Gurinder Chadha wrote the lovely "Bend it Like Beckham," a 2002 comedy-drama-action film — AKA good story — about challenges of cultural assimilation, families that need to be in a place, but for whatever complex reasons chose not to be fully of that place. Jess (Parminder Nagra) discovers an innate talent for soccer, and rebels against orthodox Sikh parents to join a team.
Chadha lived that material: Born in Kenya to Sikh parents from India, she grew up in London, saying once in an interview "I knew from an early age that people didn't see the different sides of me. I formulated a kind of bi-cultural identity quite early and I was always very comfortable with it, but I knew people didn't quite see that."
Her newest film, opening this weekend, seems a fit, based on the life of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, born in Pakistan, emigrated to London with his family when he was just 2. "Blinded by the Light" is drawn specifically from Manzoor's 2007 memoir "Greetings from Bury Park," about finding something at 16 — catharsis, inspiration, recognition — in the music of Bruce Springsteen. The book title's a play on the Boss' first album "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J." Bury Park's an area of Luton, Bedfordshire, where a large Muslim community has settled since the 1970s.
So the guy from Freehold, New Jersey, lit a fire in the burgeoning Pakistani-Brit journalist, and its glow drew a Sikh Indian-English director to the tale. Manzoor and Chadha co-wrote the script for "Blinded by the Light" with Chadha's husband Paul Mayeda Berges, a California-American from Japanese and Basque ancestry.
Maybe not the whole world, but that's a fair swath.
Stumbling through 1987 in Margaret Thatcher's Great Britain, Manzoor stand-in Javed (Viveik Kalra) could be any awkward 16-year-old boy: riding his bike to keep moving when he can't get behind the wheel of a car, getting set up by well-meaning friends with a girl who's "not fussy," being told that "writer" is not something you should bother daring to dream about.
"Writing isn't a job," his driven and driving father says. "I need you to do more."
Then a friend hands him cassettes — this might require subtitles for those under 30 — of "Born to Run" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town," which, if you're just learning about Springsteen, could be the one-two of exuberance, melancholia and defiant joy crawling out from under despair you need. Backtrack with "Greetings" and the second disc, "The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle," to hear growth from the folkie Columbia wanted him to be, to the street-slick cat Bruce probably thought he should be. Then roll up to the more accessible "The River" and "Born in the U.S.A." Save "Nebraska" and "Tunnel of Love" for either when you're already broken so you can sing along, sing alone or when your life is so sane and solid you won't mind having your heart torn out and shown to you.
I could go on. But back to our film:
Javed's skeptical. What can this "haram (proscribed by Islamic law) nonsense" — again, Dad — say to or for a Pakistani Muslim? As Javed for the first time hears a voice that speaks to his inner soon-to-be-man, sister rips the headphones off: "You should be listening to OUR music before you start getting confused and hating yourself."
But by then he's living it: "Explode, and tear this whole town apart/take a knife and cut this pain from my heart." And if, like me, you also discovered Freehold at or about 16, you know the next lines: "... Find somebody itching for something to start./The dogs on Main Street howl, 'cause they understand/if I could take one moment into my hands./Mister, I ain't a boy; no I'm a man/and I believe in the promised land." First time I heard those words, they cut something INTO my heart.
At school, talking with his fellow immigrant pal who loaned him tapes, Javed's thrilled, shocked: "I listened to everything! I could feel it all right here!" The ticker, natch. "It's like Bruce knows everything I've ever felt. Everything I've ever wanted."
Inspired, Javed uncrinkles poetry he'd thrown away, and shows his stabs at writing to an apparently trustworthy teacher: "They're not brilliant, but they're mine."
Though not officially in release yet, "Blinded by the Light" has already won the Sundance Film Festival, where it got picked up for a relatively lush $15 million distribution deal. Not much in the era of billion-dollar superheroes, maybe, but for the kind of sweet-natured, original films people claim they truly want to see, it's a golden push. Those who've seen it say Chadha crafted an unabashedly joyous ode to being teen and stupid and lost and ecstatic and tragic and finally found. Like an old-school musical, improbable or impossible things arise to songs. Words played across the soul burst out and project 10 feet high.
"Bruce sings about not letting the hardness of the world stop you from letting the best of you slip away," Javed reads, in what seems to be the first writing he's made public. "My hope is to build a bridge to my ambitions, but not a wall between my family and me."
The point of people like Bruce, and like Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Atwood or Beethoven, is that you don't have to be from Jersey, or Stratford, or the Netherlands, or Ottawa, or Bonn, to get it. You don't even have to speak their language: They speak yours. Great artists, from empathy, imagination and rock-solid work, transcend barriers between people, between cultures. They tumble down walls that fear and misunderstanding erect.
We mighta grown up in a dump like this, but thanks to Bruce and the Clash and Monty Python and Boukman Eksperyans and Sondheim and the Marx Brothers and the movies that show you how to learn how to walk like the heroes you thought you had to be, and everything at the library past the best-seller shelves, we clue in that there's something happening, somewhere. And open up. And move out. And grow toward our own lights, blinding and blinded or not, guided by maps laid out across your heart: "We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school." "You learn to live with what you can't rise above." "You want it? You take it. You pay the price."
Not sure who wrote words for the film's trailer, but while "Born to Run" pounds — an obvious choice, but come on, who didn't floor their old beater to that opening walls of guitars 'n' drums thunder? Hope the speeding tramps statute of limitations ran out — this pops up: "For anyone who has ever wanted to ... Love. Stand up. Scream. Try. Run. Join in. Understand. Start over. Win. Speak out. Dream ... "
(And this is key to the whole megillah.)
"You're not alone."
This movie, these filmmakers from scattered cultures around our wild and often wicked world, they get how glorious it can be, how dire, how urgent, as a kid-almost-adult, to finally be heard, to finally feel seen; to believe that maybe someday you might even be understood.
Maybe, one day, you'll write about it.
Reach Tusk Editor Mark Hughes Cobb at email@example.com or 205-722-0201.