From director Gurinder Chadha (whose Bend it Like Beckham remains a forever classic) comes the wonderful Blinded by the Light. Loosely based on the life of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, the film intricately ties together the music of Bruce Springsteen with the coming-of-age of a young British man of Pakistani descent who must contend with his very traditional parents and going against their wishes to do his own thing, Blinded by the Light is another shining example of the immigrant experience and how its specificity makes it universal. It goes one step further to tackle race, socioeconomic status, and the complexities that come along with wanting to belong—whether in society or your own family—despite the rejection. It’s also corny in the best way.
Probably the most distinctive and complex relationship in the film is that between Javed (Viveik Kalra) and his father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir). Parents’ expectations for their children can be high. The heightened sense of disappointing the parental unit is one that many know very well, myself included. Arguably, immigrant parents strike an even more visceral feeling in their children. This is primarily because it isn’t simply about a generational gap. There’s also a layered cultural component, with the children often caught between two cultures while the parents are removed from theirs, their traditions fossilized in time and adapted to a new place. So even something as small as Javed listening to Bruce Springsteen’s music and not Pakistani music is frowned upon, widening the gap between the understanding of his son and vice versa.
Like Malik, the expectation for Javed is that he will honor and listen to his family, get a job that makes money, and remember he is Pakistani in a country that isn’t. More importantly, he won’t step out of line and rebel against any of these wishes. However, Javed wants to do his own thing. He’s a writer and he’s good at it, but writing doesn’t make money, nor is it worthy of a job in his father’s eyes. Their conflict is magnificently portrayed, most especially because the film deeply understands that, while Javed is frustrated with his father in his overall lack of understanding, he is also unwilling to dig deep to fathom Malik’s own struggles. When he does, Javed discovers they have more in common than he’d come to believe, both rebellious and seeking better lives, but in different ways unique to them. Proud, stubborn, and equally resilient, Malik and Javed also ascribe to two very different immigrant and masculine experiences and Chadha masterfully explores both of these characters without condescension, but with genuine understanding and respect.
Chadha most likely understands this experience from a personal perspective, even though the film is loosely based on someone else’s life. The first-generation immigrant experience is at the forefront of the film and Chadha handles it with the utmost care and nuance, elevating the film so that it resonates emotionally with the audience. Watching Javed give the speech at the end of the film is a viscerally moving and profound scene that leaves a lasting impression. The use of Bruce Springsteen’s music and lyrics is an extension of the film that brings to life Javed’s feelings and experiences. In a way, the musician’s lyrics work as a binding connection between who Javed is and who he wants to be, exemplifying the need to be his own man like his father before him and also helping him to eventually understand his family’s sacrifice to give him a better life.
The film is set in 1980s England, but it shares so many similarities with the present that the times occasionally seem to blur together. Margaret Thatcher’s England is plagued by rampant racism, the working class suffers through a terrible economy (no jobs, no hope, no way out of the dead-end town of Luton) and Javed’s family is trying to make ends meet while also keeping out of the way of some aggressively bigoted neighbors. Being Pakistani in a country that actively hates you and caught between two worlds is hard enough to navigate, but Chadha balances the realistic portrayal of a racist and economically unstable society with the unwavering hope of a young man who stands at the precipice of what the future has to offer, aware of what surrounds him, but unafraid to fight against it.
The film tackles the immigrant experience, the complexities of biculturalism, the conflict of ideals and traditions that separate father and son, and the exploration of race and economic status amazingly well. Yet, somehow, Javed’s hopeful dreams, of pride in one’s background and family, and Springsteen’s lyrics work together to make for an emotionally impactful, nuanced, and engaging film. And despite some of its heavier themes, Blinded by the Light maintains a lighthearted tone throughout, cognizant of its heartwarming nature that rests at its core.