Blinded by the Light Review
When writing about a British South Asian film it’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room, namely the rarity of the event and just how poorly represented the cultures are on screens of any size in the UK. Director Gurinder Chadha has remained a rare beacon of light since marking her arrival with her breakout debut, Bhaji on the Beach and finding commercial success with 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham. 26 years later she is still one of only a few British Asian directors and along with Pratibha Parmar, one of only two notable female British Asian directors working today - a fact which further underlines the disgraceful state of affairs in the domestic film industry.
As commercial and accessible as Chadha’s films have been throughout her career, she has continued to focus on the culture clash faced by young second generation men and women of south Asian heritage raised in the UK. Blinded by the Light is no different, and in many ways follows a similar arc to Bend it Like Beckham. It’s based on the true story of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, whose acclaimed memoir ‘Greetings from Bury Park’ recalled his life growing up in Luton, familial expectations and an undying love for The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.
In recent memory we’ve had films set around the music of Queen, Elton John and The Beatles, but a story about a young British Asian boy falling head-over-heels for Springsteen’s music in 80s Luton is not the most obvious pitch you’ll hear all year. Blinded by the Light is a feel-good film told with broad-strokes buoyed by a raft of Springsteen songs and honest performances by its cast. It’s as constructed and convenient as they come – which is both a good and bad thing – and it gets by because the importance of the film’s themes manage to outweigh its many problems.
Set in 1987, we meet 16-year-old Javed (Viveik Kalra), who craves for something more beyond the life-sapping borders of Luton. He’s geeky and awkward and seems destined to follow the life decisions made for him by his caring but strict father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir). He’s been keeping a diary and writing poems for years and secretly joins an English class at college where he makes friends with Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Springsteen fanatic who introduces him to his music. The lyrics of a small town boy yearning for something bigger strike a nerve and inspires Javed to pursue his own ambitions against the wishes of his father.
The message here is that despite the cultural differences – both geographically and socially – music is powerful enough to cross any barrier. Chadha infuses some moments with a touch of Bollywood flair, although they stop short of finding their real potential to explode into full-on musical extravaganzas. It’s a shame because the music feels underused beyond blasting a stream of Springsteen songs and asking Kalra to awkwardly spout his lyrics in spoken-word form to push forward the story. Particularly clumsy are scenes involving Javed discovering Springsteen for the first time, which see him run out into the infamous storm of 1987 (weatherman Michael Fish even gets his moment) and writhe about in the rain while lyrics and images are projected behind him.
It’s also difficult to ignore the length of the film, which clocks in at just under two hours. The narrative is in no way able to justify that sort of runtime and there is quite a bit of filler it could do without. Chadha has never been the most subtle of filmmakers and that is evident here with a pile-up of clichés and obvious plot points that push us from A to B with a sturdy shove in the back. The cast are in mostly good form, with Ghir asked to play the caricature Asian father to emphasise the difference beliefs of father and son, while Kalra’s earnestness just about covers up his acting inexperience.
What distinguishes Chadha's films time again is her ability to weave British Asian experiences into her stories while making sure they remain commercially accessible. Blinded by the Light is set in the mid-80s at a time when non-white communities were still being subjected to vile and overt racist abuse by the likes of the National Front and Combat 18, and it’s hard to recall many British films that have been given the chance to highlight it from an Asian perspective. As she has many times before, Chadha also looks at the difficulties faced by teenagers raised in a more relaxed Western society while bound by family expectation and tradition. Whether it’s dealing with racism, having a (white) girlfriend, going clubbing (even daytimers is incorporated) or aspiring to make autonomous decisions, these realities are given next-to-no representation in British cinema and it really matters that Chadha has continued to do so.
Despite its flaws there is a soul to Chadha’s film that only the coldest of hearts could ignore. Springsteen’s music may not be the slickest (it was pretty much seen as safe, MOR music in the 80s too) but with good production and costume design from Nick Ellis and Annie Hardinge respectively, there are some nice touches of retro nostalgia for those who can remember the final years of Thatcher’s Britain. That sense of familiarity is what will hopefully turn this into a success and prove to producers and investors that cinema audiences want – and need – to see more of British life beyond the Victorian tourist vision constantly flogged around the world.
Blinded by the Light opens in UK cinemas nationwide on August 9.