Blinded by the White: The Colonised Imaginations of Gurinder Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor

Gurinder Chadha’s latest film Blinded by the Light was released last year to critical acclaim. Having read the memoir, by Sarfraz Manzoor, on which the film was based, I was curious to see what an already problematic book had become after making its way through another layer of racist framing; the production line of the Gurinder Chadha brand.  

A predictability has long seeped into the films that Gurinder Chadha produces with efficient regularity – each film seems a caricature of Chadha’s earlier films.  Riding on the back of real concerns and campaigns, her films seem to strategically address the concerns or “trends” of the moment – whether it is the 70-year commemoration of partition, renewed post-Brexit racist violence, campaigns to teach children about colonialism, or conversations around ‘diversity’ in the media industry. “My buzz-phrase is ‘effortlessly diverse,’” she said in a recent interview. “That’s what I do. My teams, both in front of and behind the camera, are a complete mixture. Diversity, for me, is a state of mind; it’s about how you see the world.” 

Diversity is a state of mind and it is true that Chadha and her work do embody this. For unlike decolonisation, diversity is about superficial change that maintains the status quo; adding faces of colour to unequal white structures and perspectives.

Many of Chadha’s films have been adaptations or spicier versions of British films, television shows or books; the ingeniously named Bride and Prejudice is based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Viceroy’s House is supposed to be a kind of Upstairs Downstairs, Beecham House is an exotic Downton Abbey.  This is how Chadha seeks to be a “mainstream” rather than “marginal” film director. Placing value on western art and literature, on western narrative structures, on western success and recognition, on western values and perspectives, Chadha sprinkles a little spice and masala on to the standard fare, while ticking diversity boxes. Chadha was quoted as asserting that Beecham House was “a flipping radical thing.” (Guardian 18 June 2019). But there is nothing radical about her vision, perspective or art. She is an example of why diversity changes little, why it isn’t good enough, and why there needs to be a deeper decolonisation of art production.

Excepting her first film Bhaji on the Beach, Chadha’s films have been about young people of colour being inspired by white men – from footballer David Beckham in Bend it Like Beckham to singer Bruce Springsteen in Blinded by the Light; films about young, lost diasporic Indian kids, constrained by their own cultures and then freed, from without. An epiphany on the part of their parents follows that they were, indeed, backward. Or, like Chadha’s recent film and television projects, Viceroy’s House and Beecham House, they have been ambitious narratives about white men and their extravagant houses, in colonial India. Seeming to offer a critique of colonialism, they are exotic spectacles which luxuriate in the wealth and comfort of white individuals who, unlike their fellow colonisers, are good people, with good intentions; they make a bit of an effort, they speak a few words of Hindi, they adopt and admire (fetishise) native customs and traditions, they think colonial rule might be problematic; they are reluctant colonisers; they are liberals.

Some of the “natives” around these white masters are faithful and servile towards them, others scheme and plot against them, or they try to seduce them. And all of them, whether they are performing servitude, cunning, or exotic allure, are flat and one-dimensional; they speak English slowly, stiffly, with an odd inauthentic accent, they walk stiffly, they eat stiffly – in fact everything they do is awkward and performative, even when they are alone – as if they are still being watched by their colonial masters; they have no inner life, complexity or layers beyond this performance.  As if they have internalised the colonial gaze deeply, as if colonial subjects don’t have an existence or concerns beyond this.

Beecham House and Viceroy’s House have received sharp, well-justified criticism, not only for contrived wooden performances, but also for their politics. Viceroy’s House was critiqued for centring an apparently benevolent Mountbatten and his wife, while marginal Indian characters are shown “bowing, preening and scraping,” never resisting. Meanwhile, the film embodies an overt anti-Muslim stance, revealed not only in the depiction and demonising of Muslims in the film, but also in the distorted historical narrative, which turns Jinnah into a caricatured villain. With no apparent motive beyond a hunger for power, he is shown as being responsible for the catastrophe of partition (and simultaneously, the creation of Pakistan.) The film carries no understanding or insight into the circumstances, including Hindu dominance and prejudice towards Muslims, that might have made the construction of Pakistan desirable for many Muslims.

