Viveik Kalra on his Blinded by the Light director Gurinder Chadha, Bruce Springsteen, and Bollywood

Bedatri D Choudhury

Aug 23, 2019 09:27:27 IST

When was the last time we saw a South Asian face on an English movie poster, where the character is not sad, not shooting off intense “terrorist” vibes, or playing a character from a period film? Gurinder Chadha’s new film Blinded by the Light is based on the life of her friend, Sarfraz Manzoor, who has watched Bruce Springsteen in concert over 150 times. His book, Greetings from Bury Park, serves as the primary text Chadha builds upon to create the plot of her new film about Javed, who grows up in the British town of Luton in the 1980s. He listens to Springsteen and tries to make sense of a chaotic Thatcherite England, while also attempting to negotiate the expectations of his immigrant Pakistani parents.

In the film’s poster, British actor Viveik Kalra, who plays Javed, smiles wide as he jumps in joy, reclaiming not just Springsteen fandom for South Asian kids, but also an image of happiness that is usually reserved for lighter-skinned protagonists.

Firstpost caught up with Kalra just after the American premiere of Blinded by the Light for a chat about his debut film.

 Viveik Kalra on his Blinded by the Light director Gurinder Chadha, Bruce Springsteen, and Bollywood

Left to right: Viveik Kalra, Gurinder Chadha, and Aaron Phagura, on the sets of Blinded by the Light. Photo courtesy: Nick Wall

Most South Asians grow up in the diaspora feeling the pressure to be engineers, doctors and lawyers. How did you get into acting?

Thankfully, my parents recognised my knack for acting and let me pursue it. I got here pretty randomly. I sent out a tape, some people liked me and called me in for an audition. I auditioned and got my first job. It was a mini series called Next of Kin on the British TV channel ITV. I starred opposite Archie Panjabi who plays Kalinda in The Good Wife. It was magical working on that. Gurinder Chadha saw me on that and called me for an audition when she was casting for Blinded by the Light. I got it then we filmed it. That was a year and a half ago and now there's posters with my face everywhere. It's unreal but here we are!

That's the dream! But it isn't as easy for many actors of colour...

Oh yes, I am extremely lucky! It's terrible. Generationally, actors of colour have had it much harder than me. I remember when I was younger I latched on to any brown face on TV! That in itself was so sad because first of all, there wasn't too many actors of colour and the few that there were, were all brown actors playing terrorists or some other similar character. Retrospectively, looking back at those roles, I realise that I saw myself mirrored in those roles that were all two-dimensional and driving home stereotypes, or always the butt of silly jokes. That is dangerous for kids who grow seeing themselves represented only negatively. Surely and hopefully, things are changing. That won't be the case in a few years, but it certainly keeps happening now. I am definitely grateful for the opportunity to play a nuanced character in this film. Even a couple of years ago, people who look like me did not get the same opportunities that I get now. Now is the time to change and I think things are changing.

Blinded by the Light is set in the '80s and you are in your 20s. Gurinder Chadha said that when you came into the sets, you didn't know how to use a record player! How was it getting your '80s swag on?

It was a very different time, I was not even born then! I had not heard much of Bruce Springsteen. In fact, not many people in England were listening to him in the '80s either. Gurinder was always making these jokes that were lost on me. I would just smile or laugh to be polite. She'd then turn back and ask, "Did you get that?" and I'd say no. What I mainly imbibed was the unapologetic, feel good characteristic of the film. The idea that "Yeah, we are immigrants and here is a great, beautiful, happy story about us", was the central focus for me.

What was it like working with Gurinder Chadha on the sets?

Everybody says this, but the whole set was like a family and coming to work was coming home every day. Gurinder...I hate to bring up her age here, but she is around three times my age and has more energy than anyone else I know! She is of course a very nice person but it is amazing to see her come to the sets with the same amount of infectious energy every day. There is so much pride with which she has made this film. I don't think anyone else would've been able to bring in that sense of pride and belonging.

Viveik Kalre as Javed in Blinded by the Light. Photo courtesy: Nick Wall

Viveik Kalra as Javed in Blinded by the Light. Photo courtesy: Nick Wall

Why do a film set in 1980's Thatcherite England, in 2019?

We are living in a world where people are trying so hard to divide us. There is a wonderful unity in this film and you see that in the poster. There is a brown boy jumping in joy. It's red, white and blue. An alternative and joyous flag for the world. That is why we needed the film to be made in 2019.

You were born in the UK to an Indian-born mother and a British father. What is your relationship with India?

The UK is home but India is like the mothership. I exist because the country exists! I used to visit the country all the time and have only fond memories from my travels. I am very excited and nervous about the film's release there. I hope people like it.

Are you a Bollywood fan?

Blinded by the Light is a bit of a payback, you can say. When people ask me who my role models are, of course now I say Bruce Springsteen but I always mention Bollywood actors. I was walking down the street in New York and I saw Anupam Kher and I went completely crazy. I was an embarrassment to my friends who were with me. I walked up to him and said I was in a Gurinder Chadha film and that I loved him in Bend It Like Beckham. He was really nice and encouraging. Then once I saw Kajol in an airport and tried to explain to my English friends who she was. I told them she was the Jennifer Lawrence of our times. I walked up to her and mumbled while I asked for a selfie. I remember she kept asking me to speak clearly. Once I stopped mumbling, she obviously said yes. So yes, I grew up with Bollywood and its stories and icons.

And you have worked with Shabana Azmi?

Yes, in Next of Kin. It's just the kind of thing I cannot quite put in words. She is so wonderful and it was surreal being able to work with her so early on in my career. It's what we English people call "mental". I mean, she is a classical actress if there ever was one. It was wonderful and unbelievable.

What was it like being in this film and then meeting Bruce Springsteen in the American premiere?

I lost my mind! No one told he was coming...everyone was tipped off except me. People would often joke and ask me what I'd do if I ever saw him. I always thought I'd play it cool and say "Hey, man. How are you doing?"

Left to right: Aaron Phagura, Sarfraz Manzoor, Patti Scialfa, Bruce Springsteen, Gurinder Chadha, and Viveik Kalra at the Blinded by the Light premiere at Asbury Park, New Jersey

Left to right: Aaron Phagura, Sarfraz Manzoor, Patti Scialfa, Bruce Springsteen, Gurinder Chadha, and Viveik Kalra at the Blinded by the Light premiere at Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Is that what you did?

I fell to the floor and started bowing down to the man. He probably thought I was crazy. But later I got the chance to meet him properly. I shook his hands and he gave me a hug. It's crazy how normal he is. So down to earth. He and his wife, Patti Scialfa, put up an impromptu performance in the afterparty and I could not believe my eyes, that I was actually standing there, watching this happen.

What are you working on next?

I just finished filming something in Romania; it's a very cool project called Voyages. It's a sci-fi — takes place on a spaceship...a group of people in search of an alternate universe. It has Colin Farrell, Tye Sheridan. I finished that and came straight back to the UK and the US for the release of Blinded by the Light.

Updated Date: Aug 25, 2019 11:53:57 IST