2019

‘What Would Springsteen Do?’ and Other Questions: Gurinder Chadha’s ‘Blinded by the Light’

Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is first generation British, born to Pakistani parents and lives in Luton. He pitches an article on Bruce Springsteen to the editor of his college newspaper, who cannot quite comprehend why anyone, in 1987, would want to call attention to Springsteen – the “has been,” the epitome of “dad music.” While England’s youth dance to the Pet Shop Boys, Javed discovers Springsteen, and his life – as many Springsteen fans will vouch for – is never the same again. Javed, son of Pakistani immigrants who want him to study Economics, hopes to be a writer. Springsteen, son of an often out-of-work bus driver who wants him to be a lawyer, hoped to be a singer. The potential of this relationship, as the editor rightly recognizes, is endless.

Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light is based upon the life of Chadha’s friend, Sarfraz Manzoor, who has watched Springsteen in concert over 150 times! His book, Greetings from Bury Park, serves as the primary text Chadha builds upon to create the plot of her brilliant new film.

The year Javed turns 16, in the late 80s, Margaret Thatcher threatens to come back to power for the fourth time, and Britain reels under mass unemployment. White nationalist movements gain force with National Front supporters spray painting “Pakis Out” on the walls of Pakistani family homes, and caucasian children pee into the mail slots laughing and shouting, “Wee wee delivery!” While blowing out the candle on his birthday cake, Javed makes a wish: “make friends, kiss a girl and get out of this dump.” In his college, which is wonderfully diverse, Javed meets the Sikh boy Roops (Aaron Phagura) who asks if he has heard The Boss.

“Whose Boss?” he asks.

“The Boss of us all!”

He hands Javed two cassettes: “a direct line to all that’s true in this shitty world.”

When Javed’s very strict Pakistani father (as immigrant South Asian fathers often are) loses his job at the factory, Javed’s existential angst as a brown-skinned British citizen hits the roof, and he throws away all his poems. Javed’s mother takes on double work as a seamstress, and his sisters decide to help her out. It falls upon Javed, the man of the house, to bring home the dough. As a storm rages outside and lightning flashes across the sky, Javed puts on his walkman:

“The dogs on Main Street howl / ‘Cause they understand / If I could take one moment into my hands / Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man / And I believe in a promised land”

As Javed’s body twists and turns against the shadows on the wall, his face lights up with realization. He feels seen; there is someone who knows what his life is like. The melos — music — and the drama in the scene are so intense that it could fit very well into a Hindi film from the 80s. Standing in 1987, Javed listens on as a White man from New Jersey sings a song from 1978. “Bruce knows everything I have ever wanted,” he exclaims. As Roops puts it, his “Bruce cherry” is effectively popped.

Blinded by the Light is not just Chadha’s homage to Springsteen, whose music has been the soundtrack to many adolescent lives, but it is essentially her claiming Springsteen and his music for the South Asian immigrant community that she grew up with; a community that made sense of its very troubled childhoods with Springsteen’s music and words. Roops and Javed confront British nationalists in a restaurant by quoting “Badlands.” As Javed woos his classmate Eliza singing, “Roy Orbison singing for the lonely/ Hey that’s me and I want you only/ Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again,” Springsteen becomes one of our own. He sings songs of love and longing as the hero lipsyncs on. Roops, Javed and Eliza dance on the streets of Luton: around trees, with strangers on the trees and jumping on meadows while “Born to Run” plays in the background. Blinded by the Light could be a Bollywood film, but it isn’t. Like Javed and his sister Shazia, it sits smack in the middle of two cultures. It is a magical amalgamation, a compound substance in which of each of the constituents maintain their own true state.

As much as Blinded by the Light is Javed’s künstlerroman, it is also the story of his immigrant parents who sacrificed their own comforts and left Karachi for Britain, in search of a better life. Malik, Javed’s father, (Kulvinder Ghir) is the father most first-generation children of South Asian immigrants have known. Even when his community is under attack, he chooses to live the good, grateful immigrant life. “We should keep our heads down,” he asserts.

“You think this man sings for people like us?” he asks Javed.

“But he talks to me!”

As Malik grapples with poverty, he sees his big British dream fading, and he frantically turns to his son to salvage matters. “I am not like other Pakistani fathers, I am giving you the freedom of choice. You can choose to be a doctor or a lawyer. So don’t say I don’t give you freedom.” Yes, that statement seems funny, but Chadha and Manzoor’s script does not laugh; it explores the deep pathos in the man who has only known doctors and lawyers who climb the social ladder and get to the top — a climb he wants his children to scale. “Writing is for English people with rich parents,” he tells his son — not because he believes it but because that is what he has seen to be true.

Children of South Asian immigrants often see their parents as homogenous, strict blocks of hard work that yield no emotions other than anger. Chadha, in her brilliance, provides a rare spark: a moment of vulnerability for the parents. As Malik is unable to amass enough funds for his daughter’s wedding, he breaks down and confides in his wife; he has failed his family. He does not like his son “wasting away” only because he wants him to earn a respectable living and to live a life of repute that finally outgrows the slur “Paki.”

Chadha and Manzoor have lived through the racial anxiety and paranoia that has gripped the world harder and harder through the last few years, and Chadha masterfully builds this anxiety into her plot without making it seem like a news bulletin. In a pre-9/11 Newark airport, a TSA agent asks Javed his purpose for visiting America. Watching the film in 2019, I freeze; we all know how this goes. Javed has just won a fellowship to visit Monmouth College, but that’s not the only reason. “I am going to see Bruce Springsteen’s hometown,” he says. “I can’t think of a better reason to visit the United States than to see the home of The Boss,” the agent smiles. This film is as much for America as much as it is for any other country.

“Maybe Springsteen would’ve understood my father because he, too, was the son of poor immigrants,” Javed says in his college graduation, “My hope is to build a bridge to my ambitions but not a wall between me and my family.” As his tearful family looks on, it’s clear they will finally let Javed leave for Manchester to study literature. It is perhaps not the dream Malik had dreamt, but it’s Javed’s dream, and he is ready to take off.

While Springsteen takes the American dream and helps everyone navigate through its dismantling, Gurinder Chadha packs it all up with Blinded by the Light and makes it speak to an entirely different country and a whole new generation. She builds a legacy for a generation who (God forbid!) might not know the words of a man who spoke like a prophet to generations who came before and after them.

“This man speaks of working hard and trusting your parents,” Malik finally concedes, “Are you sure he is not Pakistani?”

Blinded by the Light premiered at Sundance and had its recent New York premiere at the New York Indian Film Festival. It is slated for a worldwide release in August.

Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake.

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