‘Blinded by the Light’ is the latest film in Gurinder Chadha’s gamut of British Asian-centric stories to successfully balance politics, comedy and drama. But it’s the first one to be inspired by true events and The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen.
As if the tenor of Thatcherite Britain wasn’t difficult enough for working class families in the 1980s, domestic discord and the journey to self-discovery for a teenage boy are just some of the themes shared with audiences through the combined talent of Bend it Like Beckham’s Gurinder Chadha and ‘Greetings from Bury Park’ author, Sarfraz Manzoor – in which the film draws its inspiration.
Ahead of its UK release this August, I spoke with the talent that made ‘Blinded by the Light’ possible. Speaking exclusively, Sarfraz talked me through his emotional aspirations to transform his story from script to screen.
Priyanca: Anyone who’s seen the promotional literature for the film will know that it’s is based on your memoirs ‘Greetings from Bury Park’. What was it initially that inspired you to adapt it into a film?
Sarfraz: Well the book came out initially in 2007 and it told the story about a working-class kid in the 1980s living in Luton and having my life transformed by the music of Bruce Springsteen. And if you write a book, especially if you write a memoir, there’s a little bit of you that thinks, God, wouldn’t it be amazing if it could become a film. Even as I was writing it, I was thinking, in some amazing, fantasy, wish-fulfillment way, it would be amazing if we could make a film. But I didn’t really know anything about how to do that; I didn’t have the skills at that time to be able to do it. Luckily, I was really good friends with Gurinder Chadha, a very respected filmmaker who made Bend it Like Beckham and loads of other films, who’s also a big Springsteen fan so I sent her the book when I was writing it and she said ‘I think there’s a film in this but we just need to work out what the story is’. Then I went away to try to learn what it meant to try and write a script and thought what does the film need that a book doesn’t need to worry about and then I started working on the script, then Gurinder came on board with her partner and we all worked on it together. And that’s the journey, which began in 2007 with the book coming out to 2019 with the film.
Priyanca: It’s almost a reincarnation of what your life was like during your turbulent teen years, I suppose. So with your memoirs that you personally penned at such a young age, how did it feel when the production had finished and you watched Vivek Kalra who plays Javed, because it must have evoked many memories.
Sarfraz: It’s really emotional – the premise is really emotional because firstly, Vivek is fantastic and he’s got these really soulful eyes and you can feel his struggle and his pain even when he’s not speaking so there was that. But even more so for me it was harder to see Kulwinder Ghir as my dad because I lost my dad when I was 23 and so to see him dressed as my dad, saying things that my dad said, was just a really emotional moment. To be honest it’s still emotional, every time I watch it I well up about it.
Priyanca: In terms of the dialogue, then, how much of it could you recall from your own life that allowed you to bring it into the script itself – was anything completely accurate?
Sarfraz: Yeah I quite literally just brainstormed some of the things my dad used to say and other stuff that was really specific. For example my mum used to sponge my dad’s hair and dye it using a little sponge (that’s in the film) and other things like, I remember the things he used to say like ‘you’re Pakistani, you’ll never be British’. Another thing he always used to say was ‘the biggest mistake I made was coming to this country’ and those lines were all used.
Priyanca: There’s a lot of repetition of that particular statement.
Sarfraz: Yes – that theme. And Roops (friend) he actually says things like ‘Tom, Dick and Ali’ and lines like that so I just used them. Some of it’s fictionalised later but those sort of things I tried to brainstorm as much as I could to get all that in.
Priyanca: It’s more emotionally accurate as opposed to how you would have sensationalised everything for the big picture. Anyway, let’s talk about Bruce Springsteen! What was it about his words, because there’s an amazing scene in the first act where there’s literally a swirling vortex of lyrics that are imbuing [Javed] and he seems almost inebriated by the lyrics and seems almost indestructible. So what was it for you – when you were a teenager that gave you that power?
