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
23 minutes into Gurinder Chadha’s film Blinded By The Light, as Pakistani British teenager Javed Khan soaks in the news that his father has been laid off from his job at the local car factory in Luton, England, Javed’s sister Shazia walks in as he writes poetry, seeking some sort of reassurance. Javed has none. With Britain in the grip of economic chaos and racist nationalism under the Conservative Party government of Borgret Johnser– wait, uh, Margaret Thatcher–Javed, caught between his traditionalist family, working class struggle, and the racist society in which he fights to find acceptance, is fed up. “You and me, Shazia, we were born at the wrong time, in the wrong town, in the wrong family.” He begins to crumple and destroy the years of poems he’s written on loose leaf since his friend Matt gave him a journal in primary school. Outside, the wind howls as a hurricane, the Great Storm of 1987, approaches. Shazia retreats, while Javed begins unpinning his works from the wall.
As he carries them out to the trash bin in front of their house, the wind picks up, scattering tens of pages across the parking lot of the neighboring residences. Javed kicks his room door open, sits down at his desk, and sighs, noticing a cassette of Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run album lying on the floor, and pops it into his Walkman. Earlier in the day, Roops, a Sikh boy and his newest and only friend at Luton Sixth Form College, had given him the cassette and one of Darkness On The Edge Of Town, referring to Springsteen as “The direct line to all that is true in this shitty world” and “The Boss of us all”. With nothing better to do and nothing to lose, Javed starts the cassette. As he stares vacantly into the distance, words appear on screen , the lyrics to the first verse of “Dancing In The Dark”. Startled, J stops the track for a second, then clicks it back on again. As Springsteen’s dance rock anthem about frustration and insecurity plays in the background, Javed gazes into the mirror and then longingly at the poems he just cast into the maelstrom, opening his window to catch a fragment of one as it flutters in the wind. Yasmeen, his other sister barges in. “Hey, have you gone mental? Close the bloody window!” Noticing the song, she adds, “You should be listening to our music before you get confused and start hating yourself.”
The song continues. As the lyrics of “Dancing In The Dark” swirl across the screen, Javed confronts memories of his mother slumped over her dressmaking work to make ends meet and his father barking orders at him over a typewriter. He opens the door to the Khan family home. As lightning crashes, Javed throws on his coat, clicks on “The Promised Land” from Springsteen’s Darkness album, and rushes outside to recover his poems. Thunderstruck by the words, which swirl around him projected onto buildings, he relives all the racist abuses, social frustrations, and familial embarrassments which have afflicted him already less than a quarter of the way into the film, finding in Springsteen’s anguished but defiant voice the catharsis necessary to reclaim his self respect. As he gathers the remnants of his works off the ground, Javed shouts to the sky, “If I could take one moment into my hand…Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man…And I believe in a promised land!”, before rushing back inside with all the fire of one for whom Springsteen’s works will henceforth become a religion.
I’ve taken the time to write such a ponderous introduction because this film is not only one of my favorites, but a verified classic that went largely overlooked upon its release, despite critical praise. Were it not directed by Gurinder Chadha of Bend It Like Beckham fame nor co-written by Sarfraz Manzoor, an established journalist and broadcaster with the BBC and The Guardian, it’s quite probable that this film, a commercial nonentity but artistic triumph for which I’ve found limited evidence of even a cult following, would have immediately faded into obscurity. That is stupid and wrong. Released in August 2019 less than two months after the superficially similar but creatively inferior Yesterday, audiences apparently decided that one movie about British Asians and music was enough for one summer, and largely skipped Blinded By The Light. This did not prevent the film from being enthusiastically received by virtually everyone who watched it, leading Manzoor to pen a number of surprised columns about its ability to transcend lines of race and religion in its appeal to ( often predominantly White) audiences. But while his insights into this reaction were spot on, the film’s power to build understanding through representation and empathy has always been limited by its finite reach, a product of bad timing and insufficient marketing. Hopefully this piece, less a review than a celebration of the work, will do its part, however small, to promote a more sustained afterlife for this cinematic marvel.
