Blinded by the Light film still

What do Bruce Spring­steen and a Pak­istani lad from Luton have in common?

Gurinder Chadha’s latest film Blinded by the Light is some much-needed optimism in today’s rather grey world, set to the soundtrack of The Boss’ legendary back catalogue.

Grow­ing up British Asian is no easy feat. Over­bear­ing par­ents want­i­ng what’s best for you,” hopes of you becom­ing a doc­tor or den­tist, being force-fed aloo gobi. For chil­dren of immi­grant par­ents, there’s always a wor­ry that you’re falling off track – no mat­ter how many exams you’ve passed, or how many sen­tences you’ve cracked in Punjabi. 

Films like foot­balling com­ing-of-ager Bend it Like Beck­ham (2002) and inter­sec­tion­al com­e­dy Bha­ji on the Beach (1993) have tack­led these tropes head-on, plac­ing young British Asian audi­ences in relat­able sce­nar­ios. The work of direc­tor Gurinder Chad­ha draws heav­i­ly on her per­son­al expe­ri­ence of grow­ing up in a Sikh fam­i­ly in 1970s Southall, west Lon­don. Return­ing with a new com­ing-of-age adap­ta­tion, Blind­ed by the Light taps into racism, eco­nom­ic tur­moil and con­di­tions of over­bear­ing par­ents, set to the appar­ent­ly incon­gru­ous music of Bruce Springsteen. 

Based on Sar­fraz Manzoor’s biog­ra­phy Greet­ings from Bury Park, the film fol­lows 16-year-old Javed as he nav­i­gates through Thatcher’s Britain. Feel­ing trapped, his tur­ban-wear­ing Sikh friend Roops intro­duces him to the mag­ic of Bruce Spring­steen, whose music he finds solace in from thereon-in. 

The thing that struck me the most about Spring­steen was that it was oper­at­ing on a dif­fer­ent lev­el,” says Man­zoor, on whom Javed is based. He was much more involved in social real­ism rather than just fan­ta­sy and escapism.”

That’s Spring­steen: the all-Amer­i­can, blue-col­lar poster boy. The epit­o­me of the hard-work­ing Amer­i­can Dream. Javed, mean­while, is a star­ry-eyed Pak­istani-British lad from Luton with hopes of becom­ing a writer. The two, you would imag­ine, have lit­tle in com­mon. But the sim­i­lar­i­ties come down to escape: Spring­steen dreamed of leav­ing his small-town life in New Jer­sey, and did. Javed hopes for much of the same.

[Spring­steen] was bang on, say­ing: I come from down in the val­ley / Where mis­ter when you’re young / They bring you up to do like your dad­dy done” [from 1980’s The Riv­er]. That’s straight for­ward, isn’t it? I liked the sto­ry­telling and emo­tion­al honesty.”

The restric­tions that South Asian immi­grant par­ents place on their kids is a reminder of the dif­fi­cul­ties British Asian teens face when indulging in their own aspi­ra­tions. Are we liv­ing for our­selves, or for the approval of mum and dad? It’s some­thing Chad­ha has repeat­ed­ly tack­led in her film­mak­ing, most notably in Bend it Like Beck­ham with lead char­ac­ter Jesmin­der Bhamra’s pur­suit of pro-foot­ball glo­ry, against the wish­es of her parents.

There’s so much dra­ma between the kid’s per­spec­tive and the parent’s per­spec­tive because it’s rid­dled with guilt, it’s very emo­tion­al,” she says. For me, it’s a great con­flict that tells us a lot about our­selves and our community.”

I don’t see the world as us and them, I see the world as all of us” – Gurinder Chadha

Javed’s expe­ri­ences through­out the film point direct­ly at feel­ing nei­ther British or Asian: whether it’s his family’s dis­ap­proval of him lis­ten­ing to west­ern music, his girlfriend’s par­ents’ reac­tion to him being brown, or hav­ing to hide his white girl­friend from his own par­ents. The take­away is that grow­ing up brown in Britain tends to mean you’re placed in a con­fus­ing back-and-forth of not being white enough for your mates at school, but not being brown enough for your par­ents at home either.

What it meant to be Asian or Pak­istani was quite a lim­it­ed def­i­n­i­tion,” Man­zoor says of his own expe­ri­ence. It was like you had to do these fol­low­ing things to tick the box’. Par­tic­u­lar­ly at that time, there was this thing where you’re not doing the things Asian peo­ple are meant to be doing; whether that’s the job you’re doing, the music you’re lis­ten­ing to or the clothes you’re wearing.”

While the film is set in 1987, those notions still ring true today and it’s hard to shake a sense that we could be head­ing back to sim­i­lar­ly bleak times. We’re in the midst of aus­ter­i­ty-dri­ven divi­sion. The Con­ser­v­a­tive are in pow­er (seem­ing­ly for­ev­er). There’s a feel­ing of uncer­tain­ty in the air.

What Blind­ed by the Light offers, then, is hope. Sure, the joy­ous singing and danc­ing might give you a toothache at times, but the back­drop of Springsteen’s lega­cy reminds us that find­ing com­fort in some­thing – whether it’s music, a film, a book – is an easy (and cheap) way of momen­tar­i­ly find­ing escap­ing. Whether you’re a brown kid bal­anc­ing uncom­fort­ably between your white mates and your par­ents, or you’re feel­ing the country’s divi­sion through Brex­it, at the end of it all, the mes­sage is one of opti­mism. We’re in it togeth­er, aren’t we?

I don’t see the world as us and them, I see the world as all of us,” Chad­ha says. No one’s going to sep­a­rate. We’re all mov­ing for­ward together.” 

Blind­ed by The Light: Orig­i­nal Motion Pic­ture Sound­track is out now on Colum­bia Records/​Legacy Recordings

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