Sarfraz: When I was a teenager, I was listening to a lot of Top 40 music and pop charts music and listened to quite a bit of Indian music as well through film and it was all great but it wasn’t really about anything – it was all really kind of escapist. It was about love in a really unbelievable or it was a bit sort of superficial. And what I loved about Bruce, is that he was singing about working in factories, what his relationship was like with his dad or trying to make the best of your life even though it’s not quite going anywhere. So it was like he was talking more directly about my life and that’s what really connected with me because with everything else it was all a bit of fun and entertaining but this was someone who was describing real challenges about my life. I was really desperate for that kind of knowledge and insight.
Priyanca: How did his lyrics shape what your future would then go on to be?
Sarfraz: There’s so many ways to tell and the best way to explain all of that is to read ‘Greetings from Bury Park’. But to give you an example he used to say ‘its easy to let the best of yourself slip away’ and so every time it came to making a decision about should I do this or that, I kept thinking ‘am I letting the best version of myself slip away?’
Priyanca: I remember there was a particular quote: ‘I’m not like most dads. I’m not saying be a Doctor, a Lawyer or Accountant. I’m saying be an Estate Agent’. [Safraz laughs: I’m giving you freedom!]
Sarfaz: There’s nothing wrong with any of those jobs but for me I don’t feel like I was being the best version of myself and the best version of themselves is when they do something they really want to do, marry someone they actually really love so each time something came along where I had to make a decision based on something that was about me or my family, I just kept thinking about Springsteen and ‘am I really letting the best of myself slip away?’ And that’s kind of still true, and I’m 48 now.
Priyanca: You’ve obviously seen Bruce, a little over a 100 times is it?
Sarfaz: I’ve seen him in concert 150 times and I’ve met him half a dozen times.
Priyanca: What’s he like in person?
Sarfraz: Well the thing is with heroes, if you choose the wrong hero, it might ruin your life or it could be disillusioning. I was really lucky that I chose someone who was a really great person. Because I’m part of this Springsteen…
Priyanca: Superfan clan?…
Sarfraz: Those are words you’re putting into my mouth… the gang! The Springsteen Tribe, I know a lot of people who have met him and the interesting thing is, the message from everyone is the same – that he’s basically just a great guy. He genuinely is just a nice person – an ordinary guy with an extraordinary talent. You couldn’t really imagine having a drink with Prince – he would’ve been too out there, too…
Sarfraz: But Bruce, he’s a grounded guy. He’s been famous since the early 70s and he’s still basically pretty grounded.
Priyanca: That’s something Vivek Kalra, as Javed, demonstrated in the film. He had this ability to convey an emotion on behalf of the audience that we couldn’t quite ascertain. It was like what are you feeling? So it was his away of making us feel a million emotions at once. He always portrayed a sort of quiet rage…
Sarfaz: The best thing he does is he’s got this thing of always looking disappointed
Priyanca: Yeah! There’s always this look of consternation on his face
Sarfraz: Always a look of consternation! So somebody will say someone’s getting married but he doesn’t know it yet and he finds out and his face will suddenly fall. It’s brilliant because it’s always about feeling trapped but not necessarily being able to express he’s feeling trapped and that’s something he does really good. And it’s something Kulvinder does brilliantly and it was really important he wasn’t going to be this ‘dad tyrant’ figure where he’s always in his films like ‘you mustn’t do this or that’. That’s got to be part of it but not the only thing but Kulvinder was really good at showing this is a guy with his own story, he’s got his own pain and his own journey.
Priyanca: The film is set in 1987 and it’s under Thatcherite rule so it’s a very rocky Britain at the time and there are a few scenes where you can really feel his own anguish as well. So how much of that was accurate – obviously you couldn’t have approached him and said ‘dad, at this time, what were you feeling’? But you must have felt it on behalf of him in order to convey that through the screenwriting.
