WhatiLearned.com - What I Learned
In January, Gurinder Chadha’s Sundance darling Blinded by the Light sold for $15 million. The charming coming-of-age flick — part real-life story of British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, part fantastical musical set in 1987 to the music of Bruce Springsteen — won over critics and festival goers alike with its feel-good message and earnest appreciation for The Boss. At the forefront of the Sundance sheen was 21-year-old British actor Viveik Kalra, who was witnessing his own history in the making.
“The two highest sales of Sundance were Mindy Kaling’s Late Night [directed by Nisha Ganatra], and Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, which is amazing. Two female Asian directors. But that shouldn’t be a rare occurrence,” he tells MTV News during a recent New York press day for the film. “Hopefully, we’re living in changing times, and people are less judgmental. The idea that a 16-year-old kid who is brown at that time period falls in love with the music of Bruce Springsteen, you wouldn’t look at the kid and think that. People are more than just surface-level was something that was important to us.”
As Javed, a quiet British-Pakistani teen who communicates his deepest thoughts through the poetry he’s too afraid to let anyone read, Kalra embraced a character that he could deeply relate to, despite the fact that they had nearly nothing in common. Below, the actor tells MTV News about the performers who inspired him (including Borat), pouring his heart into the film alongside Chadha and Manzoor, and the bittersweet feeling of his newfound success.
MTV News: The entire film is about how your character finds his voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen. Did you have a mythic figure in your life like Bruce? Someone whose work helped guide you to where you are now?
Viveik Kalra: When I was younger, I used to listen to Usher and Ja Rule. I don’t think they have quite the same level of impact and meaning to their words as Springsteen did [to Javed]. But it was always cool seeing a face that looked like myself, and sort of vaguely resembled myself on any form of TV. It happened infrequently, so it was something that I had to latch onto, which is kind of messed up to think that you have to latch onto something. That means there’s not very much of it. Looking back now, those were probably incredibly talented actors and people who just weren’t allowed to be nuanced and to play nuanced people.
Kalra as Javed in New Line’s Blinded by the Light
MTV News: Was there one person or performance in particular?
Kalra: Not at all, which is interesting. The character in the film develops this obsession with Bruce, but he doesn’t become obsessed with the idea of Bruce or the image of Bruce. What speaks to him about Bruce Springsteen is the words, and the words impact his life, and the words hit him from thousands of miles away while Bruce is off in America. I think sort of the idea of something that is more than a person, you know what I mean? Words, those words that he says are more than just him. They’re incredibly specific in terms of their story and place and time, and I think that’s what the film is.
MTV News: You were in drama school when you booked this role, right?
Kalra: I actually don’t remember… I was! I went in for three auditions and then I did my best rendition of “Born to Run” in the audition.
MTV News: Completely a cappella?
Kalra: No. It was with a massive speaker, actually. Our director pulled out a massive speaker, blasted it up at top volume, and I had to sing. I didn’t realize at the time it was one of the most iconic songs ever, which I think would have made it harder. And then all of a sudden I was on a film set living in this totally alien world. I think when you are in the creative field or want to be in the creative field, it’s something that can be quite inaccessible for a lot of people, so to suddenly be transported into it was a blessing.
MTV News: You weren’t only transported into it, you were a lead. You were the lead. That’s something that not every actor gets to experience.
Kalra: It’s a blessing. I just kept my head down and worked hard, and that was part of the reason why it hasn’t sunk in, or it didn’t sink in, or it’s still not sunk in. My head was just so down and I just wanted to do this story justice, because I thought this story was really important, especially in 2019, I think it hits a zeitgeist-y moment.
From left to right: Aaron Phagura, Sarfraz Manzoor, Patti Scialfa, Bruce Springsteen, Gurinder Chadha, and Kalra attend the Blinded by the Light premiere in Asbury Park, New Jersey
MTV News: How so? You mentioned previously how excited you were to see Himesh Patel [Yesterday] and Mena Massoud [Aladdin] lead major films this summer.
Kalra: Hopefully, it’s not just one summer. Maybe we can have a whole year! There’s been a realization that this is now marketable, which is tricky. Because if this wasn’t marketable, then perhaps I wouldn’t be as lucky to be in the position I am in now. However, what makes things marketable are the audiences, and obviously there are brown people in the world and there are lots of different people in the world. I’m not saying the film is just for a person of a specific race, creed, or color — the film is for everyone. And that was a thought I had in my mind, I thought, Maybe this won’t be seen as universal because it’s this character, it’s a Pakistani character, but that’s a thought I never should have had.
MTV News: Did you always want to be an actor from a very young age?
Kalra: I didn’t know that it could be a thing that you could do as a job when I was younger. I don’t think it quite clicks as a kid. I think parents pick up on those things, so I was lucky that my family picked up on something and sent me to youth theater and drama classes. It has now translated to a thing that I can do in my life, which is quite cool.
MTV News: How did your family know that you were born to be a performer?
Kalra: I used to do impressions at family dinner parties. I loved Borat. So I’d watch that on my PSP [PlayStation Portable] and I’d watch it on the telly, and I’d go to these family dinner parties and then I’d do impressions. I think that it was moments like that, when my family realized that, “Maybe he’d like something creative in his life.”
MTV News: Was there any other avenue for you, or were you just fully focused on acting? Or were you thinking like, “Oh, maybe I should pursue this instead?”
