Based on British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, Greetings from Bury Park (Vintage, 2007) Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light follows British-Pakistani teenager Javed (Viveik Kalra), who is weighed down by the hopelessness of his tiny hometown in Thatcherite Britain, the cultural oppression of his father, and the racism that permeates his community. When he discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen, however, he finds hope and a newfound motivation to pursue his dreams. The film is a joyous affair, celebrating the work of Bruce Springsteen and the effect art can have on all kinds of people, no matter where they’re from.
Manzoor and director Gurinder Chadha met with PopMatters in San Francisco to discuss the universality of the film’s story, the cultural pressures of growing up as a brown person in ’80s Britain, what it was like showing the film to Bruce Springsteen himself, and more.
Blinded by the Light is culturally and geographically specific and yet has had a warm reception from people around the world.
Chadha: It’s a real pleasure sharing the film with audiences around the world because people all see it very differently We just came from Ireland, and it was very emotional. Part of that is [the film’s theme] of dads and sons not really talking to each other, and that’s true here in the US as well. It’s true all over the world. You just see how everyone is the same and generally react to the same things in the film.
One of my favorite films is Tokyo Story. I’m not Japanese, but that film is so touching and moving in so many ways. That’s the beauty of cinema — that you can take a culturally specific story, but if you make it with honesty and integrity, it will always be universal.
Sarfraz, as a teenager, were you as fascinated with America as Javed is in this film?
Manzoor: Yes. I spent, like, five years working on the script, and Gurinder… did work on it as well [and added] a political dimension. I was doing a lot of the personal stuff — the family dynamics, the character of Javed — that’s all pretty much me. The dad’s basically my dad, the mum’s basically my mum.
The America stuff…When I was growing up, genuinely, I loved John Hughes’ films. I was really into Woody Allen, too. I believed that, in America, you’re born with two identities: The one you have, and “American”. I really bought into that mythology.
Javed is negotiating three cultures in Blinded by the Light –— Pakistani, British, and American. Was that difficult to portray as a storyteller?
Chadha: No, because that was my life, too. I’m British, I’m Indian, I’m married to an American who’s Japanese. My identity had to be fought for. I’m constantly negotiating my identity.
We’re all working and living in such hybrid cities, where you wouldn’t even notice half of the cultural processes going on. Everything’s mixed. These are great times, I think.
Manzoor: The interesting thing is that when I was growing up, I was told that I wasn’t British by my parents and some people outside [my home]. My dad would say to me, “You’re Pakistani. Be grateful and proud that you’re Pakistani and you’re not British.” He was a first-generation immigrant, and he really, really wanted me to hold on to that cultural identity. Then, I also had that coming in from wider society. We had people saying that if I didn’t support the right team, I wasn’t a part of their country.
What was interesting was to get that [pressure] from both sides. It wasn’t just mainstream white society saying that there was a question mark on my right to belong. It was also coming from home. And when you’re a kid, all you want to do is belong, isn’t it?
Some of the more spectacular moments in the film are the visualizations of Javed’s discovery of Bruce’s music.
Chadha: As a director, I’m very proud of those sequences. For me, it was just listening to the lyrics and visualizing them and putting Javed in the middle of that. I said, how am I going to make the audience feel what it’s like when you hear something for the first time? I used sounds, I used pictures, words, music, projections of US landscapes and hurricanes, lots of wind machines. [laughs]
Gurinder, I heard a story that when the film was finished, you screened it for Bruce in private. What was it like watching him watch your film and waiting for his reaction?
Chadha: Being in that room waiting for him was very nerve-racking. Inside I thought, I don’t think he won’t like it, because every decision I’ve made has been for him. But there are things that he might not like, like how I’ve used his songs on an English landscape. I did start thinking about how I had taken his music and set it against England. I wasn’t sure how he was going to feel about that.
[When the film was over], he got up, gave me a kiss and a hug, and we sat down and talked about the film for an hour. He said, “I love it. Don’t change anything. The kid’s great.”
Sarfraz, what was it like finding out that Bruce Springsteen had read your book?
Manzoor: I’d met Bruce a bunch of times, but only outside of hotels and outside venues. At least a half a dozen times. So by 2010, he knew me enough to recognize me.
My book, Greetings From Bury Park, is about Bruce, but it’s also about my dad. Basically, the film ends in 1989. Over six years later, in 1995, I’m living in Manchester, and I get a call saying, “Come back home. Your dad’s had a heart attack.” I take a drive down — and this is May of 1995 — and my dad’s had a heart attack, and he’s in a coma for a week. He died in the beginning of June, three days before I turned 24. He died in the week that my very first article was published. What that basically means is… he never saw anything that I achieved.
Writing the book was me trying to process him and humanize him and understand him. The speech [Javed makes] at the end [of the film] is actually me talking to my dad, saying all of the things I wanted to say to him but couldn’t. My dad never got to see the book, so when Bruce told me that he liked the book, it was the closest validation I could get in my life to my dad telling me that he liked it.