Sarfraz: It’s quite emotional if you’re asking that really because when you’re 16 you don’t have that wisdom but when you reflect back on it you wonder what it must’ve been like. My dad did lose his job and he did go to the job centre in his suit. He would wake up in the morning, get dressed and go out as if he was going to work but he would spend the day in the library or see his friends and help them with mortgages but he always had to look like he had an office job and I look back and think it was about dignity and self respect.
Priyanca: And a bit of sacrifice as well.
Sarfraz: Yes, so it really is emotional. And what Kulvinder does so well is show that those people have respect and hopefully the film honours that generation. The only reason people like me, and loads of other people are doing any of this stuff is because of the sacrifices they made. It’s really easy to say ‘I’ve got all this talent and other stuff’, it’s a bit of that but people took those risks so I really hope people who watch the film pay respect to the work and the sacrifices of that generation.
Priyanca: To quote something toward the end of the film, which really encapsulated what the film was trying to get across to its audience, is that ‘success isn’t really success without parents’. As you said, you can have all of the talent and earn so much but if you haven’t got your parents’ support or their love and blessing, especially in Asian culture, it’s just important for us to always have them by our side. So I think it’s a fantastic adulation to your father and I’m sure watching down, he’ll have been really proud with what you’ve been able to get out there on behalf of so many younger people.
Sarfraz: One can only hope! But what’s also been amazing it’s been a tribute to Gurinder, a tribute to Vivek and to everybody and to make a film that starts personal and when people watch it, they see their own dad, or they say that feels like me. And that’s the great thing about cinema and that’s what great filmmaking can do as well, in that you can see something that’s really specific but it’s speaking to you. And it’s not just speaking to people from Asian background or people from Luton so when you go to America they also say that feels like my dad. But he lived and died in anonymity – he didn’t really get any sort of respect and now there’s people saying ‘my dad was a bit like that’ and it’s a shame he never got to see that.
Priyanca: But he’s been given this amazing platform and even if it was fictionalised, you managed to get it out there and I think it’s a beautiful way of bestowing your love for what your dad did. But despite the bleaker themes from politics to family friction, music is very important to the film itself.
Sarfraz: Oh God, yeah!
Priyanca: As you said, it probably won’t relate to everyone in specific ways and some people might not have heard a Springsteen song before watching the film but music has the ability to connect with anyone. And even though they’re hearing Springsteen throughout the film – I counted about 17 of them – it still connects.
Sarfraz: There’s also some music from the 80s as well and we hear some Bhangra. But there’s just something about the music you hear from when you’re a kid you just never feel that way about anything else. I still listen to music from the 80s because when I was 14, 16 and 18 it just takes you back to that power of music. And I think something that Gurinder did really brilliantly with that scene where ‘Dancing in the Dark’ starts playing during the storm is what it’s like the first time you hear an incredible song and to try and capture that in film is a hard job. It’s all very well for me writing a script where it says ‘there’s a hurricane blowing’ but to find the leaves and make it all happen(!) And Roops even said that was what it was like to first hear Bruce.
Sarfraz: So I thought, well that’s a job well done.
Priyanca: Really captured the feeling.
Sarfraz: Exactly, and it doesn’t have to be Bruce. It could be anybody you love when you were 16 – that feeling is what the film taps into.
Priyanca: Because it just stimulates the dopamine in anyone – it just has this powerful hold over the emotions anyone possesses because it’s very personal.
Sarfraz: But also it is something that can cross boundaries.
Priyanca: Well it was literally life changing for you.
Sarfraz: Yeah and even for Roops – he used to love Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. So music can transcend religion, borders, nationalities, genders and generations. And right now that’s a really great message because right now we are being told this community is different from that community and our values are different. So to be reminded music doesn’t care and that it can touch everybody at the same time anywhere is what makes it feel like a feel-good movie. So to be reminded of the power of music and words and cross over and unite is the kind of hope and inspiration we need right now.
Priyanca: Definitely, as music is so universal. The theme is so appealing to everyone and on that note, that’s why it’s going to be a success on both ends of the Atlantic so thank you.