Gurinder Chadha’s new movie, Blinded By The Light, based on the memoir of Pakistani-British Springsteen fanatic Sarfraz Manzoor, has one scene, in particular, that feels especially anachronistic, maybe even purely fantastical, in 2019.
The main character, teenage Javed, played by Viveik Kalra, is going through customs on his first trip to the United States. The stony border guard asks him the purpose of his trip, and Javed nervously explains that he’s going to visit Bruce Springsteen’s home town. At which point the guard instantly brightens and wishes the boy well on his way.
It’s so far from what you’d expect to see in the era of the Muslim Ban that Chadha herself (whose films include Bend It Like Beckham and Viceroy’s House) initially cut it out of the film.
“I actually cut that scene out of the movie at first because I was like, ‘No one is ever going to believe this.’ But that actually happened to Sarfraz when he came to the states,” Chadha says.”I nearly cut that scene out because I thought it was so hokey and no one would believe it. And then I thought, ‘Well it did happen, I’ll just put it in.’ And thank God I did because I think audiences really love it. it just points to a different experience that could be as opposed to the experiences that we see around us today.”
Chadha’s film, adapted with the help of her husband Paul Mayeda Berges, is unintentionally, on the surface at least, connected to that other British music movie, Yesterday, which also told the story of a young British man with South Asian ancestry who was into pop music. But whereas Yesterday is a high concept that barely addresses race, Blinded By The Light is based on the real-life account of a Pakistani-British teen growing up with disapproving, traditional parents in a town full of sieg-heiling skinheads during the peak of the National Front in 1987.
Javed ends up finding solace in Bruce Springsteen, of all people, attaching deeper meaning to lyrics like “the dogs on main street howl” and “sometimes I just want to explode and tear this whole town apart” than… well, I, certainly, ever have. That other people don’t quite “get it” the way Javed does is partly the point, of course.
Javed does a lot of singing at his detractors — most likely a bit of Bollywood influence — and the movie is much more of an uplifting romp than you might expect from a film about a kid who seems to be eating equal amounts of shit from his stickler father and his racist town. It fits naturally into Chadha’s oeuvre of poppy films about Southasian-Brits struggling with a dual identity.
With the film opening August 16th, I spoke to Chadha by phone recently.
So is it bad that when I first heard this title I wondered why they named a Bruce Springsteen movie after a Manfred Mann song?
Well then, we have to educate you, right?
I think a lot of people are saying that, but of course Bruce wrote that song after he did “Because the Night.”
And was that the title of the book too?
The book is Greetings from Bury Park. That was the memoir that Sarfraz (Manzoor) wrote in 2007 which the film is inspired by.
So why did you choose Blinded By the Light?
I chose it because I thought… it really fits for our film. The character is blinded by what he thinks is the way to satisfy his dream. Also, where I use the song in the film, I think that it fit so perfectly because nobody knows what that fricking song means, right? The lyrics are like, what the heck did that mean? But because of the way it’s used in the film at that particular time it has great meaning. It’s hard to explain, but I feel like it just kind of fits.
I like the title, and then it comes full circle when you understand how it’s used in the speech at the end with Javed.
Right. So, I imagine that Bruce had to give his permission for all the music. How much was he involved with the movie?
Well, when I read the memoir, Sarfraz gave me the galley, and I said, “Okay, I know how to turn this into a great film but it isn’t anything without Bruce’s music and his permission.” We don’t have a movie unless we get that. And then in 2010 Bruce came to London for the premiere of The Promise, and as he was coming down the red carpet, I had taken Sarfraz with me, and as Bruce came down the carpet, he stopped at Sarfraz who he recognized from many concerts he’d been to at the front. And he walked over and he said, “I read your book, it’s really beautiful.”
That was the first miracle. And I just sort of just blurted out, “We really need your help, we want to make this into a movie, but we can’t without your blessing. Will you support us?” And, Bruce looked at me and looked at Sarfraz and said, “Sounds good. Talk to Jon.” And that literally was it. That was our green light and Jon Landau, Bruce’s manager, kept us in touch with Tracey Nurse, his colleague from Sony of 35 years. And then we started working on the script and then finally sent the script to Bruce and he read it and he came back and said, “I’m all good with this.” And that was the greenlight, let’s go make the movie. We barely needed two sentences from him.