Much of this critique of Viceroy’s House is applicable also to Chadha’s television series Beecham House – which similarly centres the house of a white man, John Beecham, in colonial India. Devoted servants flock like children around Beecham, seeming to desire nothing more than to serve him. When the son of one of the characters is killed – his mother cries not for the loss of her son, but the fact that he always wanted to serve his master. When their master John Beecham, is imprisoned, the servants all sit around and pray for him. 

The show sells itself through exoticism. A mystical Hinduism is especially prevalent; there is constant chanting about Sita Ram in a western accent. In the background, Beecham happily, respectfully participates in Hindu rituals with his wife (indicating that he is a good guy) and even his prejudiced mother eventually, grudgingly, joins in when the servants are singing the Arti to pray for her son’s safety. There are plenty of elephants, the clothes are sumptuous, the princesses are sexy visions, playing out orientalist fantasies. In flowing dupattas, lehngas and little blouses that reveal cleavages and midriffs, they carry themselves with a seductive self-awareness. The female servants are either the same, with a few less sequins on their clothes, or they are maternal Ayah types. 

Meanwhile all the characters, white and Indian, express awe and reverence towards royalty – be it Mughal Emperors and Empresses or Hindu Maharajas. There is little interest on the part of Chadha, in critically probing of the layers within Indian society – going beyond a liberal western Orientalist white gaze that has always marked the west’s interactions with the east. It is perhaps no surprise that William Dalrymple is the historical advisor for the film – his Jaipur Literature Festival has been a similar purveyor of royal, exotic India.

The terrain of Chadha’s latest offering, Blinded by the Light, an adaptation of Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings from Bury Park, appears to be different – gritty and mundane, regional and recent; depicting working class lives in Luton in the 1980s. In its “grittiness,” it seems to hark back to Chadha’s first film, Bhaji on the Beach, although this had more emotional truth. In its narrative it perhaps resembles Bend it Like Beckham. Bend it like Beckham marked the beginning of a new trajectory in Chadha’s work – one that was not only commercial, but also centred whiteness as an aspirational touchstone. Whiteness and commercial appeal in Chadha’s films are of course intertwined; it is because of their whiteness that Chadha is able to make the commercial films that she makes.

Blinded by the Light centres on a Muslim teenager and his relationship with his family, in particular his father, and is set against a backdrop of the overt and violent racism of the time. This might seem more inclusive, more critical than Chadha’s colonial projects, more substantial than the candy floss of Mistress of Spices, Bride and Prejudice and Bend it Like Beckham. But it is no less founded on a white gaze than Chadha’s other ventures. It is important to unpack this gaze – as the film, like many recent books and films, rode and benefited, through its marketing, from the current anti-racist and decolonial wave, although its politics are in direct contradiction to this perspective.

Sarfraz Manzoor’s Greetings from Bury Park

Blinded by the Light is based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings from Bury Park, which was commissioned after 9/11 and 7/7 and published in 2007. This context is important – the book was the product of a specific moment when there was a sudden curiosity for, and marketability in hearing Muslim voices in the “mainstream,” but also erasure of these voices through the construction of a good Muslim, bad Muslim binary that is largely defined through allegiance to Britishness over Muslimness.

For most of the memoir, Manzoor defines himself through his difference from his family, especially his father – primarily on the basis that he is British while his father is Pakistani. Although there are moments of connection with his immediate and wider family, he presents himself as a British boy who happens to have been born into a Pakistani family – and this is the root of the “misery” that he has had to endure in this misery memoir about being saved by Bruce Springsteen. 

Although Manzoor’s family (and by implication Islam) are depicted as oppressive, the memoir is constructed as a narrative of reconciliation with his family, in particular his father. This reconciliation is founded on the fact that, in Manzoor’s eyes, his family eventually starts becoming more British. This includes his father who, as Manzoor understands (albeit after his father’s death), due to a lifetime of living in Britain, was in fact more British than Pakistani all along: “My father was different from the men and women in Pakistan; he had got out. In some ways, my father was more English than he was Pakistani (with) a strong belief in discipline and authority; faith in the value of hard work and education, and a disdain for excessive emoting.”