Blinded By The Light is a loosely autobiographical retelling of British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings From Bury Park: Race, Religion, and Rock N’ Roll, about his childhood in Luton, England; his career as a journalist; and his reckoning with the legacy of his father, Mohammed Manzoor, after the latter’s death. All this is told through the loosely connected lens of Manzoor’s lifelong obsession with the music and lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, whom he had seen in concert over 150 times by the year of the film’s release. As in the film, Greetings from Bury Park begins as a story of teenage and cultural rebellion and then circles back to a reappraisal and affirmation of Manzoor’s roots in the Muslim and British Asian communities when he considers the sacrifices his father and other first generation immigrants made to provide their children with a better life in. Springsteen’s compassionate, earnest, working class lyrics serve first as an outlet for Manzoor’s youthful frustrations and then reconfirm and contextualize his relationship to his father, the sort of dogged working man with faded dreams whom Springsteen so often celebrates and elegizes in his songs. In real life, Mohammed Manzoor succumbed to a heart attack and slipped into a coma days before his son’s first article was published, dying a week thereafter. The reconciliation Sarfraz yearned for in their strained relationship never came.
This borne in mind, Blinded By The Light can be seen in some respects as an idealized portrait of Manzoor’s childhood. It is not “idealized” in the sense that it soft-peddles the racism, identity conflict, intergenerational angst, or romantic frustration that permeated that childhood. It doesn’t. Rather, it is idealized in the sense that by the end of the film, Javed attains a resolution in all of these fields which alluded his real-world antecedent until well into his thirties, if at all. The Khans of the film never raise a fuss about Javed dating a White girl, though Manzoor’s real family nearly disowned him for marrying a Scot rather than a Pakistani woman. Likewise, it was ultimately the xenophobic and racist overtones of Brexit and the revival of White nationalist politics on the British far right which moved Manzoor and Gurinder Chadha to revisit a film script they had originally drafted at the start of the last decade. Manzoor never openly challenged his father nor settled on becoming a writer as a teen, yet Javed and Malik engage in heated arguments at several points in the film regarding the son’s career aspirations, and Javed’s flowering as a precocious poet, essayist, and journalist is a central element of the plot. 80s’ Luton is portrayed as a hotbed of National Front activity and casual racist harassment, as it was in Manzoor’s childhood (and may remain so, for all I know), but its Sixth Form College is strikingly diverse, with the cliquishness of the analogous American high school looking ghastly by comparison. I could hardly suppress a chuckle when, during a scene where Javed and Malik argue over the comparative goods and evils of American versus British life, I found myself for the first time agreeing with Javed’s uptight and mildly antisemitic father that “Everything that is bad about Britain is worse in America”. Javed’s comeback, while reflective of Manzoor’s youthful fascination with the ‘States as “The Promised Land”, where no one even knows enough about Pakistanis or Muslims to be bigoted against them, feels so ironic and wide-eyed in this age of Trump that one can imagine Manzoor composed the dialgoue with some bitterness.
He has written frequently about the renewed alienation he faced as an Asian and Muslim in Britain following 9/11, and again following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. More often these pieces radiate a quiet anger and exasperation than anything resembling the blistering tirades of another Briton whose work I follow with great interest, Riz Ahmed. The sentiments are the same, albeit filtered through two very different personalities for whom the catastrophe of post 9/11 Islamophobia struck at radically different stages of life and career due to their age gap. Ahmed, obviously exhausted as any person of color in Western society over the unchosen struggle to justify his existence, has nonetheless demonstrated a pugnacity in his public persona that the more temperate Manzoor doesn’t radiate in print. That isn’t to knock Riz so much as throw out the suggestion that someone cast the actor/rapper in an action vehicle, because “combative”, in a general sense of the word, is a predicate I would associate with Riz Ahmed on any day. Mogambo khush hua!
