(RNS) — The year is 1987. The town is Luton, then known for its auto manufacturing in the desultory out-years of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
Javed is a British Pakistani teenager whose father (Kulvinder Ghir) has been laid off from making auto parts and whose mother (Meera Ganatra) helps make ends meet by working as a seamstress out of the family’s home.
Javed’s social life would be non-existent if it were not for Matt, his neighbor and childhood best friend, and even this relationship causes Javed envy. Unlike Matt, whose father allows him to party, make music and find his own girlfriends, Javed’s parents run a socially conservative household. When he’s not working or volunteering to help people from the mosque, Javed’s strict father is reminding his children to focus on their studies, work in their free time to help support the family and not spend time with anyone of the opposite sex.
Meantime, outside their home, Javed and his family endure the routine verbal abuse and threats aimed at “Pakis.” White supremacists — the National Front and neo-Nazi movements were burgeoning — hang a pig’s head from the minaret of the local mosque, and Javed’s father is accosted during a National Front march. Woven throughout the film, these scenes capture the political climate three decades ago but resonate with today’s resurgent racism.
To add to Javed’s sense of dislocation, more than once his father reminds his teenage son that he is Pakistani, not British.
The family’s financial struggles, the racism they endure and Javed’s lackluster social life all put the audience securely in Javed’s rooting section, and Director Gurinder Chadha, known best for 2003’s “Bend It Like Beckham,” capitalizes on our sympathies with a pivot into the unlikely: An unhappy Javed runs into a Sikh classmate named Roops (Aaron Phagur) who introduces him to “The Boss”: Bruce Springsteen.
The distant American icon comes alive for a Sikh and a Muslim in a British factory town and changes their lives forever.
Encountering Springsteen’s music is a kind of religious experience for Javed. Bruce is a prophet whose words help guide Javed through moments of immense discomfort. He’s a guru whose image gets plastered all over Javed’s cozy bedroom. He’s a refuge to which Javed escapes when he’s unhappy. And he’s a savior who ultimately helps Javed transcend his own conditionality and discover himself — “The Promised Land,” as Springsteen calls it.
“Blinded by the Light” is more than a feel-good story: It’s a feel-everything story. It’s a brilliant blending of Hollywood and Bollywood aesthetics, as Roops, Javed and his girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams) run through the streets and dance in fields while belting out Springsteen.
Chadha brings the two forms together brilliantly. Conscious of its own corniness, the movie taps into the bubbly Bollywood over-the-top style in a fashion that allows the audience to laugh at the unfamiliar aesthetic, grapple with the joyousness and then grow right into it as the film continues.
As much as it is an immigrant’s story, “Blinded by the Light” is a tale of the father-son struggle. When Javed clandestinely buys tickets for an upcoming Springsteen concert, his father discovers them and rips them up, berating Javed in front of the entire family for being selfish. The rift between them only widens when Javed learns he has won an essay competition that earns him a free trip to — of all places — New Jersey, the home of “The Boss.”
On his pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Springsteen’s youth and early career, Javed undergoes a transformation, finding the space he needs to grow into himself and find reconciliation with his father. Most of all, he finds joy in what had been an otherwise unhappy life.
One need not be a Springsteen scholar to enjoy the movie. Javed’s journey from a despondent, disconnected child to a boy whose life spans boundaries — generations, races, religions, nationalities, even musical tastes — transforms us, too, with its exuberance. Chadha does a magnificent job of translating, in a sweetly celebratory film, her sophisticated ideas about how all of us transcend our own challenges.
But for Bruce fans, there’s an extra pleasure in knowing that the story is based on fact. As Javed’s coming-of-age story climaxes into pure joy at the end of the film, Chadha reminds us that this story is inspired by a memoir by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, “Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll.”
Manzoor, we learn at the end of “Blinded by the Light,” has been to more than 150 Springsteen concerts from around the world, and, as with Javed, “The Boss” was instrumental in his own formation and survival as a teenager.