Tara Gandhi reviews her new favourite coming-of-age film
Gurinder Chadha’s latest offering is out and it does not disappoint. Blinded By The Lighttells the story of Javed Kahn (Viveik Kalra), the son of a Pakistani immigrant living in 80s Luton, who finds his place in the world through the music of Bruce Springsteen. Not the most conventional of premises, the film is part coming-of-age story, part musical, and a deep look into the mindset of an immigrant family in a country that does not yet fully accept them.
As a film in itself, Blinded By The Light is no masterpiece. It takes you a while to work out that it is essentially a musical, which means for the first few musical scenes you find yourself cringing, and the writing can feel a little juvenile and forced. But as a story that is shared by the children of immigrants across Britain, it is a standout feat. The value that this representation has for its audience is immeasurable and distinguishes the film from the countless other coming-of-age stories that came before it.
The thing about media produced by British Asians about British Asians is that it exists on two levels. There is the level that the wider world consumes and enjoys, and then there is the second level that exists just for the British Asians watching, with the little inside jokes and shared memories held by the community. Blinded By The Light exists on both these levels, but the latter is where it truly shines. The particular indignity of Javed’s father feeling like he’s failed the family, the devastation of his mother having to pawn her bangles, and the garbled mix of triumph and guilt felt every time Javed makes a selfish decision, are all felt on a more intrinsic level for a small number of the audience. The representation it gives is refreshing, and it is clear it comes from a genuine place, with the representation mirrored behind the camera too.
This is not to say the film is not enjoyable for those who are not immigrants, or non-asians. It serves up a healthy dose of nostalgia for anyone who grew up in the 80s, and the showcase of Springsteen’s music is incredible. Despite the nazis in it, it is a feel-good film, and one with a plot that is as relevant today as it is in its 1980s setting.
Chadha’s direction is spectacular, and plays a huge role in making the film a joy to watch. It elevates the script, which she had a role in writing, to a level it would not have reached on writing alone. The acting is also a standout, with the new face of Viveik Kalra carrying the entire film with his brilliant depictions of emotional vulnerability and childlike wonder. There are also welcome comedic interceptions from the legends that are Sally Phillips and Rob Brydon, as well as the British Asian favourite, Kulvinder Ghir, who brilliantly displays the complexity of Malik, Javed’s father, as well as providing the brilliant easter egg throwback to his Goodness Gracious Me days: “this Bruce Springsteen.. are you sure he’s American? […] in his songs he says work hard, don’t give up, respect your parents. This man must be Pakistani!”
Immigrant stories are too often caricatures, with a controlling and angry father and a tired, suffering mother who has no freedoms or joy. Representation of that form does not feel like representation for anyone involved – the actors nor the audience. But Blinded By The Light turns this on its head, highlighting the vulnerability of Javed’s father and the strength of his mother (Meera Ganatra). Javed’s sister, Shazia, (Nikita Mehta) ensures the story doesn’t become one of a second-generation immigrant trying his best to distance himself from his family’s culture and traditions, as stories about teens of colour so often become. Instead she, and her “daytimer” club activities highlight the joys of integration, of honouring where you’ve come from while celebrating the culture you’re now a part of.
I can’t recommend this film enough, especially to South Asians. It feels like the lives of my peers and their parents and their parents before them blasted in 80s glory into a neat 120-minute package. So much of it resonates today, and to see a story that I can relate to so deeply on the big screen still feels like a treat.