1980s nostalgia is in heavy rotation in entertainment these days, yet it’s largely told from a very American perspective. Blinded By the Light, Gurinder Chadha’s latest, gives us the refreshing change of coming at it from a different angle. Rather than being American-tinged nostalgia, Chadha’s film is set squarely in the blue-collar struggles of 1987, small-town England.
Based on the memoir Greetings from Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor (who also helped write the script adaptation), Blinded by the Light tells the story of Javed, a Pakistani-British teenager living in the small town of Luton. Javed is a dutiful son on the surface, but a dreamer who secretly writes in his spare time and dreams of a life outside of his dead-end town. But the Westernized pull of individual freedom and the pressure put on him by his father, who demands he take a traditional Pakistani path, create conflict within. Does he accept his expected lot in life and live for his family’s wishes? Or does he take a chance and live for himself? When he is introduced to the grounded music of Bruce Springsteen, suddenly, Javed’s eyes are opened to the potential of the world and his yearning to break free grows even more intense.
Bend It Like Beckham, arguably Chadha’s breakout directorial effort, was an instant classic when it came out in 2002. Does Blinded By the Light have the same charm? Here are three reasons you’ll want to see it when it hits theaters.
1. It’s For Any Kid Who Has Ever Wanted To Escape Their Small Town
When I was growing up, my parents, thankfully, never put pressure on me or my sisters to live the lives they wanted us to live, but to live for ourselves. Even so, Javed’s desire to escape his small town and to travel, to see what the world has to offer, was a narrative thread that deeply resonated with me, having also grown up smart and restless in a small town. Any teenager who feels stifled by their current circumstances should relate to Javed’s frustration of feeling stuck with no way out. Viveik Kalra does a wonderful job of showing the push-pull dynamic constantly at war within Javed, even when some of his drama is self-inflicted purely by him being a young, dumb kid who thinks he knows it all. It’s a teenage rite of passage no matter the cultural background you come from: being a teenager means making mistakes.
It will be particularly resonant for third culture kids. I’m a white girl mutt whose family has been in the U.S. for a few generations now. But I have friends who were their family’s first generation born in this country, or who moved here when they were young and grew up with the influence of Western culture. There is a particular thread I’ve witnessed in the lives of these friends whose parents who were reluctant to allow them to fully integrate. To my friends, they were American; to their parents, they were whatever their country of origin was first and foremost, American second. The culture of their original country preempted anything American (or, in Javed’s case, British). Arranged, marriages, for example, are an alien concept to white American kids; I remember being horrified when one of my friends in college glumly told us her Indian parents were looking at an arrangement for her (to her relief, they eventually relented). I never knew what it was like to be pressured into only being in the medical or legal profession, but I saw firsthand the guilt and stress that pressure put on my talented Filipino friend who wanted nothing more than to be a writer. I saw their stories reflected in Javed’s, and it made me appreciate anew all the unique pressures they faced, pressures I couldn’t and can’t understand.
2. It’s Deeply Relevant To Events Happening Today
The UK of the 1980s was a time of turmoil and Chadha does an excellent job of framing the events of Blinded By the Light within this racially-charged historical context while pointedly showing it’s where we’re at right now, in 2019. A large number of East Pakistan families immigrated into the UK for a number of reasons in the 1970s; unfortunately, this also coincided with the deindustrialization of Britain in the ’70s and, later, the effects of Black Monday, the great stock market crash of 1987. Unemployment was high, particularly in small, blue-collar towns that were supported by factory work and manufacturing jobs like Javed’s hometown. The blame was unfairly put on the Pakistani-British workers for having “taken good English jobs” when the economic reality was that there were no jobs to go around in the first place.
The resentment led to the public resurgence of the NF (National Front) a fascist, white supremacist party in Britain. A number of disaffected white British youths, finding themselves unable to vent their frustrations at the government and corporations that were to blame, joined the NF and took their anger out on Pakistani immigrants. Javed’s experiences reflect the reality of the time and what Manzoor remembers from his own teenage years: Being spit on, chased down and beaten up by skinheads, told to go back to his own country, swastikas and racist slurs spray-painted on a neighbor’s home, he and his Sikh friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura) being surrounded by a group of white men and bullied out of their table.
3. Yet It’s A Purely Feel-Good Movie
Despite the above, Blinded By the Light is a feel-good movie. Chadha has always been an optimistic filmmaker, one that incorporates hope into the heaviness of a story, always interested in injecting light into the darkness of the world. To that end, Blinded By the Light is ultimately an inspirational story. Javed’s life and the pressures he faces are serious and considerable but his story arc is one of triumph and freedom, reconciliation and acceptance as he learns to embrace his roots while living for himself.
Yet, I have to be honest here. The Bruce Springsteen narrative and musical interludes didn’t work for me in the way the rest of the movie did. Maybe it’s because I have no particular emotional attachment to the music of The Boss or because the cheesiness of certain scenes clashed with the dramatic elements of the rest, but Blinded By the Light often felt to me like two different movies cobbled together. It’s a movie meant to be watched entirely without cynicism and I admit I couldn’t fully leave my cynicism at the door during some truly awkward scenes where Javed talk-quotes the lyrics of Springsteen at people in lieu of actual conversation or when I was supposed to find some deeper meaning in the often generic lyrics being floated on the screen. I recognize that is entirely a me thing; it might not be a you thing. If you are looking for a movie about the triumph of the human spirit and the reconciliation of a family, Blinded By the Light will absolutely hit that mark for you and I urge you to see it. We need diverse stories spanning an entire spectrum of human experience, and Javed’s story is a two-hour peek into a life millions of immigrant kids live and that millions of us will never experience. But we can get a little closer to it through movies, and that matters now more than ever.
Blinded By the Light is in theaters on August 16.