Luton, 1987. “Go back home to your own country.” A National Front skinhead in Doc Martens, his face twisted with hate, spits at a 17-year-old British-Pakistani kid walking home from college. Five years ago, you might’ve watched this scene comforted by the thought: Well at least ugly blatant racism like that is history, gone the way of Walkmans, Golden Wonder crisps and the rest of the 1980s detail in Blinded by the Light, Gurinder Chadha’s mostly lightweight comedy-drama fictionalising the writer and Guardian journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir about his teenage years in Luton. But today, the president of the United States tweets ‘go back’, we have a Prime Minister who compares Muslim women to bank robbers and racial hate crime has increased since Brexit.
It’s depressing and it gives Blinded by the Light a nasty aftertaste, a contemporary charge that was possibly not on Chadha’s mind as she directed Manzoor’s story with a bit too much of the weapons-grade feelgood that has become her brand since Bend It Like Beckham. In the determination to leave no crowd unpleased, there are some shamelessly sentimental scenes here that lose touch with the acute, sometimes painful and emotionally generous spirit of Manzoor’s writing about family.
Saying that, the Manzoor character, 16-year-old Javed, is beautifully played by newcomer Viveik Kalra. He’s the son of Muslim Pakistani immigrants, his dad (Kulvinder Ghir) works on the production line at Vauxhall and expects his son to become an accountant or solicitor. But Javed dreams of a career writing (“writing is for English people with rich parents”, dad says).
The film is very good at recreating that moment as a teenager when you find your musical soulmate – the band or singer who articulates everything you’ve ever felt but couldn’t quite put into words. For Javed it’s Bruce Springsteen, who by 1987 is considered unspeakably naff by most teenagers. Javed’s leftie love interest Eliza (Nell Williams) tells him with disgust that Ronald Reagan is a Springsteen fan. But for Javed, growing up in working-class Luton feeling like he’s got no future and zero prospects, Springsteen is his man. Meanwhile his English teacher (Hayley Atwell) encourages him to keep writing.
The film features some nicely comic Eighties details: Rob Brydon with a Rod Stewart mullet gets some laughs playing the market trader dad of Javed’s best mate. And few moments are genuinely hilarious – like an excruciating scene of social awkwardness when Eliza invites Javed round for tea; her Thatcher-loving true blue Tory parents are frightfully polite but clearly aghast at the Asian boy in their house.
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There’s a lot of crossover here too with Bend It Like Beckham – another coming of age story about a second-generation kid torn between duty to a strict traditional family and the desire to do her own thing. But where Beckham struck a balance of funny and warm-hearted, Blinded by the Light at times feels like pure emotional manipulation, with some cringe-making song-and-dance numbers to Springsteen tracks.
It’s the film’s more serious moments that stayed with me. Javed’s shame and anger when family friends downplay the daily racist abuse inflicted on them by neighbours – a swastika graffitied on the wall, little kids pissing through the letterbox. Javed has grown up surrounded by the mantra that Asians need to keep their heads down – a belief rooted in his parents’ generation’s fear that one day they could be sent back. It shouldn’t be relevant today, but upsettingly, after Windrush, it doesn’t feel completely consigned to history.
Blinded by the Light is in cinemas from August 9