We are on the one-year anniversary of the theatrical release of “Crazy Rich Asians” – and what a year it has been. Hollywood appears to be making progress in recognizing the need to share more stories of the immigrant Asian experience. Since “Crazy Rich Asians,” we have seen a few other AsianAm stories come to light on the silver screen and digital display. Netflix brought us “Always Be My Maybe,” which starred Ali Wong and Randall Park in leading roles. Director Danny Boyle helmed “Yesterday,” which told the story of an Indian Brit bringing the music of The Beatles back to the forefront. Nearly two months later comes the release of “Blinded by the Light,” a film named after the famed Bruce Springsteen song and helmed by British Indian director Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham,” “Bride and Prejudice”).
Chadha is somewhat outside of her comfort zone in “Blinded by the Light,” in that she isn’t spinning yarn about the trials and tribulations of Indian women in England. Her subject matter in this go-around centers on Javed (Viveik Kalra), a British teenaged boy of Pakistani descent. The rest of the story, however, is well within Chadha’s wheelhouse: cultural clashes, societal pressures, political struggle and family dynamic.
The director’s motifs are expressed through Javed’s newfound love of Bruce Springsteen and desire to pursue a life of writing. Javed, of course, must face his demons when pursuing his love of Springsteen and desire to write. That demon, predictably, is Javed’s father (portrayed by Kulvinder Ghir). Add in a dose of political discourse – specifically the struggles of working-class South Asians within mainstream British society – and a little coming-of-age storytelling, you have a prototypical Gurinder Chadha film.
“Blinded by the Light” also happens to be a “biopic” of sorts, in that Javed is based upon the life of Sarfraz Manzoor, a British journalist and writer of Pakistani descent. Manzoor grew up in Luton, a small city just outside of London, and fell in love with The Boss’s music as soon as he discovered it in college. (Yes, “Blinded by the Light” is set in Luton and picks up right around the time Javed goes off to college and randomly discovers the music of Springsteen.)
Music, obviously, is one of the film’s stars. We hear quite a bit of Springsteen’s music throughout the film. Kalra, the film’s lead, said Manzoor was instrumental in demonstrating The Boss’s music as being both poetic and relatable.
“It is an odd story. It’s such a weird story. This man, who is 16 or 17 years old, in a tiny town outside London, falls in love with the music of Bruce Springsteen, who is thousands of miles away. There would never be a time where Bruce Springsteen … [would] think, ‘oh, there’s probably a young Pakistani kid, living in Luton and listens to my music,” Kalra explained in an exclusive interview.
Manzoor, who also spoke with this writer in an exclusive interview, added the music of Springsteen was also important because it gave him a sense of community. His appreciation of Springsteen’s music, Manzoor continued, gave him a second community to belong to – he was born into Islam and a Pakistani family, two communities he did not have a choice to join. Yet being a fan of Springsteen allowed Manzoor to be part of another community – and this one, he chose to join.
“You suddenly have kinship and connection all over the world,” Manzoor said. “That’s kind of an incredible feeling of community. I’m part of that community now. There’s something quite lovely about that.”
Kalra and Manzoor also chimed in on the films East versus West themes. Many films obviously present (challenge?) the struggles between eastern and western lifestyles. Chadha, however, manages to present both cultures without vilifying or glorifying either side.
“It must have been tricky to write it. There are no bad guys. It’s just a difference of opinion, a difference of mentality, a difference of upbringing [and] a difference of culture,” Kalra said.
The difference in culture and upbringing and mentality was on full display in “Blinded by the Light,” Kalra continued. Javed telling his dad in the film he wants to be a writer is something the dad cannot fathom, because of the cultural paradigm he personally experienced in immigrating to the United Kingdom, according to Kalra.
“From his cultural background, from his upbringing, what you need when you come to another country and another place, if you want stability – he came to the country to feed his family. The creative aspects [of work] – writing, acting – that wouldn’t even be in the picture. That would’ve been a hobby, not a way of making money,” Kalra said.
The idea of pursuing a career in the arts is a recent phenomenon, according to Manzoor – and, hence, a concept certain cultures might not immediately embrace – especially in an environment, thousands of miles away from home, that isn’t welcoming.
“It’s only [the current] generation where that field is much more meaningful,” Manzoor said.
The writer and Springsteen lover who was the real-life subject matter of “Blinded by the Light” also pointed out the East versus West storyline is far more dynamic and colorful than many might realize. Telling any story about East versus West, Manzoor said, must be sensible to all the parties involved, as no one is exclusively East or singularly West – especially when the story told involves narratives of immigrants.
“I suppose the key thing about [East versus West] is when you’re trying to make a film, you have to have opposition, you have to have struggles, but it’d be simple to have the person who is in opposition a complete monster who has no nuance and who is basically a bad guy who … you’re fighting against. I didn’t want my dad to be depicted like that, because people are more complicated. So, I think part of it is you try to show nuance. You show him as a human being,” Manzoor said.
East versus West is not black and white – there are no hard lines defining one side against the other. The lines are blurred, Manzoor acknowledged.
“The things you think you’re differentiating, there the same things, to some extent,” he said.
East and West aren’t the only two themes where we find similarities – there are times when Blinded by the Light, which was set in 1987, feels as if it took place 30 years later, in Trump’s America.
“It’s a period film that’s actually timely. It’s set in 1987, and yet some of the themes [replay today],” Manzoor said. “Some of the language that’s in the film hasn’t been heard for decades and then has come back, when it comes to racist language. Some of the actions that are in the film haven’t been seen for a long time, but now it’s come back. In some ways it is a reminder of some parallels, some uncomfortable parallels. That wasn’t intended, that’s just what my childhood was like and sadly that’s what the present is like.”
Kalra viewed the film’s time period in a slightly different lens. The young actor, who would be born several years after 1987, spent a lot of time learning about the 1980s.
“It was a tough time – being working class, in the 80s and being Asian, was not a good combination. I have to imagine those circumstances, because they are not the circumstances I currently live in. So, it was looking back and seeing what happened back in the day,” Kalra said.
Kalra, to be fair, certainly did a good job of reliving the life of 1980s Luton, all while honoring the life of Manzoor.
“Blinded by the Light,” which also stars Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Nell Williams, Meera Ganatra and Aaron Phagura, opened Aug. 9.