Gurinder Chadha fails to recreate magic of ‘Bend it like Beckham’ with Springsteen-inspired ‘Blinded by the Light’

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Viveik Kalra in Blinded by the Light (2019). Courtesy of Sundance Insttiute. Photo by Nick Wall – © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

NEW YORK – Nearly two decades after the coming-of-age drama set in England ‘Bend it like Beckham,’ director Gurinder Chadha tries to resuscitate the magic of that smash hit film of striving against societal odds and rebelling against family’s wishes for one’s passion, in her new venture ‘Blinded by the Light,’ which will release in theaters on August 14, 2019.

Chadha’s self-styled ‘hybrid musical’, ‘Blinded by the Light’, is based on Pakistani-origin writer Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir ‘Greetings From Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll’, inspired by his obsession and inspiration with the music of Bruce Springsteen, growing up in Luton, England.

The film, which takes its title from the opening track in Springsteen’s 1973 debut album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.’, is set in 1987. It revolves around the life of a Pakistani Muslim school-going teenager, Javed (played by Viveik Kalra), who is caught in the vicissitudes of the strict, conservative upbringing of his middle class immigrant family, trying hard to make ends meet in their small town, and his love for writing poetry.

The 16-year-old Javed dreams of getting away from the drudgery of his lackluster town which has few job opportunities, of a fulfilling life in cosmopolitan London, not too far from where he is growing up. He whiles away his time writing poetry sitting on grass banks adjoining a highway, watching cars speed away.

Things take a turn for the worse for Javed and his family when his father (played by Kulvinder Ghir) loses his factory job, and Javed’s mother (played by Meera Ganatra) has to work excruciatingly longer hours as a seamstress at home, to pay bills.

Javed faces the constant ire and frustration of his father for not paying more attention to courses in school which will lead to the prospects of a good job, like economics. Poetry and writing, his father reckons, is a waste of time, with only a deplorable life ahead.

It’s at this dark and morose period in his fledgling life, when despair is high, and he shreds to pieces the poetry he’s written, that Javed is exposed to the music of the ‘boss’ from New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen, by an Indian American fellow student at his school, Roops (played by Aaron Phagura).

Nell Williams (middle), Aaron Phagura (left), and Viveik Kalra in Blinded by the Light (2019). Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Nick Wall – © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

It’s a life-transforming moment for Javed.

Javed gets caught up in the throes of Springsteen’s lyrics and music, even though a generation past, and he’s surrounded in the present by the ‘Wham! boys and Bananarama girls’. The music of Springsteen speak the trauma and angst of his life, courses through his headphones, cajole him to break free of shackles, lead a more dynamic life.

The lyrics from Sprinsgteen’s early tracks, like ‘Dancing in the Dark’, ‘Born to Run’, ‘Because the Night’, ‘The River’ and ‘Backstreets’, resonate with Javed like never before. He makes a string of startling, drastic choices which he wouldn’t have dared think of before, even snagging a girlfriend in the process (played by Nell Williams).

While the lead actors in ‘Blinded by the Light’ give a satisfying performance, with Kalra a stand-out, Chadha focuses far too long on the troubles and inner struggles of Javed’s family, which detracts from the momentum of the film.

The explicit racism of the time against immigrants and conservatism in the film seen though the life of Javed and his family, again dabbles on the trite and tired side, as it’s something which Chadha relied upon heavily in ‘Bend it like Beckham’ to give complex layers. That was 17 years ago though. In the day and age of Brexit-rage and Trump, it’s like invoking the spirit of the Renaissance period. Stale and contrite. Routine affair which one doesn’t want to see on screen too.

‘Blinded by the Light’ has too many complacent, languorous stretches of depiction of tough life of immigrants and workers, some of which Springsteen’s songs may certainly talk of, but dampens the essence of the film.

Not to say that there are not some high moments though, in the film. A merry prank by Javed and his friends in school to revive interest in Springsteen, and an exhilarating exchange with immigration officers at Newark airport, are memorable. One can only wish, Chadha had infused many more such moments.

‘Blinded by the Light’ had a private screening last month, at the Village East Cinema, in New York, followed by a party at the B Bar & Grill. Chadha, Manzoor, and some members of the cast attended the screening.

‘Blinded by the Light’ had a private screening last month, at the Village East Cinema, in New York, followed by a party at the B Bar & Grill. Photo: Sujeet Rajan.

At the fun-filled party, there were live performances of some of Springsteen’s favorite numbers, and spots for attendees to try play along with a juke box, and instruments.

Chadha’s new film evinced a lot of interest from studios. Warner Bros.’ New Line Cinema picked up the movie for $15 million, reported NJ Advance Media. After a recent screening of the film, at the Montclair Film Festival, Chadha explained how she dealt with the memoir and bring it to life on screen.

“I had to make it feel like all those songs were written for me and written for the movie,” Chadha said, reported NJ Advance Media. “’Dancing in the Dark’ was definitely the epiphany moment.”

The biggest challenge for Chadha’s film, though – apart from its appeal to Springsteen fans, would be to get the technology-fixated new generation, iGen, to fall in love and empathize with music of yesteryears.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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