Kalra: Weirdly, I was contemplating writing. That’s so odd, actually just to think about it now. The character in the film wants to be a writer, and I was contemplating the idea of doing creative writing in university. But then I just thought, I’ve got to shove all my eggs in one basket. I wanted to do some acting, so I thought, Why not?
MTV News: What was it about creative writing that spoke to you?
Kalra: I think writing is just something cool. The character in the film uses writing as a form of therapy. All the things that he does not say to his father in the film, he writes it in poetry. There’s a point in the film where the dad actually reads his son’s poetry, and that is a meta-crazy moment because it’s like that’s a moment of genuine communication, but through a piece of paper as opposed to two voices in a room. That lack of communication between generations, I think that’s part of the British-Asian experience.
Kalra with director Chadha on the set of Blinded by the Light in the U.K.
MTV News: And what was it like working with Gurinder [Chadha] to bring this character to life? Obviously, it’s based on someone’s real-life experience, so would you say it was collaborative, or was it more about treating the script as a sort of sacred text because it was Sarfraz’s story?
Kalra: Bit of both. I think we stuck to a lot of what was on the page. Because in this case, where it’s someone’s actual life, you’re like the physical younger embodiment of someone who is now a slightly older man. That sounds terrible. Not a slightly older man, that sounds like he’s like 80.
MTV News: He’s a very cool slightly older man.
Kalra: Yes, exactly. As much as it was a massive collaboration that we had with each other, the script was really key. The idea was that we could keep it emotionally true. So it’s about 85 percent true, but a couple of bits have been squeezed in here and there and changed so it works for the medium of film. But to pay proper respect to the story, it had to be emotionally true. So I spent time with Sarfraz before filming, and in that time, I learned about him and saw how he was, and he had a sort of intensity to him, which I think I had to shove in Javed. When he’s not running about the streets of Luton singing Bruce Springsteen at the top of his lungs, he’s deadly serious about [Bruce], because I think his words have affected him on a deeper level.
Sarfraz is not just a mega-fan, he’s not just a super-fan. Sarfraz said that he had the opportunity at one point to go and see Bruce or go and speak at a festival, and he chose to speak at the festival because he said, “That’s what Bruce would have wanted me to do.” That is taking a passive act of being a fan and turning it into an active one of that fan-ness turning into you changing your life in a positive way.
MTV News: What was it about Sarfraz’s story that really resonated with you?
Kalra: It just felt emotionally real. There was heart and there was passion. When I read the script, there were little tidbits of cultural moments that I loved, like Shazia, my sister in the film, cutting onions with goggles on, which is hilarious. It resonated with me more than anything else I’d ever read before — fiction, non-fiction, script, not-a-script, as a piece of work, as a body of work — it was something that resonated with me more than anything, but that I didn’t relate to on a personal level at all, because my life was so different. For something to do that and for somebody to speak to you in that manner when it’s totally not your life at all, I think is credit to the writing and the way that it’s been crafted, and credit to the heart that’s been put into that story.
MTV News: What’s the biggest difference between you and your character?
Kalra: Circumstance. The character lives at a time where it wasn’t good to look like this. So he existed within that world. And that’s a pretty horrifying time. And people have been asking me, “Would you go back to the ’80s?” And I’m like, “Absolutely not.” And that’s not because of the costume or the hairdos or this, that, or the other, it’s because it was a time of not just institutionalized racism, but just general widespread hatred of people that were brown or Black, or from any ethnic group that was not Caucasian.
I remember filming a scene where I have to go through a National Front march, and that was their sort of right-wing party back in the day. I remember the first take I was told to run through it, and I turned around the corner and saw hundreds of people and just felt this wave of fear fall all over myself. And that is odd, because those weren’t real racists, and those weren’t real bigots. And I wasn’t really that person in that situation. So to live at a time where any sort of acceptance is not there, is quite harrowing, especially as a young person, to have so many people that are so full of hatred towards you for no apparent reason. That’s quite traumatizing. I think that’s sort of one of the reasons why the film is feel-good. And why Gurinder likes to make things that are healing. The film’s about race and talks about race because it’s 1987 in Luton, and you can’t not talk about race. But at the end of the day, it’s uplifting, and these characters aren’t defined by what they’re victims of, but they rise above that.
MTV News: How has your experience on this film impacted you as a young actor?
Kalra: I lost a bit of self consciousness to play the part. But I think it also made me aware that, regardless of what happens, when you really give your heart to a story that matters to you, it doesn’t really matter what happens next. And so that was something I really learned. And that myself and Sarfraz and Gurinder all took a big old slice of our hearts and shoved it on the table, and then slammed it on screen. Hopefully, you can see that.
MTV News: Coming out of Sundance, there was lot of buzz around the film, and a lot of critics were praising your performance. Has that changed things for you at all? Are you in more casting rooms now?
Kalra: It’s a tricky one, actually. Because it’s not guilt or anything, but there is a sort of sadness. Because I’m very lucky to have an opportunity. But the fact that those opportunities weren’t there for people a couple years ago, and still generally for most people are not there now, is like a thing that does leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth, to think that I’m doing all right and things are going all right with me, but loads of people aren’t in that same position. That’s not because they didn’t work hard. That’s just because they’re not afforded the opportunities that they deserve. You know what I mean?
MTV News: I think the goal is you get to a place where you can give people opportunities, right?
Kalra: One day.
Blinded by the Light hits theaters on August 16. For more with Kalra and Chadha, watch our interview with them from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival below.