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Viveik Kalra – autumn 2019
Viveik wears t-shirt Levi’sPhotography Tom Ordoyno, Styling Gary David Moore

Viveik Kalra: born to run

Viveik Kalra – autumn 2019

As Springsteen-crazed Javed in Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded By the Light, the actor is breathing new life into the suburban teen genre

Taken from the autumn 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

Viveik Kalra vividly remembers the reaction of one local while he was filming his breakout role in Bedfordshire. “Are you making a film in Luton?!” the man remarked, incredulous. “That’s gonna do well.”

Twenty-one-year-old Kalra recalls the anecdote with a wry smile. That film, the big- hearted, Bruce Springsteen-soundtracked dramedy Blinded by the Light, has in fact done quite well, and it’s not even out yet. Helmed by Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha, and billed as a spiritual sequel to that movie, the coming-of-age flick was the biggest sale at this January’s Sundance film festival. Up in the squiffy altitudes of Park City, Utah, Warner Bros and New Line Cinema handed over $15 million for the distribution rights, in a festival year that was an unprecedented win for Asian filmmakers. Another top seller was Mindy Kaling’s semi-autobiographical comedy Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra. “I thought it was wonderful that two Asian women filmmakers dominated the game,” says Kalra. “It’s crazy to be a part of. We’ve made a little British film. And then it’s gone to America. And then worldwide.”

It’s even taken Kalra to the kitsch Bucharest hotel room where he calls me, via Skype, on a June afternoon. It’s a scorcher in Romania today, he says – “like, Indian temperature”. Kalra, low- key in an all-black outfit broken up by a delicate gold chain, is in town to film a sci-fi movie which he can’t say too much about. He’s easygoing and warm in conversation, recounting his Sundance star-spotting with wide eyes, and speaking with a south London accent (though he actually grew up in Windsor). 

In Blinded by the Light, Kalra plays Javed, a bookish young poet growing up in a Muslim British-Pakistani family in Luton. Like many teens, he’s frustrated with his family, can’t get a date, and feels stifled by his town. That is, until a friend slips him cassettes of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Connecting with those records’ blue-collar anthems, The Boss becomes a way for Javed to unlock his own creative ambitions.

Chadha’s film, based on British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir Greetings From Bury Park, shows Luton’s nondescript cul-de sacs in bright light, with a dreary marketplace which bursts into life for a Springsteen singalong with Javed. It’s a treatment that brings to mind Chewing Gum creator Michaela Coel’s pointed depiction of London council estates as full of colour and life, in a counterpoint to negative stereotypes created by people who have probably never set foot in one.

Blinded by the Light is a family film in every sense, and Chadha is particularly good at showing how the intricacies of immigrant identity and cultural pride affect Javed’s home life. His sister says, “You should be listening to our music before you get confused with yourself,” and his dad calls Springsteen’s songs “haram nonsense” (i.e. “against Islam”). By foregrounding these conflicts, Blinded by the Light offers a perspective which Kalra believes is integral to nuanced south Asian representation. “Gurinder made a film that shows that culture clash and generation gap,” he says. “If my culture is to be embraced on screen, then it’s important to not just show it as this perfect thing – but to show its negatives and pitfalls, and then uplift it.”

This complexity can often seem to elude British films featuring south Asian characters. Stephen Frears’ Golden Globe-nominated period piece Victoria & Abdul (2017) was accused of “reinforc(ing) the Orientalism it purports to lampoon”, while John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) depicted India with the subtlety of a Major Lazer video. Within the depressingly slim number of British-Asian films to reach wide distribution, Chadha has recognised the Thatcher-era gay romance My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) as a landmark. “(Writer Hanif Kureishi) showed that we could be open, honest and critical of our communities,” she said in 2004 of the film, ironically also directed by Frears. “It was so liberating.” Chadha’s own comedies, Punjabi girls’-trip Bhaji on the Beach (1993) and stone-cold classic Bend It Like Beckham (2002), have aged like a great Scotch. That is partly because of laser-sharp writing, but it’s also because she allows her south Asian characters to be real – and that includes being fallible.

