Blinded by the Light movie review: Gurinder Chadha’s best film since Bend it Like Beckham
Blinded by the Light
Director - Gurinder Chadha
Cast - Viveik Kalra, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Kulvinder Ghir, Aaron Phagura
Few scenes are as heartwarming as the one in Blinded by the Light, in which two young British men — one of them a Muslim of Pakistani origin and the other a Sikh of Indian origin — sit across a table and bond over music, united, against all odds, because of their shared status as unwanted outsiders in a country whose people tore theirs apart.
To the Neo-Nazi punks who piss on their houses and deface their walls, they’re just ‘Pakis’ — the same brown immigrants whom they want kicked out of their country. The racists aren’t aware of the decades of socio-political baggage that Javed and Roops are carrying. And in that moment in 1987, sitting across from each other, discussing their favourite musician, neither are they.
At home, they speak the same language probably; their parents want the same things for them - a better life, money and respect that they could never earn for themselves. It took thousands of miles, regular racial discrimination, and the sickening sensation of not belonging for Javed and Roops to realise how alike they are. And it is a testament to the similarity of our people that director Gurinder Chadha can make films just as effectively about Indian immigrants as she can about Pakistanis.
Watch the Blinded by the Light trailer here
Blinded by the Light, the new film that she co-wrote with Sarfraz Manzoor, based on his autobiography, and available on Netflix, is an absolute delight; a life-affirming fable that has the same magic of Bend it Like Beckham all those years ago. Just like Jess’ dad in that film, Javed Khan’s father would also like for his son to mind his own business and work. “We are Pakistanis,” he tells Javed, played wonderfully by Indian origin actor Viveik Kalra. “We should keep our heads down.” A source of constant tension at the Khan household is Javed’s indifference, and eventual anger towards his father’s gruff manner and controlling ways.
Javed doesn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer, or even an accountant. He wants to be a writer. Poet, lyricist, journalist, essayist; he doesn’t care. He just wants to write. And he feels trapped in the town his father has chosen for their family: Luton. Nothing happens there. Javed wakes up, goes to school, gets pushed around for being brown, and comes back home to a household perennially on the edge of poverty. He seems to have just one friend (until Roops arrives), and every pound he earns is expected to be handed over to his dad.
On his first day at his new school, his father drops him off with the advice, “Follow the Jews!” They seem to be very successful, he tells Javed.
But it is at this new school, surrounded by apathetic white kids with nothing to fight for, that Javed truly finds his calling. When Roops, who happens to be the only other brown kid in sight and therefore instantly qualified to be friends with Javed, lends him his Bruce Springsteen tapes, Javed experiences a once-in-a-lifetime burst of inspiration. He hears in Springsteen’s lyrics about growing up in working class New Jersey the reality of his own existence in Luton. When Springsteen sings about Nixon or Reagan, Javed imagines Thatcher.
Chadha shoots these scenes with suitable exuberance. The Boss’ lyrics zoom around on screen; they’re projected on bare walls and around Javed’s head, as he experiences them for the first time and is transformed. There are obvious parallels to be drawn between Blinded by the Light’s reverence for Springsteen and the adoration for The Beatles that the recent Danny Boyle film Yesterday had. And in many ways, even without the magic realism that Boyle could play around with in Yesterday, Chadha manages to bring a rather fantastical quality to Blinded by the Light.
She’s always made movies about the immigrant experience; but it has been precisely 17 years since she has been as honest as this. Javed and his family feel like real people that she must’ve known, with real problems - even as the Pakistani uncles sit around the living room and complain about there being too many desis in Luton, their mosques are being defaced and they’re being sacked from their jobs.
And the struggles of being an immigrant have never been more relevant than they are now. Blinded by the Light, despite being refreshing lighthearted, is also frighteningly topical.
And Chadha knows this. She displays a rather unexpected restraint in how she weaves in the politics of the time into her story, and by extension makes a comment on our current scenario. One scene towards the end, in which a wedding procession is interrupted by a Neo-Nazi parade, is contrived, but extremely well done - mostly because of how delicately Chadha balances the multiple stories playing out in those tense moments. And just to drive home her point, the scene ends with Javed framed in one of his many close-ups, with a Thatcher billboard demanding everyone ‘vote conservative’ in the background - a necessary moment of spoon-feeding for an audience that is positively starved.
Films like Blinded by the Light might seem run-of-the-mill, but they’re anything but. As boisterous as it may be on the surface, its successes are subtle. Javed Khan is not only a beacon for representation — for South Asians and Muslims and immigrants — but also for a different kind of male movie ‘hero’. He cries; he runs away from fights; he sings and dances; he is a poet and a gentleman. I don’t know about you, but we could do with more like him.
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