Britishness is defined, in Manzoor’s eyes, through being hard-working, as opposed to being a “lazy Pakistani.” At one point, Manzoor says of his brother-in-law – recently arrived in Britain from Pakistan, that he had thought he “would thank the stars we had taken him away from Pakistan, but instead he appeared in shock that in Britain the good life required hard work. That was one of the problems with arranged marriages and importing husbands and wives from Pakistan: they thought marriage was a free ticket to an easy life.”  

Manzoor finally attributes his own Britishness, that he is so proud of, to his father; it is only because of his father’s sacrifices, building on what his father created, that he has been able to “achieve” Britishness. By the end of the book Manzoor realises “that there is only one country which is truly mine. The life my father had built, the family he raised and the life I have fashioned are all due to living in Britain. Every opportunity, every job and every chance to pursue my dreams has been offered by this country… (Britain) was the greatest gift (my father) gave to his children…Britain…is my land of hope and dreams.”

It is the rise of home grown “Islamic terrorism,” especially 7/7 that leads Manzoor to fully understand the extent to which his loyalties lie with Britain.  And this moment is also when Manzoor stops defining himself, as an integrated model citizen, in opposition to his father. Echoing the media and government propaganda of that time, his father now becomes an ideal hard-working, an aspirational citizen, while the new “other” that Manzoor now defines himself against, is the “radicalised” British Muslim. This “other,” according to Manzoor, is ungrateful, rejecting the Britishness that Manzoor’s father worked so hard to give his children; “they were telling us they did not want to be part of this thing called Britain. And not only did they not want to be part of it, they actively wanted to bring it down.”

Using sinister words such as “lurked,” Manzoor demonises and separates himself from this “radical” “bad” “Muslim” who doesn’t share his allegiance to Britain and Britishness.

There were the ones who lurked outside the central mosque handing out leaflets…These were the Muslims who grabbed the headlines with their anger and their hatred … Why were they so angry and why did they hate this country so much? As someone who was also from Luton and who shared the same religion and nationality as these alienated and angry men, it sometimes felt in the days and weeks after 7/7 as if I was expected to speak for the bombers and in some way explain why they had bombed the tube. But in fact, when I heard those young British Muslims speak so contemptuously about living in this country, my reaction was one of anger, confusion and betrayal.  What they felt and what they preached was not in my name.

Manzoor’s anger is not towards those who carry the racist expectation that all Muslims should speak for the bombers, or that he should speak for all Muslims, but towards the bombers for “fucking things up for us.” Indeed throughout the memoir, his frustration is not so much towards racism, as it is towards the fact that his family doesn’t assimilate – the insinuation is that those who don’t assimilate, deserve the racism they face. He is happy to comply with the expectation to demonstrate his loyalty to Britain, to the West – to prove that he is a good Muslim.

After 7/7 Manzoor tells us that he kept his rucksack open so “anyone suspecting me could see that I only had some clothes, my iPod and my copy of the New Yorker inside. I felt I had to prove that I was not a ‘bad Muslim.'”  Through shared signifiers, such as the New Yorker here, or his love for Bruce Springsteen, Manzoor shows white people that he is just like them. It is significant that he uses literature, music, as well as romantic “love” as universals that signify being civilised, that signify the west, in opposition to the Islam. Manzoor writes about choosing Bruce Springsteen as his religion, over Islam, the religion he was born into: “The older I became the less sense religion seemed to make; Islam, as my parents taught it, seemed to be about rules and obedience. Not thinking for yourself but trusting the words written hundreds of years ago.”  Being a “good” Muslim is about not being Muslim at all. After 7/7 we see Manzoor dismissing, along with his Sikh friend Amalok, all Muslims as terrorists;  “So, it’s your lot again then, hey?” says Amalok.

…It’s the same old, same old, innit. Muslims blow things up and us Sikhs get mashed up by some fucking drunken muppets who don’t know any better.”  “If it was up to me, you know what I would say to them,” Manzoor says to his friend. “I’d say,” “if you hate this country so much, why don’t you just fuck off to somewhere that’s Muslim enough for you. If an English person says it everyone turns round and calls him a racist but I know plenty of Asian folk who think exactly the same.”  His  friend’s reply is “Mate, everyone we know thinks that … Fact is that it used to be the white man who made our lives shit. Now it’s the Muslims.