Back to the point: the Luton of Blinded By The Light is at once solidly 80s and utterly modern in other respects. Britain has long been a multicultural society under the thick veneer of Downton Abbey bullshit peddled to Americans (“God save the Queen/’Cause tourists are money!”), and the Luton of Blinded By The Light, at once racially fractious and far more integrated than the average American suburb, seems to accord fairly well with the complicated, contradictory reality of British diversity in most respects. The film’s greatest weakness, however, which would be glaring were it not centered on the experiences of another BAME constituency to begin with, is the total lack of Black characters in any significant roles. Whites feature in the film as allies, mentors, nemeses, and lovers. Blacks are present as extras but devoid of importance. This fact only struck me on my third viewing in October, and while it accords with Manzoor’s memoir in some respects, where there is a relative paucity of significant Black figures in the experiences he relates, it seems oddly parochial in some regards, as if Blinded By The Light had simply neglected to put much thought into Black representation. I do not raise this issue to dub the film “problematic” (a nonsense term connoting anything and everything that falls short of intersectional purity tests), but simply to note it as a matter of fact. This could’ve been done without undo fuss or handwringing, and it wasn’t. That was, pardon the sickening pun, a bit of a blind spot.
Context noted, let us return to discussing the film itself. Chadha, who always brings a bit of Bollywood to her explorations of British multiculturalism, finds numerous ways to weave Bruce’s music and lyrics into set piece scenes reminiscent of the musical interludes common in that industry. In one instance, after taking a job at the clothing store of his friend Matt’s father at the Luton flea market, Javed impresses his romantic interest, Eliza, with a song and dance number of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”. This sounds ridiculous in writing, but plays like something out of Broadway in actuality, with the entire flea market spontaneously bursting into applause and joining in. In another scene, Javed and Roops break into the college radio station of DJ Colin Hand, the insufferable “Hand who rocks the turntable” playing rubbish by Debbie Gibson and other pop acts, and swap out his terrible records for Springsteen’s “Born to Run”, beginning a stirring and unrepentantly twee montage of Javed, Roops, and Eliza dancing their way across town while singing that song. Blinded By The Light, like many John Hughes classics from the era in which it is set, is often fearlessly earnest and, like a teenager screwing up his courage to ask his crush to prom, too intoxicated with its own hard-won sense of empowerment to give half a fuck if you think it silly. It is, in these scenes, quite silly, but this is the silliness of joy reclaimed from adversity in a world where being a teenage boy means living through not only universal adolescent humiliations but literally being spat on for the color of your skin.
Blinded By The Light is not pedantic or preachy. A running gag is Javed’s father Malik’s injunction to “follow the Jews” and mistaken belief that the “steen” in Springsteen indicates his son’s icon is Jewish. On another occasion, Malik and his friend Mr. Shah joke that their old Bury Park neighborhood of Luton was good once, but “now there are too many Pakistanis”, shortly before Shah informs Malik that his son is getting married and, “doesn’t know it yet, but he’s a good boy and does what I say”. Like a lot of media made by Desis about Desis, Chadha and Manzoor don’t hesitate to poke fun at the idiosyncrasies of their culture in a work meant to affirm it. It is integral to remember, however, that these jokes are virtually always juxtaposed with moments of pain, as when, to take the latter example, Javed looks on despairingly at the subservience of Shah’s son serving tea just before a gang of primary school-aged White children piss through the mail slot of the Shah family’s front door. The joy of Blinded By The Light’s most affirmative scenes, from Javed’s love for Eliza to his triumphal visit to Asbury Park, the hometown of Bruce, are hard-won victories wrested from constant paternal pressure and White racist harassment.
In one scene that perhaps foreshadows the film’s conclusion, Javed and Shazia go to a “daytimer”, a club for young Asians that operates exactly as the name implies, so they can party away from the restrictions of their parents. The two of them dance to bhangra, Shazia dolls herself up like a “Pakistani Madonna”, accidentally reveals she’s been dating a boy for the last 18 months, and in general we get the sense that the culture Javed has been running away from is one which he need not abandon to be happy. In one crucial sequence of the film, that is implied to be a very real threat. When Javed learns Bruce is coming to London, he rushes to buy tickets to the show on the day of his sister Yasmeen’s wedding. As he runs home to rejoin the procession, the Khans are cut off in front of the mosque by a march of the fascist National Front, and Malik and others are assaulted. When Javed slinks home, his father is outraged and rips the tickets from his hands. Throughout the film there is an arc of deepening estrangement, where Javed’s personal growth clashes with his father’s intransigence and admonition to “keep our heads down” and work hard rather than rock the boat by confronting racism head on or seeking a career in professions like writing reserved for “English people with rich parents”. When Javed wins a writing competition and a trip to Monmouth College in New Jersey, this erupts into a furious argument that severs their relationship for months.
