Perspective: On ‘Blinded by the Light’ and Being the Only Brown Face in the Room
Before I tell you my thoughts on Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light (which Kristy reviewed), her follow-up to the still-perfect Bend It Like Beckham (which I was really excited to write about recently), I’m going to share a little story. Ready? Gather round! (And note: Spoilers for Blinded by the Light follow in this piece.)
Against my parents’ wishes, I majored in journalism as an undergrad. Like most Iranian parents, they wanted me to be a doctor, dentist, pharmacist, lawyer, or engineer; way, way down on the list of acceptable professions was public policy professional or literature professor. That was the career hierarchy, and that’s How It Was. My mother and father had moved to the United States on their own and built lives from scratch and excelled in medical and scientific fields and sacrificed so much for me, and I wanted to be a writer? That was embarrassing.
Nevertheless, in the spring of my sophomore year, I applied for a regional internship program that included local newspapers in Maryland and Virginia. You applied for the program, would interview with the publishers and/or editors in chief of those papers, and if you were accepted, one of the papers chose you, and you got a stipend and a scholarship to work for them for a summer.
I applied and progressed to the interview stage, and I didn’t drive yet, so my dad (begrudgingly, but still) agreed to chauffeur me to some random office building in Annapolis for this interview on a weekday morning. He took off work to take me, and the expectation was that he would drop me back at school and then return to his lab after the interview to check on some experiments he had running. The day before, I had confirmed my interview time as 10 a.m. I walk into the office at 9:45 a.m., in my Forever 21 business professional outfit and my Nine West Outlet shoes, and there’s no office staff to check in with. Instead, there’s a printed-out list of the appointments for the day, and you’re supposed to sign in and seat yourself and wait your turn. I check the sheet, and my name isn’t there for 10 a.m. Or 10:30 a.m. Or 11 a.m. You get the idea, right? Instead, my name was down there for 2 p.m. More than four whole hours away.
My father, suffice to say, was not pleased! And I didn’t have a print-out of the confirmation email because, well, I had brought my writing samples and my resume, and I hadn’t thought about that. So when the person who had my 10 a.m. appointment walked out of the conference room where the interviews were being held, I stepped inside, grabbed one of the old white men who was supposed to be interviewing me—they were, naturally, all old white men—and tried to explain to him what happened. Also naturally, this old white man was not pleased. He insisted that I was wrong. I didn’t have proof of my interview time? Did I have ID? Was I even who I said I was? I am ashamed to admit to you that at this point I was nearly in tears, and my dad—again, not pleased—didn’t really like that I was basically groveling to this man for an interview that I had already secured. But the old white man told me they would make an exception for me and push my interview up to lunch time, and they would interrupt their cold-cut spread to squeeze me in so my father and I didn’t have to wait for the whole four hours. He wanted me to be appreciative, and I was.
Two hours pass. Honestly? I’m still surprised my dad didn’t make us go home, but his pride was wounded, too. He knew I wanted this interview, and I wouldn’t make this mistake. So at 12:15 p.m., when that door opened and I was beckoned to a room already smelling of mustard and ham from the meal going on inside, I think I remember my father smiling at me. Maybe that’s a sentimental detail I’ve added over time, because I want to remember the experience that way. I want to believe that for once he thought, “That’s my daughter, and I’m proud of her.”
So I walked in, and, as I expected: Not a female face in the whole room, and certainly not a brown one. They were all men of a certain type and reflective of a certain time. The questions they asked me about what I wanted to accomplish as a journalist were ones I had encountered before, too: What did my diverse perspective offer? How would I handle the diversity beat? Were my clips only from my time on my college newspaper’s student life desk, or did I have anything else? How about breaking news? Student government? Transportation? Crime?
Guess what: I had all that shit! I had covered a variety of news beats my freshman year on the college newspaper, and then transitioned into writing long-form features and profiles. My sophomore year, I became an editor on staff, and began to move away from the pigeonholing any writer of a certain gender and a certain skin color experiences: The expectation that you can and should only write about issues that are related to how you look. This is the pushback you see going down in newsrooms everywhere—this resistance to the idea that as the diverse member of a staff, your expertise is only in your own specific diverse area. I knew this is what those men expected of me, and I knew that I would surprise them by not being that person. I stuck up for myself when they asked how they could expect me to handle deadlines and assignments when I got the time wrong for my interview. I knew they wanted me to be apologetic for this miscommunication and misunderstanding (their emphasis being that I was the cause of all this), so I was.
When I walked out of that office building, I never wanted to see any of those people ever again—but as soon as I got home, I found my email confirmation with the 10 a.m. interview time I had been given and I sent it to all the fancy work email addresses listed on all the fancy business cards I received. I don’t remember ever getting an apology from whoever caused the scheduling error or for the belittling way those men treated me that day, but I received the offer letter for the scholarship and the stipend and my placement at my top-choice newspaper a few weeks later. I’ve never felt better about turning a position down.