This demonstrates how easily the already problematic distinction between “good” Muslim and “bad” Muslim sinks into a racism towards all Muslims. This is how Manzoor’s Greetings from Bury Park perpetuates the increasingly normalised Islamophobia of British society, while appearing “diverse” – giving a voice to Muslims.  It is not just Muslims who are “othered,” this is how he describes his Sikh friend: “I had always felt grateful I was not a Sikh, being Asian was hard enough without a religion that insisted believers wear enormous bandages on their head and forsake cutting facial hair. Within seconds of meeting Amalok it was obvious that while he might have looked like Chewbacca in jeans, he had the confident air of someone completely oblivious to how ridiculous he looked.

This is the book that Chadha decided to adapt into a film, and in this decision, whether she is blind to its Islamophobia, its racism, its white gaze or actively agrees with it, she is complicit and aligned to these.

Blinded by the Light

Chadha’s Blinded by the Light – co-written by Manzoor, is set wholly in the 1980s, with no direct reference to the political context in which the book was written and published; to 9/11 and 7/7, to “Muslim extremism.” But the narrative structure remains the same – one in which Javed (a fictionalized teenage Manzoor) plays the role of a “good Muslim” who is saved by Bruce Springsteen. In many ways, the film perpetuates the male white gaze of Springsteen, of the book, all the more. The glimpses we see in the book, of complexity, of Manzoor’s tenderness towards his family, are absent in the film.

Javed is shown to inhabit his home as if he has been dropped overnight into an alien context that he finds incomprehensible and unbearable; a white boy placed in the middle of a “strange” Pakistani family.  The camera’s white eyes, which are Javed’s eyes, “other” his family, who come across as flat, stiff, bland and constantly strained, without complexity, humour, warmth and specificity. Whatever they do (however innocuous) appears odd, unreasonable, oppressive. For example, his family calls him down to celebrate his birthday, to cut a cake, give him presents. The expression on Javed’s face as he reluctantly comes down, as he “endures” their expressions of love, is of sufferance and reluctant toleration.

As the film unfolds through Javed’s sad white eyes, viewers are supposed to share his alienation from his Muslim family – for example, his shock and embarrassment when his father drops him to school and shouts; “stay away from the girls, be like the Jews.” Seeing Javed’s friend Matt kissing a girl, his father exclaims in disgust. We are supposed to identify with Javed as he looks longingly at the couple and explains that his friend is English; implying that his friend is normal. This is confirmed by Matt’s dad’s reaction on seeing his son kissing a girl “Go on … I taught him everything he knows, all the moves.” Matt’s dad is contrasted with Javed’s dad (the contrast is emphasized when Matt’s dad turns out to be a Bruce Springsteen fan). Seconds later, as Javed is instructed to take the shopping in, in another instance of fetishizing and “othering,” the camera zooms into and focusses on the contents in the boot of the car – including a large tub of ghee, large tin of vegetable oil, large bag of onions – signifiers of his family’s “otherness.”

An idea of what is normal (white) is set up in the film, just as it is in the book – and everything that differs from this, is presented as strange, exotic.  The very premise of the book, and even more, the film, is founded on this white gaze which stereotypes Muslims, assuming the “otherness” of a Pakistani Muslim family; for it hinges on the apparently delightful and surprising “contradiction” of a Pakistani boy being a fan of Bruce Springsteen.

Apart from the scene with the pig’s head in the mosque, or his father referring to the music that Javed is obsessed with as “haram,” there are few overt markers in the film, of Javed and his family being Muslim; the film is marked by Chadha’s “British Asian” frame. However, we are reminded constantly that Javed is Muslim through the fact that the white people in the film bring it up constantly: his girlfriend Eliza, his childhood friend Matt, and Matt’s girlfriend, the editor of the school newspaper and later the local newspaper where he interns, During his internship, he is asked by his boss, “You’re Muslim right? Do you speak Urdu? There’s a story to cover at the mosque and no one’s going to talk to me. They’re closing the mosque, you can help get you lots’ version over.” 

