*WARNING: spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film yet!*
Based on the real life experiences of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, Gurindher Chadha’s latest film is set in 1987 in Luton and ‘milk snatcher’ Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister of the UK. Raised in a traditional Pakistani household, sixteen year old Javed Khan (played by Viveik Kalra) dreams of becoming a writer, getting rich, kissing a girl and escaping the city.
While Wham boys and Bananarama girls dominate the hallways, Javed is an outsider who finds salvation in the music of Bruce Springsteen after a friend hands him The River and Born to Run on cassette. He listens to them on his walkman for the first time in a state of despair as his hardworking father has just been laid off from his job of seventeen years. There is a storm sweeping across the neighbourhood and the lyrics appear on screen spinning around his head. In a cheesy, melodramatic release of emotion Javed screams into the wind:
“The dogs on main street howl ‘Cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land.”
While the theatrics may feel over the top, many people watching should be able to relate to the feeling of how music can have a profoundly personal effect of finding common ground in human experiences, as though someone knows everything you’ve ever felt. You don’t need to be a Springsteen fan to understand what Javed is going through – you only need to have been a teenager.
Javed’s English teacher says that the job of a writer is to tell the world something that it needs to hear. His quiet angsty rage fuels an interest in poetry, to get down all of his thoughts and find his voice. This almost parallels the narrative of Jess from Bend it Like Beckham (Chadha’s groundbreaking success), who wants to pursue a career in football. Both characters battle the traditional values expected by South Asian parents against their British peers.
Notably, Kulvindher Ghir steals the show with his portrayal of a proud yet caring Pakistani father, doing his best to provide for his family. As his walls eventually break down he accepts his son’s wishes to take control of his own life, and references the sketch comedy show Goodness Gracious Me, by questioning Springsteen’s ethnicity – ‘Are you sure he isn’t Pakistani?’
Empowered by the music of Bruce Springsteen, Javed’s story shows that
music can break down cultural differences. Being from a community that is often unheard, lacking visibility or misrepresented, discovering people or ideas you can relate to is so important. In a climate of racial tension where Javed is spat on by an NF skinhead and later sees white kids urinating through a family’s letterbox chanting ‘smelly, smelly Pakis’, it seems clear why he is so desperate to escape.
To some it may not seem feasible that a Pakistani teenager in the 80s felt so passionately about an American singer, or that one of his best friends could be a white boy called Matt who believes that ‘synths are the future’, but from my own experiences the connection is not so far fetched. My father moved to London from Sri Lanka with his parents when he was only six years old, and in the 70s he began listening to Bob Dylan. Growing up, I was taken to several Dylan conventions, gigs and even to his hometown in Minnesota. I did sometimes wonder why my dad was so obsessed with an American folk singer whose world must look so different to ours. Javed’s family have similar concerns as his older sister angrily scolds him saying ‘You should be listening to our music before you start getting confused and hating yourself.’ Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan wrote their songs with the intention of empathising with South Asian teenagers in the UK. What matters is that great music is universal. It has the power to make someone feel less alone and transport their listener to ‘that place where we really want to go and […] walk in the sun.’
Blinded By The Light is a feel good summer hit, taking the audience on an adventure through highway dance montages, teenage romances, Asbury Park pilgrimages and bhangra filled daytime raves. Javed’s journey as a writer is inspiring as he transitions from the disillusioned author of ‘Luton is a Four Letter Word’, to a local journalist and finally delivers a heartfelt speech encouraging his classmates not to let the hardness of the world stop the best of them from slipping away.
With Brexit and Trump dominating news headlines, conversations around race and cultural identity are still difficult to have, but are as important to prioritise. This summer alone, both Yesterday and Blinded by The Light have had South Asian actors plastered on buses across the UK, and so it would appear that the visibility is not as much of an issue any more. However, if audiences are not unable to understand why this is not just a coming of age story, but a story which stretches the cultural perception of what it means to grow up South Asian amongst Western influences, then there is still some progress to be made.