In ‘Blinded By The Light,’ A Brown Immigrant Finds Himself in the Music of the Boss

By Deepa Iyer Aug 16, 2019

When I first heard about the film “Blinded By The Light,” which pays homage to Bruce Springsteen through the experiences of a Pakistani teenager in Great Britain, I was beside myself with excitement. Finally, here was big-screen affirmation that people of color are part of Springsteen’s fan base (yes, we exist).

Directed by Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”) and based on a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, “Blinded By The Light” delivers on its key message with earnestness: Springsteen’s music is universal. Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a teenager struggling with family expectations and racism during the 1980s in Luton, a predominantly White town northwest of London with a growing Pakistani community. Javed's life changes when his Sikh friend, Roops, introduces him to the Boss via a pair of well-worn cassette tapes. As Javed struggles to connect with his immigrant father and find his own voice as a budding writer, Springsteen’s music becomes the soundtrack to his dreams and disappointments.

I recognized my own Springsteen journey in parts of Javed’s life. In 1984, the year Springsteen’s “Born in The USA” was released, my family moved from Kerala, India, to Louisville, Kentucky. All of a sudden, I became a 12-year-old outsider looking into a world that I couldn’t penetrate because of my accent, brown skin and immigration status. Music became my refuge, and I found a home in Springsteen’s lyrics.

Like Javed in “Blinded By The Light,” I survived my immigrant adolescence in Kentucky on my Walkman, listening to songs like “The Promised Land” and “Growin’ Up.” They provided a window of hope that a different world existed beyond the badlands of bullying and isolation I navigated daily. And just like Javed’s parents, my immigrant parents didn’t understand my connection to Springsteen’s music. Over time though, Javed’s father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), has an epiphany: “Springsteen is Pakistani!”

Of course he is. Though Springsteen is held up as the poet of White working class America, his music transcends borders and identities and explores how people on the margins can belong in a world hell-bent on denying their humanity. Springsteen undoubtedly speaks to White people who lose their factory jobs or return home from fighting abroad only to find their government has forgotten them. But his music is also for and about people like Malik and Noor, Javed’s parents in the film.

Malik and Noor are not so different from characters like Mary and Johnny who figure prominently in Springsteen’s songs. Malik loses his job at a local car factory while Noor (Meera Ganatra) sews clothes for White women and pawns her gold jewelry to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the National Front organizes a White supremacist march through town and the local mosque is vandalized with a pig’s head. Javed watches with shame and shock as a group of White children urinate into the mailbox of a family friend’s house. “Pakis, go home!” is a constant refrain, spraypainted on walls and garages throughout Luton’s neighborhoods. “I wish I’d never come to this country,” Malik says, giving voice to the lie of the immigrant dream.

On its own, “Blinded By The Light” is a moving film about the British Pakistani immigrant experience and the universality of Springsteen’s music. But it has particular resonance given what is happening today in America, where hate violence is rising, the Muslim ban is in place and immigrants live in fear. The scenes of exclusion and racism depicted in the film could easily be taking place in America’s neighborhoods, schools and public places right now.

Since Donald Trump took office, the assaults on the rights and bodies of people who look like Javed and me have intensified. I often return to Springsteen’s music about immigration and race to find meaning and possibility. “American Skin (41 Shots)” speaks about the violence that Black people routinely face at the hands of law enforcement; “Matamoros Banks” recounts how migrants face immense danger as they cross the southern border; and “Long Walk Home” reminds us of the challenging journey ahead to reclaim and redeem a nation that’s taken one too many wrong turns.

Perhaps this is why Springsteen’s music resonates so deeply with some people of color like me. In his lyrics, we find a familiar yearning for belonging and liberation, and a recognition that the system—whether it is an uncaring veterans’ affairs office, an arbitrary geographic border or a racist cop—is often working against us. How we overcome and transform these realities depends on how we come together across class, race and faith lines to lift up each other’s stories, hopes and dreams, and change the systems that weigh us down. In “Blinded By The Light,” these interventions often happen through transformations in the film’s White characters. Javed’s literature teacher enters his writing into a competition that takes him to the Boss’ home of New Jersey, and his stoic neighbor speaks up and reminds Javed and his family that they are a vital part of the Luton community despite the racism they endure.

In the midst of these daily struggles, Springsteen’s music offers the possibility of escape, community and joy, and in the film, we see these moments come to life. South Asian kids like Javed’s sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta) cut school to take part in daytimers, club events where they freely dance to bhangra music. Javed and Roops take over their school’s radio station to play Springsteen’s famous escape song, “Born To Run,” and frolic through the streets of Luton with their friends while belting out its lyrics: “Together, we could break this trap. We’ll run ’til we drop, baby we’ll never go back.”

“Blinded By The Light” is heartwarming and real at once, and doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of working class British Pakistani communities. And it just might catalyze an exploration of Bruce Springsteen’s oeuvre for a new generation of South Asians. The film reaffirms Springsteen, who turns 70 this year, as a community storyteller, bridge builder, cultural interlocutor and guide to the doors of the promised land. But as Javed realizes, escape and liberation don’t come easily, whether in the context of family or community. It’s on each of us to recognize that the ties that bind us together are greater than the divides that threaten to tear us apart.

Deepa Iyer is a writer, lawyer, community activist and senior fellow at Race Forward, Colorlines’ publisher. Iyer writes about her Springsteen journey in the forthcoming anthology, “Long Walk Home” (Rutgers University Press). She is also the author of “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future.” Follow her at @dviyer.