As in Manzoor’s memoir, however, the film never stoops to portraying Malik, Mohammed Manzoor’s stand-in, as a villain. Throughout the film he is in many respects a deeply sympathetic and even comical figure, on account of both the writing and Kulvinder Ghir’s performance, which brings Malik to life as a man with great pride, a repressed sense of humor, and sufficient blind spots in his self awareness not to know when he’s acting bsurd. He also has moments of vulnerability. At one of two points in the film where we see him alone with his wife, Noor, he cries as she dyes his hair, lamenting himself as a failure for being laid off, forcing her to toil constantly at dressmaking to recoup the lost income. In the other scene of them alone, after Javed has returned from America and written his mother that he is staying with Roops, Noor persuades him to make peace with Javed by reminding him how, as a young man, he emigrated from Karachi because he thought he knew better than his own father.
All of this comes to a head in the conclusion of the film, which resolves the conflicts between father and son, Britishness and Asianess, freedom and responsibility, future and tradition. After being selected as a finalist for a contest, Javed is invited to speak at a convention in Luton on how Springsteen inspired him to take control of his life. When Eliza persuades his family to attend, Javed ditches his prepared remarks, speaking instead on how, while he went to Springsteen’s music seeking an escape from his life, he was “blinded by the light” and failed to understand the deeper themes underlying his lyrics. Instead of escapism, Bruce preaches honoring one’s roots, working hard, taking responsibility, and fighting for justice and self-respect with dignity. No one wins unless everyone wins. The film’s dialogue speaks for itself:
“I know having dreams doesn’t make me a bad son. I also know that everything I am is because of the sacrifices my mum and dad made. My dad’s not a typical dad. We don’t have jokey chats. He’s not like the dad you see on telly. A lot of the time he seems pretty angry at the world. I think Bruce Springsteen would understand my dad, ‘cause like his father, they both came from poor backgrounds, both worked hard in factories, both had dreams that never came true, which left them angry. And they both had sons who wanted the chance to make them proud.”
“But we’re not all just individuals. We have friends, and family, and what they think does matter. Success without them isn’t really success…and as much as I wanted to leave Luton, I know it will never leave me.”
Father and son reconcile, and Malik says to Javed,
“This Bruce Springsteen, are you sure he’s American?”
“Yes, and not Jewish” Javed replies.
“I read his songs. He says work hard, don’t give up, respect your parents. This man must be Pakistani.”
They laugh, then Malik adds:
“Son, write your stories, yes. But don’t forget ours.”
As the film ends some days later, Javed bids goodbye to his friends Matt and Roops, and to his mother and Shazia, having bought back the wedding jewelry his mother was forced to pawn earlier by selling his Bruce collection. As Malik and Javed prepare to drive to Manchester, where Javed has been accepted to university, Malik hands him the keys and puts “Born to Run” in the tape deck as they head North.
The film is not flawless, and, like virtually all films, the pacing slows during its middle third. It is no exaggeration to say, however, that Blinded By The Light was one of the best films of 2019, and deserving of a much greater audience than it has heretofore received. Like many non-Desi viewers who came from a difficult home; had fractured relationships with their fathers; or both, the film is deeply resonant for me on a personal level, and numerous elements of it have influenced the book of poetry and essays I am currently revising, The Road of Glass. Sadly I cannot publish my poem “The Promised Land” here, based on the scene from the film that opened this article, as that would disqualify it from publication at a number of magazines to which it was recently submitted. But no matter. Blinded By The Light is an artistic triumph. For anyone sick to fucking death (metaphorically, I hope) of this pandemic; of the last four years of incompetent right wing governments; of Trump; of racism in all its forms; of feeling so weak you want to explode, I leave you with these words of The Boss in benediction:
For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me
I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these
Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand as the price you’ve gotta pay
Keep movin’ till it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good