The 35th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival has come and gone, and among one of the gems The Nerds of Color had the privilege of watching was Gurinder Chadha’s (Bend it Like Beckham) latest film, Blinded by the Light. The film is inspired by British journalist, Sarfraz Manzoor’s real-life story of growing up as part of a conservative Pakistani family in a racist 1980s England. It chronicles how Manzoor, called “Javed” in the film rose above the challenges of growing up during that era through his discovery of Bruce Springsteen’s music.
In addition to being the most charming ’80s coming-of-age musical since 2016’s Sing Street, Blinded by the Light is by far one of the most relatable films about growing up as a person of color to come out in recent years. It presents two primary conflicts Javed has to overcome: Living with the racial tensions and prejudice among the ways Pakistani citizens were being treated in England during the time, and Javed’s own desires to chase his dreams given his inherent talents as a writer, while his familial and cultural obligations force him to try and abandon those pursuits.
At various points throughout the film, the two conflicts beautifully feed into one another. Javed, inspired and fueled by how the rebellious poetry of Springsteen’s brand of “working man” rock speaks to him, uses both Springsteen’s music and his affinity for writing as an outlet to combat the racial tensions. While on the other hand, the racial tensions serve as constant reminders to Javed’s family that he’s not, and will never be, inherently British, and shouldn’t be influenced by a more liberal culture to pursue those dreams.
The film pulls no punches in terms of Javed’s personal challenges being incredibly grey all around. Every choice, every risk, every challenge, every asset feels like a real life situation with no easy answer. You embrace your talents and pursue writing, you end up disappointing your parents. You abide by your parents’ expectations for you, you live a hollow existence by lying to yourself about your passions. And on top of that, you need to live day to day with bullies and jerks who spit in your direction because you’re of different descent. How do you stand up to that while still being the better man or not getting yourself killed? These are the questions the movie asks of its protagonist, and it’s all the bolder and the better for it.
Further enhancing this sentiment is Viveik Kalra as Javed, which is truly a star-making, breakout performance. And the way the character was written completely and realistically captures the essence of being a conflicted youth of color with more liberal views than those of one’s conservative culture. The film and Kalra’s performance allow us to walk in Javed’s shoes, because we grew up wearing the very same shoes.
For instance, as a person of color, a writer no less, I have experienced the same dilemmas. Growing up, my mother wanted me to be a doctor, while I wanted to be a writer or filmmaker. For years growing up, I dealt with that struggle. Then when she saw my biochemistry grades, expectations were set more realistically, and we figured I’d save more lives as a writer than I would as a doctor.
The point being that Javed’s struggle in the film is my struggle. It’s the struggle of all second generation and up persons of color that have had to deal with the cultural differences of our parents. The heights of believability this film achieves for people of color are astounding down to the real and raw arguments between Javed and his father. And we are able to invest in and identify with the situations and with Javed’s character all the more because of the empathetic writing, Chadha’s direction, and performance from Kalra. Everything feels personal. Everything feels lived in.
We haven’t even scratched the “Springsteen” of it all! Javed’s love of Springsteen does become infectious as the film progresses. We understand why he falls in love with Springsteen’s songs and lyrics instantly. Chadha’s directorial visual style of highlighting the specific lyrics that mean the most to Javed at critical times instantly reminded me of another musically driven (pun intended) movie from two years ago — Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver in how poignant and personal the music feels to the characters.
However in the case of Blinded by the Light, the choice of music and the point of highlighting the lyrics is narratively stronger, as what’s being highlighted on the screen specifically speaks to Javed’s character during those scenes. The lyrics are about the downtrodden underdogs in society, as well as the strength that comes in fighting for what you believe in. That’s Javed. And we begin to see his character becoming increasingly more confident and bold as a result of these songs and lyrics. Not to mention a bunch of terrifically fun scenes utilizing songs like “Born to Run,” which give the movie a bit more of a fanciful feeling of liberation and celebration at times.
The only real criticism I had about the movie is that it can be a bit draggy at times. But to be honest, I don’t know if I’d cut any of it out. Everything that happens in the movie is not only relatable but necessary in telling Manzoor’s story, and would be a disservice to showcasing how he overcame the challenges he did.
Thus, overall, I implore the readers of this site to see Blinded by the Light when it comes out in August. Not only will you be treated to a charming, toe-tapping coming-of-age story, but a rare movie that paints a character and situations that we as persons of color from various backgrounds can wholeheartedly personally identify with. Trust me. You’ll come out of the theaters humming a tune, and wearing a smile.
Overall Score: A
Blinded by the Light comes out August 14. You can watch the official trailer below.