Having written two previous reviews (here and here) on Bruce Springsteen shows for Hollywood Progressive and La Progressive, I was delighted to see (on HBO) a recent movie about a British teenager of Pakistani origin who in the late 1980s discovers and then relishes the American musician. The film title, Blinded by the Light (2019), is also the name of a Springsteen song which appeared on his 1973 debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.
Directed by Gurinder Chadha, who was also the director of the highly-rated Bend It Like Beckham, her newer film is excellent in many ways. The acting is first-rate; it contains much humor and at the same time provides much to think about; and for Springsteen fans, the sound track is full of his music. As Chadha, who is British but of Indian origin, relates in a delightful interview, she sent him the filmscript, he liked it, and gave her permission to use all of the many songs we hear him singing in the film.
She tells us that she made the film, based on the 2008 memoirs (Greetings from Bury Park) of her friend the Pakistan-born Sarfraz Manzoor, to show how music can transcend the ethnic divisions that divide British citizens. As I have previously claimed, Springsteen’s songs are both deeply humanistic and progressive.
The film’s main character is the teenaged British Pakistani Javed, and near the end of the film he best expresses what the songs came to mean for him: “But the reason I connected with Springsteen is because what he sings about and champions are not only American values but are the best of human values. He talks about working hard and holding on to your dreams and not letting the hardness of the world stop you from letting the best of you slip away. In these words, I see a bridge between Springsteen and my own Asian upbringing.”
The heart of the film is Javed’s desire to carve out his own future--he wants to be a writer--but his dad is primarily interested in Javed preparing himself for a good (dependable and well-paying) job: “I'm not your typical Pakistani father who says you must be a doctor. I'm saying lawyer, accountant, estate agent.” He even tells Javed, “I'll find you a wife in good time. You leave that to me.” But his son complains, “My dad is stuck in another century. He treats me like I'm six, not sixteen.”
At the film’s start Javed, living in the English town of Luton, makes a birthday wish that he can ”kiss a girl, get out of this dump.” By the story’s end he has accomplished the first (and obtained a girlfriend), and is off to college. But by then he also realizes how much he owes to his parents--his dad has also come around to being more tolerant of his son and even appreciating Springsteen. Javed also confesses that his idol’s song “Blinded by the Light” has taken on a new meaning for him. “We're not all just individuals,” Javed says. “We have friends . . . and what they think does matter. Success without them isn't really success. . . . Bruce says no one wins unless everybody wins. My hope is to build a bridge to my ambitions but not a wall between my family and me. That's my dream. My American dream.”
The father-son conflict depicted here has universal significance, and occurs in many cultures. Fathers who grew up in a different era and often with different values want different futures for their sons than the sons themselves want. Poor communication and rigidity often fuel conflicts.
But the film also reflects the difficulties that face immigrant families where the parents were born in a foreign land, but the children raised in a new, more modern, Western country. In this respect, the film is similar to many of the films of the Indian-born American director Mira Nair, or to much of the fiction of the Indian-born Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, whose novel The Namesake (2006) was the basis of one of Nair’s film.
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Perhaps even more significantly Chadha’a Javed and his Pakistani family face one of the most crucial problems facing the world today--ethnic tensions stemming from prejudice against minority peoples. Throughout the film Javed witnesses anti-Pakistani bias including being bullied by white toughs, and slogans and chants scrolled on doors, walls, or signs or expressed in anti-immigrant demonstrations, for example, “If they're black, send them back!” (According to the 2011 census, 1.1 million Pakistanis, most of them Muslim, lived in Great Britain.) Throughout the USA and Europe today right-wing movements have been fueled by white resentment and prejudice against darker skinned people, immigrants, and refugees.
A century and a half ago, abolitionist Frederick Douglass argued that, unlike many in the USA, he would favor Chinese immigration, “Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.” He also thought that “we should welcome all men of every shade of religious opinion, as among the best means of checking the arrogance and intolerance which are the almost inevitable concomitants of general conformity. Religious liberty always flourishes best amid the clash and competition of rival religious creeds.”
Douglass decried prejudice against Blacks, Native Americans, Chinese, and other peoples and thought we should set a positive example for the rest of the world by flourishing as a “composite nation.” Today, feeling threatened and afraid of loosing status, many white American Trumpians reject Black and immigrant demands for greater equality.
Thus, films like Blinded by the Light stimulate thinking about the relative value of “composite nations” versus white-dominated ones.
One final note about the film is that it provides a reminder of what Great Britain was like in the 1980s--the decade of the conservative Margaret Thatcher’s dominance over British politics. Thatcher’s main effect we see in the film is that Javed’s dad looses his job at Vauxhall Motors, a subsidiary of General Motors, and cannot obtain a new one. He had been at Vauxhall for 16 years, working “double shift, night shift, whatever they wanted.” But Jared observes, you “dumped Dad like an old, disused engine. . . . You took my dad's job and you tore my family apart.”
During the Thatcher years many people lost their jobs. Like her contemporary in the USA, Ronald Reagan, she was willing to see unemployment shoot up in order to reduce inflation. By the mid-1980s the rate was about double what it had been in the late 1970s, and for most of the 1980s, it was over 10 percent.
Miss Clay, an English teacher who greatly encourages Javed, tells her students, “Well, thanks to Maggie Thatcher, even if you do pass your exams and get a degree, there'll be few jobs waiting for you.”
The film has little to say about Thatcher’s attitude toward immigrants and the British “non-whites,” but there is plenty of evidence that her view was closer to that later expressed by Donald Trump than to the earlier Frederic Douglass. For example, in a 1978 interview, she said, “If we [Great Britain] went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in. . . . So, if you want good race relations, you have got to allay peoples' fears on numbers. . . . We must hold out the clear prospect of an end to immigration . . . . except, of course, for compassionate cases.”
In summary, if your want to enjoy Springsteen singing some of his songs and consider their meaning, while at the same time seeing an entertaining movie that also deals with one of our most pressing social and political problems (ethnic and racial conflict), check out Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light (currently available to rent on Amazon Prime Video)
Walter G. Moss