“If my culture is to be embraced on screen, then it’s important to not just show it as this perfect thing – but to show its negatives and pitfalls, and then uplift it” – Viveik Kalra

There’s also a rightful growing intolerance for minority stereotypes in films and TV shows with majority-white casts. That can be the case even if whiteness is depicted as buttercup yellow. In the wake of a documentary titled The Problem With Apu, rumours circulated that The Simpsons would drop the show’s longstanding KwikE-Mart clerk from the show last year. Kalra didn’t hear about The Simpsons controversy at the time, but seems intrigued by it. “It is one of those things that you look back on retrospectively,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to play a nuanced character, as opposed to someone who is two-dimensional. People aren’t two-dimensional. You can be more than one thing.”

Despite its feelgood mein, Blinded by the Light unflinchingly depicts the racism of fascist hate group the National Front. One scene, where kids urinate through a Pakistani family’s letterbox, is almost impossible to watch. “For me, you can’t make a film set in 1987 and not talk about race,” argues Kalra. “That was important. In the film, you see some pretty horrific things, but there was worse stuff going on – people were getting beaten up on the streets for looking like this. There’s a moment where a pig’s head is dumped at the mosque. That really happened – it was a real event within Sarfraz’s life.” Islamophobic hate crime has soared in the UK in recent years, too. But Kalra, like his director, is an optimist. “Hopefully, people are becoming more accepting. Gurinder says that, in a world where people are trying to divide us, we can show unity on screen. It’s not all doom and gloom.”

Kalra says he had “a great childhood” in Windsor, but he’s vague about his early years and whether or not his family are religious. He took his first serious steps towards acting as a teenager, travelling to London for a two-week workshop with the National Youth Theatre. But he talks most enthusiastically about a play he performed in at school – a murder mystery set to 90s pop music. His part was small, but noteworthy. “This is so embarrassing,” he says with a grin. “I came out from behind a curtain and sang the last line of ‘Baby One More Time’.” Sadly, the production never made it to the West End. But, with the support of his parents, Kalra scored a place at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff. He went on to appear in ITV thriller Next of Kin, and, most recently, the Delhi-set period drama Beecham House, also directed by Chadha.

When I ask Kalra who his favourite actor is, his reply is quick. “Just anyone Asian. Anyone Asian, I’ll scream,” says the actor, who has always been into south Asian movies. “I don’t call it ‘Bollywood,’ I call it ‘Indian film’. It’s important to give that respect to it, because people discount Bollywood as ‘just a little song and dance’. It’s not. It’s more than that.” His favourites include Barfi!, a 2012 romance starring Priyanka Chopra as an autistic heiress, and Taare Zameen Par (titled Like Stars on Earth internationally) about an eight year-old boy with dyslexia. “That’s really the one to watch. It’s a beautiful piece of cinema.”

Was Kalra ever a Springsteen fan like his Blinded by the Light character? Not quite. As a teen, he was more into Nelly and Ja Rule (he’s moved on to Afro-swing now). In fact, Kalra had never heard “Born To Run” until his audition with Chadha. “I didn’t think I was going to like (Springsteen), I’m not gonna lie,” he says. “But the amazing about his music is you read it and it’s like lines of poetry. I remember trying to go back to chart music and just thinking that it had no meaning.”

Blinded by the Light has the seal of approval from The Boss, too. Kalra doesn’t get into specifics, but there are plans for Springsteen to be involved in the film’s rollout. “What’s crazy is that he gave his songs (to us),” says Kalra, with an expression that suggests that he’s still a little dumbfounded. “I remember being at Sundance, in the car with Sarfraz and thinking, ‘How has this happened? I’m a 20-year-old brown kid, you’re a 47-year-old Pakistani man. In America, the Warner Bros logo – the logo at the front of the Harry Potter films – is at the front of ours. People are opening their eyes now that somehow this is marketable. A brown face! You can put a brown face on a poster. I’m so proud of that.” 

Blinded by the Light is in UK cinemas from August 9