From his friend’s dad to his neighbor, to his English teacher, to the airport officials – we see surprise, recognition and patronizing “respect” at the apparent juxtaposition of a Muslim or Pakistani boy liking or doing or wanting to do something that they consider to be white – contrary to their stereotype of a Muslim or Pakistani. 

Placing such “oxymorons” together (like the double whammy of a working class boy who likes ballet, in Billy Eliot, a South-Asian girl who likes football in Chadha’s Bend it like Beckham) is a standard trope in cinema and literature, but it is interesting to think about the assumptions this can reveal, as well as the direction that characters are supposed to aspire towards.

Javed’s religion, ethnicity, race are brought up, not only in the context of liking Bruce Springsteen, but also having a girlfriend and wanting to be a writer – all of these are seen as contradictory to being Muslim, Pakistani, brown; they bring Javed closer to whiteness. 

At one point in the film, his friend Matt’s girlfriend asks if it is against his religion to have a girlfriend. We see his English teacher’s raised eyebrow, her surprise and acknowledgement when she discovers that he wants to be a writer (later, she tells him he has a responsibility to make an invisible, absent voice heard). Javed’s interest in writing also catches the attention of the girl that he likes, Eliza. Throughout the film (and memoir), art, literature and music signify whiteness. Javed’s English teacher, in the first lesson, declares, “The writers that we’ll be studying this year are immortal and universal: Shakespeare, Dickens, Woolf.” There is no critical interrogation of how these white writers, located in a specific context, come to be “universal.” Bruce Springsteen is similarly seen to represent the “universality” of music in the film and the memoir, although he is located in a perspective and particular context – this “universality” is captured in scenes where we see everyone, black and white, East Asian and South Asian, dancing together, in the town, in the market, to his music.  It brings everyone together.

Javed, however, cannot be a universal writer; he must remain located within the narrow confines of his identity. The editor of Javed’s school newspaper is at first not interested in publishing his work, but after reading his “1000 words of closely argued adulation” of Bruce Springsteen, he asks him, “you’re a Muslim aren’t you? A Pakistani into Springsteen, now that’s got potential.” And he agrees to publish the piece; the headline we see, when the piece is published, highlights that he is  Pakistani, while his name is spelt wrong. Javed’s response to this fetishization of his “identity” is simply delight that he will be published, or delight that it helps him get a girlfriend; he is happy to play along. When Javed gets a girlfriend, her parents tell him that she always brings “inappropriate” (men of colour) home to shock them. Javed later asks her: “Are you doing this to shock your parents? Because I want you to know I’m absolutely fine with that.’ 

Javed seems to be happy for the acceptance and success he gets, no matter if it is patronizing, if it fetishises him, if it is founded in prejudice – which is at the heart of the stereotyping and its inverse, exceptionalising him as “different.” Javed is simply delighted that so many around him want to help him (to an extent that seems far-fetched in this feel-good film). He is not concerned about the terms of this acceptance, he doesn’t ask himself, as those who cannot or refuse to assimilate often ask: “Can I be accepted with (not for) my difference?”

And the film is full of white saviours wanting to help him; they are the reasonable ones, the ones who understand Javed, who have his interest at heart – they save him from his oppressive family. They are also the only ones with agency and power – which is why they are able to help him. Javed’s teacher is constantly promoting him and his work. Because of her he gets his placement with the paper, wins a prize, and goes to America.  It is his girlfriend Eliza who ultimately brings his parents to his school event and arranges a reconciliation. Conversely, his friend Amalok is the one to save him at college, but this is only by introducing him to Bruce Springsteen.

Navigating this dance is complicated; Javed can gain power, attention and success, as long as he doesn’t forget his position; gratitude, subtle inferiority and vulnerability. At one point, his childhood friend, Matt, who has been Javed’s saviour since he was young, seeing that Javed is becoming more confident and no longer needs him in the same way, makes it clear that he is getting too big for his boots. He reminds Javed of the patronizing, unequal dynamic that there has always been between them; he stood up for Javed when he was called a dirty p*** at school, he has been trying to find him a girlfriend, get him a life. He tells him, “Remember, you’re still sad Javed.”  Javed’s response to this is not anger, dignity, self-respect – seeking friendship on an equal basis – but apology for forgetting himself.

