The Boss shows the way

Poulomi Das | Updated on October 11, 2019 Published on October 11, 2019

Words of worth: In Blinded by the Light, 16-year-old Javed (Viveik Kalra) draws strength from Springsteen’s songs to tackle the demons in his life — an overbearing father and racist bullies   -  IMAGE COURTESY: NETFLIX

In Gurinder Chadha’s latest film Blinded by the Light, now streaming on Netflix, American singer Bruce Springsteen comes to the rescue of a teenager, a first-generation Briton born to Pakistani immigrants, who is searching for his voice and being

It’s 1987 Britain in Gurinder Chadha’s joyful Blinded by the Light. In Luton, Javed (Viveik Kalra), a repressed 16-year-old first-generation Briton born to Pakistani immigrants, is used to being undermined. At home, his father routinely disregards his writerly ambitions. The school’s newspaper refuses to entertain his offer to write for them. His best friend, Matt, lovingly mocks the lyrics he pens, and he remains terrified of a neighbourhood racist National Front supporter who intimidates him by spraying ‘Pakis Out’ on a wall.

And then, just like it ever so happens in films with reticent leads restless to break free, Javed is given a way out: A random encounter with Roops (an endearing Aaron Phugara), a Sikh kid in his school, leads him to the joys of discovering the “Boss” — Bruce Springsteen. In a packed cafeteria, over a lunch of chips and beans, Roops hands Javed two cassettes that he claims will offer him “a direct line to all that’s true in this shitty world”. It’s a corny contrivance and, yet, Chadha makes every scene sing with her tender touches — the gentleness of adulation and the heartfelt intensity of a fan who owes the world to her favourite star.

That night, as Javed plugs in his headphones to listen to the New Jersey-bred singer, he finally feels seen. It’s as if Springsteen sings only to him, about him and for him, egging the world beneath his feet to shift in a way that accommodates and validates his desires and dreams. Chadha translates the essence of this intensely private emotion that every person secretly harbours for that one song or a singer, with a saccharine film-making device: The lyrics of the song (Dancing in the dark) Javed listens to splash on the screen, so that the audience can witness the teenager process this moment of recognition in real time. It is compelling evidence for both — the power of art to affect at a time when it was the only outlet for self-expression and also for the universality of Springsteen’s words that can offer hope even without context.

In three of the film’s best scenes, Chadha uses lyrics as a device. The first time that Javed stands up to racist bullies, it comes on the back of Springsteen lyrics (Badlands). The first time he expresses his feelings to a girl, it’s while singing along to a Springsteen song (Thunder Road) in the middle of a teeming Sunday market (a scene that is such an ode to a Bollywood-style musical that it is impossible to not smile), and when he finally confronts the inherent conflict of being the son of an immigrant during the film’s climax, it’s riffed off the quiet wisdom that is hidden in the singer’s words. From the very beginning, Chadha’s gaze makes it amply clear that it is impossible for Javed to find himself without getting acquainted with the tunes of his own song.

In that sense, Blinded by the Light, which premièred at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is now streaming on Netflix India, bears a striking resemblance to John Carney’s Begin Again (2013). Both these music-led films star lost leads who aspire to be in the creative fields and yet second-guess themselves at every turn: Javed wants to be a writer, while in Begin Again, Gretta (Keira Knightley) dreams of becoming a singer in New York City. The two instantly likeable leads also rely on two different artistes to make sense of their own confusions. If Javed drowns himself in Springsteen-isms, Gretta is struggling to get over the hold that Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), a successful singer and her former songwriting partner, has on her. Help comes in the form of Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), a dishevelled music producer who sets the backdrop for her own musical odyssey.

Yet the biggest reason why we might be reminded of Gretta every time we see Javed is because music is both the catalyst and the crutch for their transitions. Just like our ambitions, music is essentially an acknowledgement that life exists outside the monotony of daily responsibilities; it is both the journey and salvation.

Imagining a universe where the protagonist comes of age to their chosen soundtrack is a sublime distillation of the courage it takes to stand up for our own desires in the face of oppression. Music, after all, is a rebellion of all things unsaid.

Poulomi Das is a film and pop culture writer based in Mumbai

Published on October 11, 2019
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