce Springsteen, whose sudden intrusion fills a complicated void in his life, and upon whose lyrics and persona the young Asian poet begins to mould his identity.

Based on British-Pakistani journalist Sarfaraz Manzoor, Blinded by the Light is a breath of fresh air, though not because it feels new or unconventional. Rather, it deals strictly with the familiar (for better and for worse), though it does so with incredible passion, zipping through scenes and between scenarios at breakneck speed, but slowing down to let its characters reflect at just the right moments. The dramatic beats are all aligned from the get-go, if you are familiar enough with stories of South Asians struggling in the West: the familial tensions and secrecy, the eye-rolls at cultural heritage, the search for acceptance in whiteness, the parental falling-out, and even the melodramatic reconciliation. It is a formula that can feel rote after enough exposure, but is also one based in emotional honesty, given just how many real lives it reflects.

Chadha’s concern here, it would seem, is not the mere narration of these experiences, but turning each one into its own distinct melody. There is watching a film and seeing your story unfold from a distance, and then there is watching Blinded by the Light, a hyper-active retelling of your own best, worst, most awkward coming-of-age years, making you relive each moment in vivid colours.

The setting: Luton, 1987. British-born Javed is 16 and about to start high school. He has two older sisters, and two hardworking immigrant parents from Pakistan. He is a loner and an outsider, save for his friend and neighbour Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), a white punk rocker for whom Javed occasionally writes broody, cliché lyrics that do not apply to anyone but himself. He is frustrated with his small-town life and his sense of purposelessness, and he quite literally fades into the backdrop of several scenes (the costume and production design are impeccable, aided by cinematographer Ben Smithard’s saturated palette, which pops like candy).

Javed’s poetry teacher Ms Clay (Hayley Atwell) takes an interest in his work, but he hides both his art, and himself, from the world. He does not fit in with any of the cliques at school, and he runs in to the growing National Front (a local Neo Nazi movement) on more than one occasion. He does not quite feel British thanks to his family, but he does not feel Pakistani either thanks to everyone else — which is when he discovers a third alternative, when a Sikh student at school, draped in denim and American flags, slips him a couple of Springsteen tapes like an illicit substance.

After a fight with his parents over wanting to be a writer, Javed tosses out his poetry, puts on his first Springsteen tape, and has his mind completely blown. The words appear in text around him, fading in and out like fireflies, as he walks through recent scenes from his own life, now re-contextualised by the words of a man thousands of miles away. His discarded poems get swept up in a literal whirlwind outside his window. He steps out into the rain and sings his heart out, feeling understood and liberated for the first time, as more lyrics (and scenes from Springsteen’s life in New Jersey) are projected on the walls around him — a massive mirror to his own life as a working class kid in the suburbs.

This formalist dreamscape would be the perfect end to any story, though in Blinded by the Light, it is just the beginning. As much as Springsteen opens up Javed’s heart, finding himself through music cannot help but narrow his perspective too.

Viveik Kalra carries Javed admirably, from his gawky, beige-clad introversion before discovering Bruce, to his cocksure demeanor after the fact. His transformation into a dreamy, denim-clad hunk is almost cartoonish, but it works like a charm. He sings ballads like 'Born to Run' as he sprints down the street with his Sikh friend Roop (Aaron Phagura) and his new girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams), a recent Springsteen convert. But these scenes are often inter-cut with more down-to-Earth moments, like Javed’s parents struggling to make ends meet.

Javed and his friends tune out the rest of the world, though doing so also means shutting people out. Javed’s father Malik is, fittingly, played by Kulvinder Ghir of Goodness Gracious Me, the landmark British-Asian sketch show from the mid-late 90s. He feels like an embarrassing caricature of a clueless South Asian immigrant father, since that is how Javed sees him. “Stay away from girls, and follow the Jews!” he advises Javed, in full view of his classmates. Though as the film goes on, it slowly peels back Malik’s layers and reveals the deep pain and betrayal he, too, feels as an outsider who bet his life on moving to a foreign country.

While Javed gets swept up in big dreams — dreams he certainly deserves to have — his family gets caught in the economic downturn of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and the resultant xenophobia. Slowly, Javed’s self-discovery begins to brush up against his family’s well-being, introducing the film’s central tension between individualism and collectivism, a tenet of the East-West culture clash that often goes unspoken in such films (or at best, is approached uncritically).

Blinded by the Light is steeped in meaning, and its social turbulence feels undeniably relevant. Though let it not go unsaid: it is a wildly fun experience as well. It is filled to the brim with white-hot visual energy. And while it eventually cools down before sliding back toward convention, the film is unafraid to tackle the knotty, awkward, hilarious nuances of having to choose between different parts of your culture(s), and those of yourself.

Blinded by Light screened at The New York Indian Film Festival, which ran from 7 May to 12 May.