Javed (along with the film) does not recognize the normalised forms of racism and whiteness that are entrenched in liberalism.  He only recognizes the openly abusive and violent racism of right-wing “Nazi Scum” or the racism of Javed’s girlfriend Eliza’s wealthy parents – but again, this is connected to their politics – they are Tories.

While Javed’s family (just like the colonial subjects in Chadha’s historical films) don’t resist in any way when they are attacked – violence at a right-wing protest, a pig’s head in the mosque, grafitti on the garage door, pee through the letter box. The implication is that those who don’t change deserve the racism they face.

Javed is shown as empowered enough to stand up to right-wing racists. The implication is that it is possible to overcome racists and racism by changing yourself – as Javed does in the film. He virtually has a make-over, and it is Bruce who allows him to do this.  Bruce is the ultimate white saviour of the film. He helps Javed to stand up to racist boys – he and his friend Amalok sing “Badlands” to them and walk away with dignity and self-respect.  Bruce helps Javed to get a girlfriend – Javed sings “Thunder Road” to woo her. Bruce helps him to become a writer, giving him to the courage to continue writing his poetry, to get published, through the essay he writes about his love for him. And Bruce gives him the strength to leave the town he hates so much – Luton, to escape his family – to go to Manchester University to study Literature and Creative Writing; Javed cites the lyrics of “Born to Run” to his friend to communicate his yearning to leave. Above all, Bruce gives him the courage to resist his family, his father. 

At the heart of the film is a narrative of progress – of the need to change in a certain direction.  This is what Javed’s parents need to understand and do by the end of the film. It is significant that while Javed is never interested in the music that his parents listen to, by the last scene, as Javed’s dad drives his son to university, they listen to Springsteen together.

Javed had succeeded, by the end, in leaving Luton, the “shithole” that he hates so much, in order to study English Literature at Manchester University. There is a sense of the liberation associated with Literature, and with University, both of which he is heading towards. There is no inkling of the reality of what he has faced and will face; the whiteness of institutions, curricula and teachers, complicit in creating a sense of inferiority, shame and silence amongst students of colour. Rather, Javed has internalised these. 

The film, of course, is not interested and not able to explore these complexities. Its model is one that is common in the mainstream, with racism reduced to the obvious racists on the street or the Donald Trumps, Nigel Farages, and Boris Johnsons of the world.  There is no recognition in the film of the white supremacy of well-intentioned left liberals.

There is a clear commercial and political line that travels from Bend it Like Beckham to Blinded by the Light – including Chadha’s recent colonial extravaganzas. It is perhaps for this reason that Chadha is able to make films, to do what she does. Is Chadha backed for her projects because of her political stance? Or, more cynically, does she take this political stance because it allows her to produce such well-supported work?  These are the questions we end up asking as we see Chadha continue to churn out one high-profile film after another – each one gratefully, happily received by the establishment, ticking the diversity boxes, but each offering increasingly out of sync with the critical political perspective that – led by younger people, has been pushing its way from the margins towards the centre in recent years.

Kavita Bhanot is currently ECR Leverhulme Fellow at Leicester University. She is editor of The Book of Birmingham (Comma Press 2018) and Too Asian, Not Asian Enough (Tindal Street Press 2011) and co-editor of the Bare Lit Anthology (Brain Mill Press 2017). Her fiction, non-fiction and academic work has been published, performed and broadcast widely. She has written a number of influential articles, including the landmark essay “Decolonise not Diversify” (Media Diversified) and she founded the Literature Must Fall Collective, which recently organized the Literature Must Fall Festival in Birmingham (Sep 2019).  She has been a reader and mentor with The Literary Consultancy for the last nine years. The manuscript for her first novel won third prize in the 2018 SI Leeds Literary Prize. She was awarded the 2018 Tilted Axis Emerging Translator Mentorship with Jeremy Tiang by the National Centre of Writing.