By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Hopefully what I can do is give through my film a collective hug to people,” states Gurinder Chadha, producer, director, and script writer for “Blinded by the Light,” the new film based on the memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, who also worked on the script. The film depicts a catalyzing moment in the life of Pakistani British teenager, Javed, when he discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen. “The Boss,” as Springsteen is called, helps Javed navigate conflict with his conservative father, and the tensions of living in small-town England during the 1980s, which included high unemployment and anti-immigrant backlash. While it sounds dim (and familiar), the film is actually quite hopeful as Javed struggles to follow his own path.
“Blinded by the Light” is the latest of a series of rock-music-based films that have come out recently. I’m mentioning this to warn you that the characters will break into song and dance at points. It’s a fun tribute to the music, and the elation that music can bring, especially in one’s teens. The musical sequences drive home the impression Springsteen’s music is making on Javed. However, they do run on a bit. Considering that’s the only grouse I have, and it’s a grouse about a fully understandable indulgence, then it’s barely a problem at all.
The Boss gave his blessing to the movie, which Manzoor and Chadha acquired not in small part due to the groundwork Manzoor had laid over the years as a MAJOR fan. As depicted in the film, Manzoor was introduced to Springsteen’s music in 1987.
“I became a full-on fan,” he said. “I went to every single Bruce Springsteen concert in the country — so that was a lot!” In total, including outside Britain, Manzoor saw the Boss “about 150 times.” And Manzoor was not a wallflower. “In that time, I was often at the front,” he recalled. “Because I was there at the front so much, he got to recognize me…and because there weren’t that many Asian Springsteen fans, I was quite visible. He would always point and smile. So we had some kind of a connection.”
Flash forward. “I sent the script to him and three weeks later, we got word from him and his basic words were, ‘I’m all good with this.’ That’s all he said…That’s all we needed!”
There’s a chemistry between Manzoor, Chadha, and Springsteen that is beyond fandom. There is mutual respect and common ground. Their friendship seems to represent what the film is saying: music, and shared humanity, can bring us together, regardless of each of our backgrounds. For Manzoor, that has been one of the most amazing things about sharing his story. In Los Angeles, a viewer said, “I’ve never connected with any film as much as I’ve connected with yours.”
Manzoor was surprised. “You’re an LA dude in your 20s! How can you say this about a film set [in the 1980s] about a Pakistani family?” Someone else said to him, “I’m Korean and I can see my dad in your dad.” For Manzoor, this is humbling. “It’s not just about me telling my story. It’s about other people seeing something in themselves in the story.”
Music is a common denominator. Manzoor and the film say it well.
“The message of this film is that music—art—doesn’t respect boundaries of race or religion or nationality.” It’s a message that Manzoor and Chadha believe applies equally well today as it did to Thatcher’s Britain. “We’re in very divided times right now,” remarked Manzoor. “There are a lot of people who are choosing to focus on the different…choosing to treat others in a way that puts them against other people… [Blinded by the Light is] a period film which actually feels quite timely.”
Chadha knew she wanted to do a film that addressed that divisiveness. “…Brexit happened, in 2016, the vote happened, and all of the sudden…there was a lot of xenophobia…I saw a breakdown all around me and it was terrifying…I thought, what can I do about this? I need to do something. I put my fears, my frustration, and my anger of what I was seeing around me [into the film]. I wanted to show an alternative, a world that was much more inclusive and joyful than what I was seeing.” As Chadha explained, “So much of Springsteen’s work is about ordinary people, people struggling, trying to make a living…people who have helped build society but aren’t given the credit for it, but [Springsteen] also hoped they could find their promised land within that struggle. That was just such a beautiful way of looking at the world.”
So did it have to be Springsteen? Yes and no. Anyone who has ever felt trapped, especially as a teenager, anyone who ever wanted to do something different than what was expected, anyone who has ever turned to music for consolation, should be able to relate. If you can listen to the lyrics (they provide them for you — no excuse!) and watch the way the music inspires Javed, then you should “get” the movie. “The film is fundamentally about the power of music and words to change a life,” explained Manzoor. “But that doesn’t have to be Bruce. For me, it was Bruce! For somebody else, it could be a totally different artist…It’s about that excitement you feel when you’re 16…There is something about when you listen to music at that time and you just feel amazing.”
To take it a step further, does it matter if you’re Pakistani? It’s clear from the audience’s response that people relate to Javed, so the answer is no. At one point in the movie, after Javed remarks, “I thought I was British,” Javed’s father says, “You will always be Pakistani. You will never be British.” Recent immigrants can understand wanting to absorb the culture of your adoptive country, while also wanting to honor your family. And all of us can respond to the racism depicted in the film (which goes both ways) — and want it to stop.
“Blinded by the Light” doesn’t necessarily offer answers, but it does offer an alternative. Manzoor remembered telling himself as a teenager, “You’ve only got one life.” Did he want to spend that life doing what his parents wanted or would he strike out on his own? Looking back now, Manzoor said, “My whole thing has been…to try to have it all…I kind of want my family on board, too. Part of that is being empathetic…and part of it is sticking true to your guns…In the film, [Javed] quotes Bruce and he says, ‘If dreams came true, wouldn’t that be nice? But this ain’t no dream you’re living through tonight. If you want it, you take it, and you pay the price.’”
The dream, and the price, is often somewhere between separation and assimilation.
“It’s quite moving when you see a story of someone trying to make it work,” said Chadha. “And that’s what I think makes it universal because we’ve all been there… The world belongs to those of us who have multiple identities, multiple languages. That’s the future.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.