Days before last January’s rapturous Sundance premiere of “Blinded by the Light,” director Gurinder Chadha was struggling with her decision to cut the best scene in the entire film. “It’s just not going to work,” she remembered thinking. “It’s too fucking corny. And we’re already going to get it in the neck from so many cynical British people who are going to think the movie is cheesy as hell.” She took it out.
Chadha, who boasts that her “Bend It Like Beckham” connected with people around the globe so profoundly that it became the first Western-made film to ever air on television in North Korea, knows a thing or two about what audiences are looking for. But if you’ve seen “Blinded by the Light,” it’s easy to appreciate how difficult this particular editing decision must have been — even for her.
Adapted from Sarfraz Manzoor’s heart-on-his-sleeve memoir about growing up in Margaret Thatcher’s England, the movie tells an exuberant coming-of-age story about a frustrated British-Pakistani teenager whose brain explodes when he discovers a passé American poet by the name of Bruce Springsteen. From start to finish, “Blinded by the Light” is so pure that you can hardly look straight at it, a guileless and unironic celebration of the power of music that might feel as old-fashioned to modern crowds as the Boss must have seemed to a-ha superfans in 1987.
When young Javed (Viveik Kalra) first listens to “The Promised Land,” the lyrics appear on screen and swirl around his head as he stands in the middle of a lightning storm and lets the song crackle through his body. When some wannabe Nazis from the National Front torment Javed and his Sikh best friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) at a fast food joint, the boys channel Bruce’s defiant streak and sing “Badlands” in their faces.
And when Javed and Roops land at Newark Airport as part of their pilgrimage to Asbury Park, well… it would be a shame to spoil the most unexpectedly compassionate moment of the whole movie. That’s the one Chadha cut.
It’s hard to thread the needle between sweet and saccharine, especially at a time when even the simplest act of kindness can feel like it requires us to suspend our disbelief. And yet, at the last second, the filmmaker decided to swing for the fences. “Literally just before I locked, I said to myself: ‘Do you know what? A version of that moment actually happened to Sarfraz. It’s the truth. It will have an impact on the American audience in some way. Fuck the British cynicism! Let’s just put it in!’”
Chadha’s film might be the corniest thing you see this year, but Springsteen has always been kind of a corny guy. He’d be the first to admit it. He’s a magician, a movie set, a salesman in roughed up jeans. “I came from a shithole where everything is tinged with just a little bit of fraud,” he said in his Broadway show. “And so am I, in case you haven’t figured it out yet.”
But that’s what the shimmering, incorruptible fantasy of “Blinded by the Light” understands about the power of the Boss’ music better than a more grounded, less cringe-inducing movie ever could: You have to believe in something before it can come true. First you talk about a dream, and then you try to make it real.
Judging by the euphoric reaction at the movie’s world premiere, Chadha is on the right track. Chatting over breakfast at a posh Manhattan hotel some eight months after “Blinded by the Light” blew the roof off of Sundance and sold to Warner Bros. for a hefty $15 million, she reflected on how she learned to stop worrying and embrace the cheesiness.
“As a director, having Sarfraz’s story was an incredible opportunity to make something that was not cynical,” Chadha said. “Something pure. Coming from the same background and knowing the British-Asian experience firsthand, I could totally relate to the emotions of it. His parents were his parents, but they could have been my parents, too.”
Manzoor’s parents were immigrants who were welcomed to England with racism and austerity measures, neither of which is sugarcoated in “Blinded by the Light.” His mom worked from their Luton home as a seamstress. His dad — a traditionalist wary of Western society’s effect on his children — put in long hours at a local factory. And Manzoor himself, a sore thumb sticking out of a blue-collar town that had little tolerance for brown kids like him, was in desperate need of a lifeline.
He dreamed of being a writer, but no one made him feel like that would ever be possible. No one, that is, except Bruce Springsteen, whose mythic tales of breaking free and finding a better life were enough to make teenage Manzoor believe in a promised land.
Manzoor, who wrote his way out of Luton so well that Springsteen himself eventually became a fan of his, knew that his story would only work on screen if it embodied his full-hearted faith in the idea that some music can save your life if you listen closely.
“It was inevitable that this wouldn’t be a cynical film,” he said, “because neither of us are cynical people. More to the point, Springsteen’s music isn’t cynical. The wide-eyed sincerity and passion of those songs is the engine that actually got me out of Luton — they were the fuel that convinced me to believe that it wasn’t impossible to do something different.”
Manzoor, who co-wrote the script, helped push Chadha into making a movie that unapologetically captured how it feels to be a 16-year-old kid; how a song can shoot through a teenager’s veins like lightning; how Javed’s emotions would be experienced at maximum intensity or not at all.
Needless to say, Chadha got what Manzoor was going for. Even towards the end of an exhausting press tour, she still felt the holy spirit. Banging on the breakfast table with enough passion to startle the hotel waitstaff, the director lit up just like her film’s young hero: “Bruce says to him: ‘Don’t put up with this shit! Don’t let them drag you down! Get out of here! There’s a darkness on the edge of town.’”