Instead that summer, I took an unpaid internship at The Washington Post Express features desk, where I reviewed beauty items (NARS mascara and Jessica Simpson hair extensions!) and wrote trend stories about Washington, D.C., and ate all the free bagels and pizza they provided. I worked two other jobs on top of my internship to cover my on-campus rent and my Metro ride into northern Virginia every day. When a higher-up said I was “really on [my] game when spewing venom,” I printed out the praise and put it up in my workspace. Years later, my editor from that time invited me to start writing movie reviews for the regional family magazine she was editing, and I kept freelancing for Express for a little while, and my path forward in journalism as a pop culture writer and critic was set.
I tell this absurdly long story (thank you for sticking with me if you did) because I felt an extreme sense of déjà vu for this time in my life while watching Blinded by the Light, adapted from the 2007 memoir Greetings From Bury Park by journalist and documentarian Sarfraz Manzoor. In Chadha’s sincere ode to youthful dreams and Bruce Springsteen’s discography, protagonist Javed (Viveik Kalra) is caught between his own desire to be a writer and his father Malik’s (Kulvinder Ghir) expectation that he’ll do something more “practical” with his life. “Start at the top and stay there,” Malik insists, and Javed has to lie to him in order to take an English class; Malik thinks he’s taking economics. And Malik is shocked and irritated when Javed accepts an unpaid internship with their local newspaper; who are these people, Malik wonders, to ask his son to work without pay?
The tension between father and son explodes when rising far-right sentiments lead to a hate crime at the local mosque Javed’s family attends. The display of a bloody pig’s head at the mosque sparks fear in the Pakistani-British community and in other Muslims who attend the mosque, and Javed feels helpless. When his white, male editor asks Javed to visit the mosque, interview some people, and write a story about it, Javed is proud that the story ends up on the front page, thinking that he’s giving his community a voice—and Malik is furious.
Javed’s experience is one I recognized, and one I think many journalists from not-typically-represented backgrounds will, too: You’re from a certain community, so you’re called upon to tell their one story with your one voice. It’s advocacy, yes, especially when that perspective needs to be shared, but one that can be quite narrow. In Blinded by the Light, it’s implied that Javed did a good thing, and that Malik is overreacting—but I think there’s a complication to this situation, too, because Malik might sense something that Javed doesn’t yet: That there’s potential for his son to be pigeonholed as a writer. To only be seen as someone who can write about Muslim issues or Pakistani issues. To not be considered as someone who would have legitimate opinions about, say, British literature, or Bruce Springsteen, or apartheid—all issues we know Javed is passionate about. If his bosses at the newspaper only see him as one thing, and only tie his worth as a journalist to the access that the color of his skin provides, is that progress?
That was the conflict I felt during that conference room interview, with all those men who wanted to know what my background brought to my writing and whether I could separate it from my reporting. My experiences as a woman, as an Iranian American, as a first-generation immigrant, as a feminist, as someone raised Muslim, as someone who now considers herself an atheist, all of that stuff factors into who I am, and it all factors into who Javed is in Blinded by the Light, too. I know what it’s like to be the only brown face in a room, and so does Javed. Our cultural heritages should be celebrated and are worthy, but as individuals, we aren’t just that.
In my writing for Pajiba, I’ve been honored to write about Asian representation in Mr. Robot, that awful Roseanne episode about Muslim refugees, how Game of Thrones treated its characters of color like props, and the layered Orientalism of the Disney live-action remake of Aladdin. But I’ve also opined on the film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s Gothic horror We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the heartbreaking tension of HBO’s Chernobyl, and what all those damn runes mean in Midsommar. I’m lucky to be able to pull from various aspects of my life and inject that into my writing, and I know I’ve been called subjective for it. But who determines “objectivity”? The old white men in that conference room, who told me that I had the wrong interview time and used that misconception to feed into whatever stereotypes they already thought about me? If that’s objectivity, I don’t want it.
When Javed and his Sikh friend Roops (the lovely Aaron Phagura) approach their school’s head DJ for a radio show, he’s shocked that they don’t want to do something “Asian”-themed. The teens retaliate by sneaking into his studio and putting on the Boss; the scene transforms into an all-out musical sequence, with Javed, Roops, and Javed’s girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams) running through the streets, gathering people of all different ethnicities to dance with them. Later, when Javed reads his award-winning essay out loud at his school assembly—and to his proud parents and sister—he stresses that he wants to be seen for his ethnic background and the sacrifices his parents made in moving from Pakistan to Luton, but also for his own talent and his own personhood—and that he wants to follow the Boss by “not letting the hardness of the world stop you.” “We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood/And these badlands start treating us good,” Springsteen sings in “Badlands,” which features prominently in Javed’s musical education in Blinded by the Light. May his insistence on being seen for both his culture and for his own ambition be an inspiration to us all.
Image sources (in order of posting): Warner Bros. MediaPass, Warner Bros. MediaPass, Warner Bros. MediaPass