When Viveik Kalra was growing up in Windsor, England, the son of an Indian-born mum and a British-born dad, the sight of a British-Asian actor on TV or the big screen was cause for celebration. Skip ahead and he’s helping fill that glaring gap as the lead in Gurinder Chadha’s new Bruce Springsteen-flavoured comedy-drama Blinded by the Light. He plays Javed, a British-Pakistani teen whose newfound love of The Boss offers him a way out of his dead-end world (’80s Luton, rather than actual New Jersey). As the 21-year-old tells us, he’s still pinching himself. “It’s been a whirlwind.”
Blinded by the Light tackles themes – racism, nationalism, alienation – that feel really current. Did it feel like that making it?
It’s set in 1987 with an Asian working-class family so you have to talk about race. There’s a National Front march, and when we filmed it, there were hundreds of people in the crowd. In the first take I was told to run through it and I just remember feeling absolutely terrified. I was just an actor on set, but I don’t know how I would have coped being in that situation for real. It wasn’t long ago that people got beaten up for looking like me.
Were there particular actors that inspired you growing up?
It was cool every time I saw someone brown on telly. Then I think back and these were probably really great actors but they were stamped into two-dimensionality. It was: let’s give you a stupid pair of glasses and make you the butt of every joke. We’re lucky, we can play more nuanced roles now.
Did you always want to be an actor?
I’m really only an actor because of my parents. I used to do impressions at family dinner parties – I did a great Borat – and I guess they picked up on it. They’d suggest joining youth theatre groups. It’s only due to them recognising that I liked it.
The director of Blinded by the Light, Gurinder Chadha, also made Bend It Like Beckham. Was that a landmark film for you?
I think it was for everyone. If you’re British-Asian, you know what that film is – and it’s still ahead of its time. It’s about a young British-Asian woman who loves playing football. There’s something amazing about that generational culture clash.
Do you think this film could have the same impact?
I haven’t thought about that but, yeah, I guess so. It’s an odd time [laughs]. I went to get a haircut the other day and the tube doors opened to a picture of my face on the poster. It was so weird. I just giggled at it.
There’s a scene where your character sings The Promised Land in a storm. What was that like to shoot?
They were chucking black bags of leaves into these big wind machines. I got home at 4am and found bits of leaves under my eyelids. It’s not as glamorous as it looks.
Did you get any feedback from Springsteen himself on the film?
Yes, when Gurinder showed it to him in New York. She sat behind him and to the side so she could see his crow’s feet moving when he was smiling. She asked him if he wanted to change anything and he said, “No, it’s beautiful.” He gave us the rights to his music for next to nothing.
Do you have a favourite track?
I love Growin’ Up, and the harmonica at the start of Thunder Road is everything.
There’s a lot of ’80s gear in the film. What did you discover that you’d want to incorporate in your life?
I think some things are coming back, like record players. I’m quite happy with my life.
So no double denim?
Not in my personal life, no. But for the film it wasn’t just double denim, it was quadruple denim: jacket, shirts, jeans and denim Converse.
Do you own any band T-shirts?
I’ve got one: J Cole. That was the first concert I went to.
What are your acting ambitions?
There’s no set path. It might sound naive but I don’t feel like I’m in competition with anyone because everyone has their own thing. I’m so excited to see Himesh [Patel] in Yesterday and Mena [Massoud] in Aladdin. It’s so cool to see these brown faces all over.’
What’s your next movie?
It’s a sci-fi called Voyagers. We’re in space gear. No denim, this time.
Blinded by the Light is in cinemas across Doha from September 12.