But if Javed is obsessed with cutting loose (the character isn’t named Sarfraz because Manzoor wanted a layer of distance, but Javed is the name his mother always called him at home), “Blinded by the Light” is just as determined to bring people together. The movie — like the music that inspired it — isn’t the least bit subtle about that. When life’s got you by the throat, there isn’t always time for subtly.
Some filmmakers don’t like to discuss the meaning of their work; Chadha isn’t one of them. “The purpose of this movie is to build bridges,” she said, not mincing words. “The idea of a 16-year-old Pakistani kid finding a voice through the words of an American artist 3,000 miles away, that’s the bridge right there. And I think it’s a very potent idea right now, when people are trying to build walls left, right, and center.”
“Blinded by the Light” is unmistakably a movie about Bruce Springsteen — who was so tickled by its sideways approach to his legend that he let Chadha use 17 of his most famous hits for free — but it’s also a universal tale about being disconnected from other people, be they strangers or family.
Asked if she felt pressured to make something that Bruce (and his die-hard fans) would like, Chadha said that she was only able to ease her anxiety by putting those thoughts out of her head: “I wanted to make it work for Bruce, and I knew I had to honor Sarfraz’s story, but at the same time I was making a bigger story — a story about all of us.” (For the record, Chadha watched the movie with Springsteen just before Sundance, and he reacted to it by giving her a big hug.)
Chadha, who remembers the almost revolutionary power of “Bend It Like Beckham,” loved the idea of using such an internationally viable premise as another vehicle for British-Asian representation. “It’s an uphill struggle to get anything commissioned as a person of color, because whatever you propose is inherently not seen as commercial,” she said.
Both Channel 4 and the BBC turned down the film. “I was absolutely shocked to my core when that happened,” Chadha said. “It’s like, what more do I need to do to prove that I understand the zeitgeist?”
But Chadha persisted, in part because she knew how exciting it could be for British-Pakistani kids to see their own experience from a new perspective. Sometimes, as in the ecstatic scene where Roops sings “Born to Run” in a turban, that lens is gauzed with levity. Other times, like when Chadha layers “Jungleland” over a heartbreaking dustup with the National Front, it aches with the specific memory of a shared trauma.
It also resonates with the hardships and horrors of the modern world. It’s just a coincidence that “Bend It Like Beckham” was released in the wake of 9/11, and struck a chord of togetherness in a newly refractured world; it’s not at all a coincidence that “Blinded by the Light” is being released during another time of heightened strife and disconnection.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t like or care about Bruce Springsteen,” Chadha said, “so I had to make a film for them too. I wanted to make a film that shined a light on the fact that there are a lot of people out there trying to create hate and division. … I made it unflinchingly optimistic and hopeful, because I’m fueled by their hate.”
Another reason that Chadha wanted to make the movie as broadly accessible as possible: It would be a giant middle finger to everyone who doubted that a brown woman could ever belong in the mainstream. “It just made me want to go out and be even more commercial and even more universal and prove that I can take a story like this and make it work for us, as well as for you,” she said.
Recent years have seen the film industry dominated by the subject of representation, and the need for marginalized people to see themselves reflected on screen. It’s a need that “Blinded by the Light” fulfills for Manzoor, but also one that his film balances against the similarly urgent need for people to see themselves reflected in others.
“Obviously the movie is about someone who connects with someone very different than him. But people are connecting with Javed, even though they themselves are very different from a 16-year-old Pakistani kid,” Manzoor said. “People tweet at me saying ‘I am Javed, and Javed is me,’ and they don’t look anything like him. To me, representation doesn’t necessarily have to be about class or race or religion. It can be about ideals, and seeing yourself as an outsider regardless of where you came from.”
Manzoor, who’s been enamored with American mythmaking ever since he first heard “Born in the U.S.A.,” was just as interested in how the movie could speak to people from the Boss’ country. Whether it’s Springsteen making sense of Luton for Javed, or “Blinded by the Light” illuminating dormant American ideals, Manzoor continues to be struck by how art can sometimes hit closer to home when it’s one step removed.
“Sometimes you need outsiders to explain a country to its people,” he said. “In a way, that’s what Hollywood is about: Outsiders coming over from Europe and replicating the vision of America they had from afar. Maybe that’s why a Pakistani kid from England and Gurinder Chadha can actually shine a light on the best of America. Maybe that’s why Bruce liked the idea, because it’s about the idea of what it means to be America — and what the idea of America means — in a way that someone might not be able to see from the inside.”
It’s an idealized, mythic vision America — as mythic as the America that Springsteen has been singing about since the Vietnam War. It’s a weary place that will drown you in the river the moment you stop treading water, but also one where the highways stretch so far into the horizon that every place you go feels like somewhere you might be able to leave behind. A promised land.
“Blinded by the Light” is now playing in theaters.