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.