Blinded by the Light: Bend it like Gurinder Chadha

February 5, 2019
Snapped up for almost $15m at Sundance, Gurinder Chadha’s latest crowd-pleaser follows an Indian boy obsessed with Bruce Springsteen in ‘80s Britain.

In the bedroom of his family’s modest home in Luton, a young Indian boy cuts the sleeves off his checked shirt and poses in the mirror. There’s also a denim jacket, white T-shirt, jeans and bandana and a constant soundtrack of Bruce Springsteen music playing in the boy’s headphones. It’s London in 1987 and Springsteen may be a rock dinosaur on the contemporary scene of Duran Duran and Depeche Mode but for high school student Javed, he’s a lifeline.

Beset by his strict, traditional immigrant parents on one side and the racist atmosphere of ‘Paki bashing’ by National Front skinheads on the other, Javed is feeling crushed and voiceless – until he discovers the music and lyrics of The Boss.

“Bruce knows everything I’ve ever felt!” Javed (Viveik Kalra) says in this funny and heart-warming film about the power of fandom and music to raise the spirit. Written by Sarfraz Manzoor from his own story, Blinded by the Light was adapted, directed and produced by Gurinder Chadha, whose most famous movie is Bend it Like Beckham.

“I try to find movies with an emotional heart,” Chadha told FilmInk before the premiere screening. “I try to find a way of getting the humanity of the story. The characters are people you might not think you have anything in common with, but you can bring out the universality of those situations. I’m drawn to those themes, I guess, I continually tell that story through different genres.”

Chadha has embodied diversity and gender parity for 20 years with her stories of Indians, especially Indian women, living in Britain, from Beckham to Bride and Prejudice and Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. Born in Kenya before moving to London, she began her career as a news reporter, directed award winning documentaries for the BBC, and began an alliance with the British Film Institute (BFI) and Channel Four. In 2001, Chadha set up her own production company, Bend It Films.

“Me and my husband (Paul Mayeda-Berges) worked with Sarfraz Manzoor, whose book [Greetings from Bury Park] had all this great detail in it, then I brought in all the filmmaker’s screenplay stuff and the combination worked really well. Getting a story to the screen is hard because you’ve got to keep at it until it’s right and often people will stop before it’s ready.  It’s part of the business of storytelling, you want to keep honing it until it’s done.”’

Director Gurinder Chadha and actor Viveik Kalra attend the World Premiere of Blinded by the Light, an official selection of the Premiere Program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. © 2019 Sundance Institute | photo by Weston Bury

Casting Viveik Kalra brought the right mix of vulnerability and determination to the central character, whose energy and openness to the camera is reminiscent of a young Dev Patel. When asked about the main direction of his character, Kalra told us, “Just not giving a shit! I think he learns to not care any more about what people think of him and by the end of the film he does what he wants to do but in a non-selfish, beautiful way. Gurjnda saw me in [UK TV show] Next of Kin, called me in to audition three times and I got it. She must have seen a quality she was after. I didn’t really know who Bruce was and I thought I’m not sure if I’m going to like his music. Then I started listening more and it’s amazing.”

The film ticks all the boxes for joyful, well-made entertainment and New Line Cinema has already bought the distribution rights for a record $15 million.

Breaking stereotypes with its rich variety of characters, including a socially conscious girlfriend and a genuinely nice best friend and Duran Duran wannabe, the film is a hybrid musical reminiscent of La La Land. There are so many great observational touches, from the ‘Daytimer’ clubs where kids can dress up and party without their parents finding out, to Javal’s mum taking in sewing to make ends meet, and an elderly neighbour angry at the Nazi elements in the National Front demonstrations.

“I decided to do the film because things were getting ugly around me,” says Chadha. “There are a lot of people with agendas to promote divisiveness. There’s Brexit and what that’s drawn out in England. I felt I needed to tell a story countering that and finding a way to show how universal our experiences are, rather than follow that path of division.”

According to Chadha, Springsteen wasn’t involved but he liked the idea of the film and approved the script. Manzoor, who went on to become a journalist, documentary maker and broadcaster, has been to countless Springsteen concerts and still finds inspiration in his idol. “Bruce’s lyrics are very specific and detailed but by being specific he becomes universal and that’s what I tried to do in my own writing,” he says.

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