Gurinder Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor on Blinded by the Light
Fancy a Bruce Springsteen musical set in [check notes]...Luton? Director Gurinder Chadha and writer Sarfraz Manzoor tell us how they convinced the Boss to lend his all-American songbook to their film about a Muslim teen coming-of-age in Thatcher's Britain
In the bar of a boutique hotel just off Glasgow’s Blythswood Square sits Gurinder Chadha, director of Bend it Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice. She’s wearing a tracksuit emblazoned with the name 'Springsteen' and is methodically dividing up a pile of sweets in shimmering foil wrappers. A handful is pushed in my direction. “Here you go, my darling; you have these,” she says. I mumble a thank you, genuinely touched, and take one. “Oh have them all,” she says with a hearty laugh. “I don’t like dark chocolate.” This exchange isn’t all that different from the experience of watching Chadha’s sprightly new film, Blinded by the Light. It too appears a bit eager to please at first but wins you over with its spiky streak and contagious exuberance.
Blinded by the Light is based on Greetings from Bury Park, the 2007 memoir of Pakistan-born British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, which combines Manzoor’s experience of growing up Muslim in 80s Luton with his passionate devotion to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Earlier in the same Glasgow bar, Manzoor recalls first getting into the Boss. “It’s September 1987. I'm 16 years old, just started Luton sixth form college and I have met this guy called Rhoops. He's got a turban and he's very into double denim,” he begins. Back in 1987, Manzoor is what would now be referred to in modern parlance as a ‘basic bitch’. He’s a Top 40 kid and thinks Springsteen is a phoney who makes millions out of pretending to be working class. But when his new pal forces a cassette from Springsteen’s Live 1975–85 album into his hands, Manzoor’s life is changed forever.
What struck him first is the way Springsteen connects with his audience. “The tape begins with a long story about him and his dad,” Manzoor recalls. “I'm listening to him and I'm thinking, Foreigner don't do this. I've never heard the Pet Shop Boys doing a long preamble before It's a Sin. And I'm like, 'This is amazing. Who is this guy?'” And then he starts singing The River. “The song is a story: ‘I come from down in the valley / Where, mister, when you're young / They bring you up to do like your daddy done.” Manzoor has a habit of spilling off into Springsteen lyrics. “I was like, Wow! This is like a little film unfolding in music. And I really wanted to know what happens to these characters.”
In Blinded by the Light, Monsoor’s onscreen avatar is Javed (played by winsome newcomer Viveik Kalra) and the Springsteen song that gets him hooked is Dancing in the Dark. “The River didn't really work, words-wise," he notes, "but ‘I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face... I'm just living in a dump like this’. That's absolutely the feeling I had at 16.”
Like Javed, Manzoor also wrote corny poetry and dreamed of escape: escaping the boring concrete jungle of his crummy hometown; escaping the skinheads who spit at him in the street; and escaping his domineering father, who commandeers his Saturday job money and forbids him from attending parties with his friends. This coming-of-age angst plays out to sequences set to Springsteen songs, including a Bande à part-esque romp through Luton scored to Born to Run and a scene where Javed flirts with a girl from school using the lyrics of Thunder Road, with Rob Brydon distractingly on backing vocals.
It transpires that it was the Boss who inadvertently brought Chadha and Manzoor together in the first place. “I introduced myself to Sarfraz about 25 years ago because he interviewed Bruce in the paper,” Chadha recalls. “I was like, 'Oh my God. Here's another Asian person who likes Bruce'. I thought I was the only one.” Knowing she was a fellow Bruce tramp (aka hardcore Springsteen fan), Manzoor passed Chadha an early draft of Greetings from Bury Park. “I thought it was great," she says, "and I told Sarfraz, ‘I know how to turn this into a movie.' I could envisage it as a three-act drama. Plus I understood all the nuances of being Brittish Asian, and I was a massive Bruce fan, so I got it on every level.”
What they really needed to make the movie sing – both literally and figuratively – was the Boss' music. Turns out this was relatively straightforward: the gallus filmmaker simply told Springsteen they were doing it. Manzoor explains that they both got chatting to the singer-songwriter at a BFI event in 2010 and it turned out he’d read Greetings from Bury Park. “He was walking into the BFI and saw me and just stopped, walked over and said, ‘You know, your book is really beautiful’.” Manzoor was speechless, but Chadha took her chance. “Gurinder was next to me and when she heard that she's like, ‘We're gonna make a film of it and I made Bend it like Beckham and I know your kids like that’, She immediately planted that to him and he said, 'Okay, well talk to Jon [Landau, Springsteen's manager]'.”
Seventeen Springsteen songs pepper the soundtrack, but this is no jukebox musical. “We didn't want it to just be the greatest hits,” says Manzoor. “I wanted it to be that the songs were a character in the film.” At every stage of the writing, they would ask themselves, where's the story at? And how does the song fit in? “So Independence Day becomes obviously about father and son,” continues Manzoor. “And Because the Night has a line ‘They can't hurt you now', so that’s used in the scene where all these Asian kids are having a night out and feel protected from their parents.”
Blinded by the Light premiered back in January at Sundance and was one of the buzziest titles from the festival. Early reviews are scattershot with phrases like 'feel-good' and 'crowd-pleaser', but just because the film is light doesn't mean it’s lightweight. Manzoor says he pitched it as “What would a John Hughes film look like if it was set in Luton?”, but it seems Chadha had different ideas. The project had been parked for a few years while she was working on her Indian partition film Viceroy’s House, a very polite and restrained prestige drama. Then Brexit happened. “It just hurt me to my core really,” she says. “I was so upset with all the ugliness and xenophobia that came out of Brexit. That's when I said, 'Right, I'm going to make this my next film and all my anger and frustration, I'm going to channel it into this'.”
A few passes of the script later and this effervescent coming-of-age musical was suddenly spiked with truth-bombs about Thatcher's Britain. “[Brexit] is why that stuff – the national front marches and Javed being spat at – feels so visceral. Normally I'll hide away from that stuff because I don't want to make my films too graphic and to let racism define us [the Asian community]. But in this instance, I wanted to make you understand what it was like to be 16 in 1987 and how you lurched from possibly being punched in the street to the euphoria of listening to music to your parents sort of having a go at you… that complete feeling of what it meant to be British and Asian.”
Chadha’s anger seemed to chime with Manzoor: “Music's great but it doesn't stop the real world outside," he says. "I find it kind of funny when people talk about it being a feel-good movie because it is a feel-good movie but not in a totally mindless way. There's some pretty hardcore stuff going on underneath, but there's also joy and jubilation.” Sounds kind of like Springsteen's music, in other words.
Blinded by the Light is released 9 Aug by Entertainment One