In 1987, when Tiffany songs were blasting on the radio and racial and economic turmoil was at a high, Javed (Viveik Kalra), a British teenager brought up in a strict Pakistani household, unleashes his troubles through poetry. After a classmate introduces him to the repertoire of Bruce Springsteen, the parallels between his life and The Boss’s lyrics do not go over Javed’s head, as he uses the music as motivation to go after his own aspirations.
This is just the tip of the iceberg that is Blinded by the Light, the latest film directed by auteur Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, former CAAMFest Spotlight Honoree). Inspired by the memoir, Greetings from Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor, the idea for the film was in discussion even before the book’s 2007 publication.
“[Manzoor] and I have been friends for a long time and we bonded because we’re both big Bruce Springsteen fans. We thought we were the only Asians in Britain who were,” Chadha said in an interview at the InterContinental Hotel in San Francisco in late July. “Ten years into our friendship, he said, ‘I’m going to write a memoir of growing up with [Springsteen]’ and I said, ‘Okay, that’s cool’.”
Manzoor sent her drafts as he was writing the book, and just from reading them, she spotted the potential for it to become a film. But he was cautiously optimistic as time went on, with Chadha even advising that he not believe it until the first day of filming. When filming started in April 2018, he finally gave himself permission to be excited. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God! There’s no turning back. This is real!’ So that was a massive moment.”
Blinded by the Light was co-written by Manzoor, Chadha, and former CAAM Festival Director (and Chadha’s husband) Paul Mayeda Berges, although the script was originally drafted by the Greetings from Bury Park author himself. Chadha thought it was only right, seeing that it is his story.
“I spent five years working on the script on my own,” Manzoor explained. “I went through my book, Greetings from Bury Park, and I wrote down loads of scenes from the book that I thought would work in the film. I made a mental note of all the things my dad used to say, little details that I thought would work, and I thought about memories of other stuff.”
“After a few drafts, I helped him a bit, and then I took over and started shaping it into a proper screenplay,” Chadha said. “He was always a tremendous source for me to ask questions. I really worked hard at making it the film that it became, and part of it was that I didn’t want to repeat myself with Bend It Like Beckham. I knew there were similarities to the story. I wanted to make sure that I pushed it into a different direction as much as I could.”
Since he was on set a lot, Manzoor also became an advisor to anyone who had any questions, from the actors to the costume designer. As a result, many of the details from his life appear in the film; including the car model Javed’s father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), drives and the handwritten poems on Javed’s bedroom wall that Manzoor wrote in his adolescence.
Springsteen himself gave Chadha his blessing for his music to be used in the film. 19 songs were selected, based on their ability in telling the story.
“You’ll see in our last script, there are great chunks which are lyrics of [Springsteen] that actually pushed the story forward just like dialogue in a script,” she described. “I had to make the lyrics feel like dialogue, make it feel like storytelling in a conventional way.”
Asked how making Blinded by the Light compares to her previous films, and Chadha believes that she really got to hone her craft as a director for this one. “I’ve used the script, I’ve used the camera, I’ve used sound, I’ve used music, the actors, all in a very cinematic way to tell this story, which I really pushed myself too because ultimately, it’s about words and writing. A feel-good sort of a film about a writer is not necessarily cinematic because it’s about the words and writing the words down.”
Blinded by the Light doesn’t shy away from the subjects of prejudices and racial injustices Pakistanis and other British South Asians experienced in the 1980’s. Both Chadha and Manzoor are aware of the significance of seeing such issues portrayed onscreen in modern day, when xenophobia is still alive in the world.
“That’s why we tell the story,” Chadha said. “I make these films so that people like us are visible. People who are generally on the margins of the frame or in the background or the side characters – I try to put them in the center of the frame, and then build the story around them to be as mainstream as possible and as universal as possible. That’s the starting point.”
“I also think it’s about hope,” Manzoor affirmed. “What the film says is, you know, those things are bad and they are scary, but words and music can crossover and it doesn’t matter where you come from.”
After the film’s world premiere at Sundance earlier this year, followed by Warner Bros. buying the distribution rights, Chadha and Manzoor are excited for audiences everywhere to see the film.
“I hope audiences are moved and entertained, and I hope they go away, call all their friends and family and say, ‘You got to see this movie,’” Chadha said. “We have to support our own, and audiences and organizations like CAAM are critical in getting people out opening weekend and getting people to see movies like this because then more movies will be made. Unless we all come out on that opening weekend, it’s not going to happen.”
“I just feel really, really excited,” Manzoor stated. “For example, you don’t know me at all, but now you know that my dad worked in a car factory, you know that my mum made dresses, you got an idea on what my college was like, you know that there’s a guy called Roops. So you know stuff about my life, even though you don’t know me, and soon, lots of people are going to have that, and that might give them some hope, it might give them some inspiration, it might make them think about [Springsteen], it might make them think about their parents, and that’s all good, isn’t it?”
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Blinded by the Light will be released in theaters in the U.S. on Friday August 16th.