There was a certain genre of films back in the mid to late 80s that featured teen characters who felt trapped or stuck in where they were in the world. These circumstances could be because of economics, social status, or even family keeping the main character down from embracing their dreams and aspirations. Movies like Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, even The Last Starfighter had themes of chasing a dream that others say they can’t achieve or defying your parents who are keeping you down.`
It is perhaps providence that circumstances align for the existence of the uplifting comedy drama Blinded by the Light which not only feels like an 80’s movie but since it is based on a true story, takes place in the 80s. Based on the memoir by Safraz Manzoor, Greetings from Bury Park, Blinded by the Light is a comedic drama that is joyful and heart warming as well.
Javed Khan is is a sixteen-year old Pakistani Muslim living with aspirations of being a writer living in 1987 Luton. Unfortunately for his dreams, his working class father does not see writing as a career and on top of that the family is very traditional Muslim which still believes in arranged marriages and familial piety. In other words, a father’s word is law in the household. And one of those laws is no girls, and graduate college and get a good job as a doctor, or lawyer.
While at Sixth Form College, which is like an advanced placement school before applying for university, Javed begins to take writing classes. He also meets and befriends a Sikh friend that would change his life. While talking over lunch Roops lets him borrow a couple of cassette tapes to listen too. They are two tapes of Bruce Springsteen music who Roops claims speaks to their situation as marginalized kids from Luton.
One night, at a particularly low point of frustration with the world, he puts on the Springsteen tape and listens to The Boss. Almost instantly the raw voice and the lyrics about struggling through in a working class world resonate with him. Not only does the music speak to Javed, it is as if the lyrics of Springsteen become a character itself, floating across the screen as if it were alive.
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to startThe dogs on Main Street howl
‘Cause they understand
If I could wrench one moment into my hands
Mister I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land
Rejuvenated by the music of his new found hero, Javed finds enough confidence in himself to start turning in his poems to his supportive English teacher, played by Hayley Atwell. It also gives him the confidence to start talking to fellow classmate, Eliza.
But not everything is great for Javed as his father is laid off from the local auto plant where his traditionalist father had been working for years. His mother must take on more sewing work all the while preparing for the wedding of his oldest sister. Javed faces increasing pressure to conform to the traditions of his family and obey his father’s wish that he do better than becoming “just another Pakistani cab driver.” His father has no understanding or belief that a writer can actually make a living and scoffs when Javed is given not only an internship at the local newspaper but a front page byline. And music of Bruce Springsteen is definitely not understood by his father, who he calls “that Jewish American singer.”
Yet despite his problems at home, he still finds joy in the company of Roops and Eliza. His budding romance with Eliza is an almost by the numbers teen romance. With the music of Bruce Springsteen blasting through his Walkman leads to an impromptu serenade of “Thunder Road,” comically accompanied by a whole street full of shoppers. There is another semi-musical moment later where Roops and Javed hijack the school radio station to play Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” Along with Eliza in true 80s montage style, they dance and cavort about the streets of Luton. These scenes are meant for laughs, are absolutely unrealistic, but are also infectiously fun.
Blinded by the Light is, on the surface, a rather trope filled standard comedy drama. But what it does different and does well is tell its story from the unique perspective of an immigrant family amidst the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s England which was a tumultuous time both economically and racially. It can not be ignored that being a Pakistani Muslim during that that time was not easy as Britain’s neo-Nazi National Front party were openly harassing them in the streets. The story is one many of us may already see play out ahead of time with no real surprises. But as with my review of The Farewell, it is the reason that inclusion and representation makes a difference. It is unique because it tells a story of a culture that is often ignored or marginalized. Yes it is a different culture, but the themes about family and working class struggles are universal.
Director Gurinder Chandra weaves everything together and allows us to peer into a family and community that is not shown enough in cinema. Probably best known for directing Bend it Like Beckham, it too dealt with rebelling against traditionalism.
The cast is filled with relatively unknown actors. Viveik Kaira is absolutely charming as Javed and is easy to relate to and empathize with throughout the film. He starts off as the typical awkward kid, shy and hesitant, but when he is in the Springsteen zone, he is a force of exuberance, charm, and confidence.
Kulvinder Ghir deserves special recognition as Javed’s strict traditional father. It can’t be easy being both comedic and dramatic in the same scene as he carries the weight of both deftly, especially when playing opposite Viveik Kaira.
Hayley Atwell may be the best known of the cast but she is literally there as support for Javed. Yet her character is the first one that offers encouragement to pursue his dream. She channels that one teacher that we all remember that was always there to encourage us.
As a son of immigrants and also Asian, many of the family issues that Javed faces about identity and where one belongs in society resonated with me, especially the desire to be a writer. Blinded by the Light may be a little clichéd, but it has enough working for it from its engaging cast to win you over. And of course the music of Bruce Springsteen helps a lot too.