Gurinder Chadha’s heartwarming tale of a boy and The Boss fumbles some chords, but charms nonetheless.
With a 117-minute runtime, Blinded by the Light has four acts. It has your standard structure and then another aside tacked on, and while some would cry spoiler over that description, that isn’t the case here. This isn’t a movie for one to spoil or ruin, or one that shocks anyone. It’s much more about its heart, which, for most of the time, is completely understandable. It’s also, aside from a male protagonist this time, very much in line for director/co-writer Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), whose love for her characters is matched by its protagonist’s love of The Boss.
In real life, he’s Sarfraz Manzoor, now a cultural commentator and contributor to The Guardian. Onscreen he takes the form of Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), a teenager in Luton, England in 1987. His Pakistani descent makes him a victim of racism and harassment in public while his traditionalist father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), governs his home life. Preparing for a good job, going to a local university, the possibility of an arranged marriage—they’re all pressing onto him, just as much as the Thatcher-era policies damn Malik’s status as breadwinner.
Malik’s a product of his environment, a boy who fancies himself an individual. He writes in his spare time and wants to make a career out of it. While Chadha’s film shortchanges audiences by rarely giving a glimpse inside Javed’s mind, the bubble he lives in is realized enough to distract from its flaws. Enter his friend Roops (Aaron Phagura), who demands he listen to Bruce Springsteen because, get this: someone across the Atlantic once felt just like him.
It sounds glib on paper: the ideas of finding one’s voice and bucking against the systems that defined one’s upbringing. But Blinded by the Light works because it blurs the lines between those two systems until they’re interchangeable. The movie doesn’t entertain “can’t we all just get along?” storytelling because that isn’t just unrealistic, but dangerously naïve. It wears its heart too heavily on one sleeve to make for a consistent film, but it has the pieces needed to make for a crowd-pleaser. Well, a lot of the time, that is.
Manzoor himself helped write the film alongside Chadha and her regular collaborator, Paul Mayeda Berges, and it’d be a lie to call the result succinct. The script toys with narrative motifs only to drop them and its structure proves overcrowded in the last half hour. There are too many ends and too many ends to tie up. Some characters, such as Javed’s sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta), round out the film nicely. Some, like his other sister, Yasmeen (Tara Divina), or mother (Meera Ganatra), are little more than fodder for conflict later on.
It wears its heart too heavily on one sleeve to make for a consistent film, but it has the pieces needed to make for a crowd-pleaser.
Some setpieces, like Javed’s Walkman-induced stroll through a thunderstorm early on, are delightfully effective at weaving angst with solipsism. Others, like a jolt through the streets while “Born to Run” plays in its entirety, come off as fantastical in the moment, even if the script tethers them back to reality and shrugs it off. The issue isn’t so much Blinded by the Light’s tone but how it shifts between them. It’s impressive, then, that the larger picture has such momentum that the connective tissue appears stronger than it is.
Cultures and generations roll into one another like a row of dominos, and the hegemony is fascinating to watch unfold. America touches toes with England; England rubs its heels with Pakistan. “You’re Pakistani,” Malik barks whenever Javed declares his English heritage. But while those words have gone from unappealing to totally void of meaning, Chadha never falls into amorality.
Nevertheless, the script often defines Javed as a product of his environment while declaring him to be an individual, which provides some unneeded friction from a rhetorical standpoint. It’s too long by about 20 minutes and unsure when to lay off its subplots, and its needle drops and monologues err on repetitive later on. Blinded by the Light could have been great, but aside from its sneezes and wheezes, this merry-go-round has more than a few good spins in it.