Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light” contains a cinematic sight that’s as timeless a song—watching a character have their life changed forever by discovering a piece of art that feels like it’s always been waiting for them. In the case of Chadha’s film, that art is Bruce Springsteen, and the deeply moved character is Javed, a teenage British Asian struggling to find his voice as a writer, and his place in the world, until he listens to Springsteen for the first time. Based on the memoir Greetings from Bury Park by Springsteen super-fan Sarfraz Manzoor, “Blinded by the Light” is an ebullient, song-filled celebration of Javed’s newfound passion, and reminds you with its personal story as to why Springsteen’s dramatic, poetic, hopeful music reigns. (Be sure to read Sheila O'Malley's review of the film here.)
Javed is played by Viveik Kalra, who makes his debut in film acting in this lead role, carrying a story about identity, culture, and the Boss through numerous triumphant, albeit unabashedly feel-good sequences. RogerEbert.com sat down with Kalra to discuss the film's world premiere at Sundance last January, how he handled the responsibility of leading his debut feature project, his long term career goals and more.
I remember seeing this film at Sundance, where Gurinder [Chadha] lead the entire theater in a singalong of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.” I’ll never forget that.
She is just an amazing person to be around. That wasn’t mentioned to us before, or anything. I think she just did it on the spot, which is an amazing thing to do. Just to think, You know what, I’m going to sing in front of all these people, and everyone joined in. Which was lovely, such a wonderful sort of experiment to be a part of. And she’s a lovely director to work with. She’s a confident woman, and has an incredible energy.
And for your first feature to be around that, that’s a high bar to work with.
I think in ways she lifts you up and helps you to feel more confident, which is amazing. She’s an actor’s director, and she makes you feel good and tells you what you need to do, and this and that. And then she comes to set with more energy than everyone else on set. But to come to set and have more energy, people my age a little bit younger or a little bit older, people who were 17, 16, and other people who were like 20, 22. And she made more energy than everyone, every day.
What was your audition for this movie? Did you sing?
I did sing; I sang “Born to Run.” Which, I didn’t know at the time was one of the most iconic songs of all time.
How do you wrap your head around performing the scene where Javed hears Springsteen for the first time?
You know what was wonderful: that was sort of happening to me simultaneously as a person and as an actor as well. I hadn’t listened to any Bruce beforehand. I’d heard his name, but I hadn’t heard his music. So to have that revelation, that realization that this man’s music is actually blooming amazing, and at the same point playing this character that has this revelation, it sort of makes things and let things work out in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. Maybe if I’d heard Bruce before, the sort of euphoria you see on the character’s face in the experience and in Bruce wouldn’t have been the same, but maybe because I was listening to Bruce for the first time as well as a person, that came through like that.
Has the experience of this film made you more eager to be in more film projects?
I’ve got exciting things coming in the pipeline and stuff, which is incredible to be able to say. I guess technically it’s sort of very first-world job to have, and you know you see that in the film, through the character who wants to be a writer, but his dad is going, “What are you talking about? Writing is not a job.” And which I think is sort of wonderful to say as a character, because there’s no like, hatred in there. There’s no going, “You shouldn’t be a writer because this, this, this, this.” For me, what was wonderful about the actor who played my father in the film, [Kulvinder Ghir], is that he’s not a bad guy, he just comes from a different place and a different time, and having an actor like that who can portray things like that wonderful nuance, was amazing. And taking generations past and presenting them on a massive screen and internalizing them in film and uplifting them.
Did you work with Kulvinder to create chemistry? You have so many strong scenes of him getting so close to crushing Javed’s dreams.
Kulvinder was really, he’s just a great actor and a great sort of person to act with. I had rehearsals with Kulvinder, I had rehearsal with family and Shazia, and Mira, and the mother. I had so many rehearsals prior to filming, which was amazing because it helped get everything …. I think the most sort of intimidating rehearsal was the one with Hayley [Atwell]. Hayley came in for a rehearsal, and I was obviously massively intimidated because she was like a big sort of well known person. And coming into that room, I was madly intimidated. But she was really nice, and that made everything so much easier. The rehearsal process was just so nice because it helped you get across things to see what worked and what didn’t work, and getting on set.
The thing with Gurinder is that she’s a very generous director and a person, in that we did get on set, and then she went, “Oh, that’s not working,” but we’d done this before, I got to figure out my journey and we helped each other, like she helped me prepare for the part, and she was just really helpful. I couldn’t think of a better director to have worked with me on a specific project for this specific part, because it’s like she really helped me distance myself from that character and that person. I’m from different circumstances than that character. I remember she took me behind a monitor when we were filming, and she pointed at the screen and she said, “That’s not you. That’s Javed.” And I thought that was a rather wonderful thing to say and that helped me sort of separate the two.
Who are some actors whose careers you look up to?
When I see … well, put it simply, when I see a brown face on the TV, I’m watching. I think, I can’t imagine what it would have been like for the generation before mine, but I don’t think particularly remember seeing many Asian faces on TV growing up. And I remember seeing a couple, but you look at them in hindsight, retrospectively, and those characters that were played by probably good actors were stamped into two-dimensional-ness, which is very sad. So, now that there’s an influence of stuff with Asian people, and Black people, it’s incredible. I’m very excited to be a part of this thing, because somehow, we are now marketable, which is amazing. And an amazing thought.
It’s so unfortunate that it has to be be put like that.
Yes—this is marketable, which is amazing! But you see films of course, like everyone and their grandma has seen “Black Panther,” and just the cultural impact that had as a film was just amazing. I remember going to see that with pretty sure every Asian person I knew, and I thought it was just a wonderful thing.
Especially with this movie, where it’s about a Springsteen fan but it’s not about New Jersey white kid, people are encouraged more and more to identify more outside with other perspectives.
I think there is more of a realization now that you don’t have to be this one thing. People are opening their minds to be people being more than one thing, the person that drives you to work in the morning is not just a driver, they’re more than that. Same with the person who serves you in a restaurant, they’re not just a waiter, they’re more than that. That, what I’m talking about now, is their job title, but what I think has happened is that people who had been defined by stereotypical things about their race ... I think that will slowly but steadily sort of dissipate.
Do you have any long term goals in your acting career?
I just want to do good stuff. And I think it will be stuff that’s varied, and stuff that interests me. What’s very important for me is, like with this film, I think anything that I’m involved in that is remotely cultural, what’s important for me is to be uplifting to that. Shine a light on that, in a positive manner. Because, me, myself, Sarfraz Manzoor, and Gurinder Chadha, we’ve been given the opportunity to showcase this story of a British Asian and his family, and so it’s important to … if you’re going to internalize that, internalize that in as positive light as can humanly be. And not say that it’s faultless—point out the faults, but then uplift it.