In ‘Blinded By The Light,’ Pakistani British teen draws on the power of Springsteen’s music
When Sarfraz Manzoor and “Bend It Like Beckham” director Gurinder Chadha first approached Bruce Springsteen backstage at one of his concerts in 2010, they did so with an important mission. They were there to ask The Boss for his blessing (and permission to use some of his biggest songs) in a screenplay based on Manzoor’s teen years.
“It was more than nerve wracking, it was like ‘this guy has the power to change my life,’” Manzoor recalled of that moment. “That is like a heck of a power.”
Their minds were soon put at ease. Springsteen had read Manzoor’s 2007 memoir and enthusiastically expressed his support for a film adaptation.
“Blinded By The Light” — which opens nationwide Friday — centers on the British Pakistani teen Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) as he grows up in Luton, a large town about 35 miles northwest of London, in the late 1980s. When a friend urges him to begin listening to Springsteen’s albums, he begins to embrace his true self and his dreams of becoming a writer — despite the vocal objections of his family.
But as Javed and his best friend Roops embrace their love of rock music and their own creative natures, they also have to face the more serious problem of the growing white nationalism of some of their neighbors. Javed and his family are constantly faced with racists telling them to go home, a moment that is sadly resonant for American audiences today.
“To be a British Asian at that time, to be brown skinned at a time of hatred was not an ideal position to be in,” Kalra said. “But what’s beautiful about the character is that he continues to strive for more — despite the downfalls society has.”
One of the film’s most powerful scenes comes when Roops and Javed are animatedly talking about Springsteen at their favorite local diner. Things quickly take a turn when a group of white supremacists force them to leave their table. A confrontation ensues.
For Aaron Phagura, who plays Roops, the scene reflected the prejudice South Asians faced in Britain for generations. “It felt like a blast from the past really,” Phagura said. “I am showing what my parents had to go through and showing what my grandparents had to go through.”
But while both the director Chadha and screenwriter Manzoor agree that they wanted audiences to discover what it was like for South Asians in the United Kingdom in that time period, they hope audiences ultimately take away a message of unity.
“It’s about how we’ve got more in common than we sometimes realize,” Manzoor said. “I think the film is timely but it sort of feels like it is necessary as well.”
As with many of Chadha’s films, “Blinded By The Light” features a cast of young stars who are largely unknown in the United States. “I like to cast people on instinct because I feel this kind of instinct then that’s it, I’m all there,” said Chadha, who is credited with helping to discover both Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra when she cast them both in “Bend It Like Beckham.” “These kids, they have an instinct that is easy for me to work with, my job is to push them and really communicate what I need.”
But casting unknown stars also means the film has an uphill battle in terms of standing out in a year filled with superhero films and live-action remakes. Chadha noted that launching any independent film is never a simple endeavor. “But you just have to let the story tell itself in the best ways possible,” she said.
Manzoor stressed that being a screenwriter means that you have to believe that the audience will be drawn to the film.
“I would have never believed that a film about Luton would start with the Warner Brothers icon, the logo that’s the company that makes ‘Friends’ and things like that,” he said. “There’s a line in ‘Thunder Road,’ ‘Have a little faith, there’s magic in the night’ — and you just have to have faith that there is magic in the night and that people will come.”