I almost didn’t watch Blinded by the Light after seeing the trailers. This very good British comedy-drama, based on a true story about a Pakistani boy from an immigrant family, seemed to have all the tropes of a coming-of-age story such as Almost Famous (2000) or Bend it Like Beckham (2002).

The trailers were underwhelming. While the film does resort to a few clichés, it’s not nearly the airhead that the previews make it out to be. Blinded by the Light is a smart popcorn film featuring compelling characterisation about a boy struggling to follow his dreams. This is because of an overbearing father who is a stickler for customs, a British economy ruined by the country’s political leaders, and far-right racists brandishing swastikas and targeting immigrants. It may surprise you to know that the film is set in 1987, considering that the film’s political atmosphere is reminiscent of today’s Brexit era and the resurgence of the neo-Nazis.

Once the film begins, there’s no doubt that it’s set in 1987. Javed Khan, played brilliantly by Viveik Kalraalbeit with a stupid grin that you must tolerate, is struggling. His parents Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) and Noor (Meera Ganatra) are working hard to make ends meet. They, alongside his sister Yasmeen, chastise him for forgetting his Pakistani culture. The only person he relates to in the family is his younger sister Shazia, who quietly happens to be as much of a rebel as him.

Here, Javed discovers Bruce Springsteen’s music. The Boss’s songs rock his world and give his life new meaning. The lyrics help him cope and fight back. There’s also his teacher, Ms Clay (Hayley Atwell), who believes in his abilities to write. Soon, Javed finds a girlfriend, and it gives his music writing a new dimension.

Director Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light may resort to some cliches but features compelling characterisation

I watched mouth agape at how much Javed’s life was like mine. I’m guessing a lot of Pakistanis living overseas will also relate. While Javed wants to be a writer, his father passionately believes it’s a waste of time. He wants him to study something that’ll earn him a well-paying job. Moreover, his father hates music, drives a car that regularly needs a push-start, and reacts badly to financial stress.

Thankfully, the supporting characters in Blinded by the Light aren’t one-dimensional. Javed’s parents are written well and their motivations are nicely explored. Blinded by the Light doesn’t shy away from exploring the deep bigotry faced by South Asian families in the ’80s either.

Still, this is a popcorn film. There are several clichés in the film that felt needless and that made me groan. And Viveik Kalraalbeit’s unfortunate grin is even more intolerable when everyone randomly breaks out into song. It’s a pity that while director Gurinder Chadha’s film is about fighting South Asian stereotypes, her South Asian characters randomly break out into song and dance numbers. Also, the film’s ending is far too convenient considering the complexity of the relationships involved.

Still, these weaknesses are easy to overlook in a film that shines otherwise. Blinded by the Light is based on the life of renowned journalist and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor. Interestingly, Manzoor looks like Mark Ruffalo’s long lost Pakistani brother — look him up. Manzoor apparently suffered even more family drama when he got married. I’m guessing that would be the subject of the film’s sequel.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 8th, 2019