And then he didn’t interfere with anything, really. And then at the other end, I went to show him my director’s cut in New York while he was on Broadway and I was a little nervous because I had been given the responsibility, really, when he gave his blessing. So, I wanted him to see my cut and have some opportunity to change something if he wanted to or just needed to have some kind of redress. The screening happened and he watched the film really intensely and, at the end, there was silence, nobody clapped. And I kind of walked up to the front and put the lights on and he walked over to me and gave me a big kiss and he put his arms around me and he said, “Thank you so much for looking after me so beautifully. I love it. Please, don’t change a thing.” And that was it. That was his involvement.
Seems like it worked out. Were you a Bruce Springsteen fan yourself?
Absolutely, yes. When I was in school, I had a Saturday job working at Harrods in the record department. I was really into disco music and reggae. One day, this English guy with long hair who worked there said to me, “Have you heard of Bruce Springsteen?” And I said, “Yes, but I’m not a rocker.” And in my head, Bruce, I always thought he was a heavy metal kind of guy. And then he said, “You should listen to him” and then he showed me the album Born to Run. And, I was like, wow, impressed because here was a white dude and black dude who looked like they were really close and having a lot of fun. And, I hadn’t seen a band with black and white members before except for Casey and the Sunshine band. I was intrigued by the album cover and then, I went home and put music on, and that was it.
It was amazing and I loved where the sax came in and out of the guitar, and I loved the angry guitar and the soft guitar. And I just thought Bruce’s voice and lyrics were very haunting and I just loved the way that he told stories and he still does. He tells stories about people in a very cinematic way. They’re like little movies, a lot of his songs.
Okay, so would you advocate singing Bruce Springsteen songs at Nazis in real life?
Oh my god, well, yes! And that case (in the movie) I’d say, I think that’s a great moment because the Nazis don’t really know what’s going on. And I think those particular lyrics of “Badlands” at that particular moment, they’re more to empower Javed and Roops than to actually attack Nazis. They make them feel good for standing up for themselves. You know what? I advocate singing Bruce Springsteen songs in any situation to be honest with you.
All right, fair enough. When the movie Yesterday came out, were you worried at all about any perceived similarities in the story with this one?
Yeah, I was actually a little bit, but I know Danny (Boyle) and I know Richard Curtis, too (director and screenwriter of Yesterday). So I would consider them friends and I think when I first heard about his movie, I was like a little bummed. Like, “Oh, that’s another British music movie.” But they’re very different. I think ours is based on a true story, everything actually happened and it just goes to show that you can all make music films and they can all be very, very different.
So that joke in the film where the US customs guard is very into Springsteen, — that almost feels like a mouth-full-of-blood kind of laugh in 2019, just in comparison to the way I imagine Muslims getting treated by US customs today. Do you mean for that scene to have sort of an ironic twist to it?
Well, that scene, I actually cut out of the movie, because I was like, “No one is ever going to believe this scene.” But that actually happened to Sarfraz when he came to the states. He came to see Bruce in New York and he was going to Asbury Park and when the guy said, “What’s the purpose of your visit?” He told him, “I’m going to see Bruce and I’m going to Asbury Park.” The words in the movie are the exact words the customs guy said back to him.
Now, funny enough, I was at San Francisco airport yesterday, going through security and I had a Bruce shirt on and normally, those guys are really grumpy when you go through security, but one of them turned around and he goes, “Now, that’s more like it! The Boss, that’s what we need!”
Maybe Bruce Springsteen is just really big with border guards.
I nearly cut that scene out because I thought it was so hokey and no one would believe it. And then I thought, “Well it did happen, I’ll just put it in.” And thank God I did because I think audiences really love it. Because they do feel very nervous, initially, when Javed is there, because they think worse is going to happen. And then when the guy turns around and says what he does, I think there’s such a tremendous relief in people that they just all cheer. And the truth is, that that happened. That is the truth. So it just points to a different experience that could be as opposed to the experiences that we see around us today.
On a very surface level, with that scene and some of the rest of the movie, you could kind of get this sense that Britain has gotten nicer in the years since while the US has gotten meaner.
I don’t know if I’d agree with that. We’re dealing with Brexit in Britain and that shows a lot of ugliness and ostracizing and that’s actually one reason why I wanted to make this movie right now — to remind people of what we went through in the ’80s, and that we don’t want to go back there.
And so, I think in Britain…I think there might be pockets of xenophobia, but I think as a whole, there are large sections of every country that are progressive and that follow Bruce’s philosophy which is nobody wins unless we all win. And I believe that there’s hope in his words and that’s why I wanted to make it a hopeful movie.