When Blinded By the Light first premiered at Sundance, it immediately became a buzzy crowd-pleaser that was picked up by New Line. That was in January. As we near the end of summer, the musical dramedy has maintained its buzz like the longevity and energy of a Bruce Springsteen song. Directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) and based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll the film stars newcomer Viveik Kalra in an emotional story of race, cultural identity, family and friendship told through the music of The Boss.
Set in the working-class, post-industrial British town of Luton during 1987, Blinded by the Light (in theaters August 16) tells the story of Javed (Kalra) who feels that he is growing up in a town full of losers Amidst the racial and economic turmoil of the times, he finds solace in writing poetry about his family steeped in Pakistani tradition and the intolerance of his hometown. When his classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) introduces him to the music of Springsteen, his life is turned upside down as he discovers dormant dreams and the ability to use his unique voice to express himself.
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Springsteen is one of the iconic figures in America and Chadha, who co-wrote the script with Manzoor and Paul Mayeda Berges, brings his lyrics and music of the working class to Luton and to a young Pakistani boy — and it translates through a universal lens. Kalra and Manzoor talked to Deadline about how the film brings inclusivity to something that is often seen as All-American and how it can help bring perspective during a divisive time.
DEADLINE: Blinded By The Light premiered at Sundance in January and it has since gained momentum and buzz up to its August release. How has that been like?
SARFRAZ MANZOOR: Sundance kind of opened the door to opportunities that we wouldn’t have ever imagined. And the fact that Warner Bros. and New Line are supporting it — they are sort of rocket fuel in a film which we thought was going to be a small British film and suddenly it’s being exposed to film festivals and audiences.
VIVEIK KALRA: I’ve been talking to people over the last couple of days about the fact that it is New Line and Warner Bros. backing us. And I don’t think I’d be talking about it as much if it had started off with them backing us. But what’s happened is we made a small British film, and then went to Sundance, and then we got backing from this powerhouse place, which is incredible, and it’s a great stamp of validation.
DEADLINE: It is quite an intimate film.
MANZOOR: Yeah, it has an intimacy, and it has heart, and it’s ambitious — but it’s ambitious in its own way. It’s got its own spin. But, suddenly we’ve got huge big boys supporting it. It hasn’t suddenly increased the film budget; it hasn’t suddenly got this huge CGI effects. It’s still that same little film. I think there’s something quite lovely about that. I also just love the fact that Warner Bros. is just treating it really carefully. I kind of assumed that big studios like this would be like sort of monolithic, faceless, like an old corporation.
DEADLINE: Sometimes with huge corporations, there’s a danger that they might mistreat the material — bastardize it even.
MANZOOR: Yeah, you just never really quite know what would happen. But the fact that [Warner Bros. and New Line] is so human-sized — and that there were actually people who interact, respond and care about the film and make sure we’re comfortable with everything — that’s something which has been a real surprise to me.
DEADLINE: Viveik — what was it that initially attracted you to the project?
KALRA: It was the director first. So, basically an email came in and it says director name and project, et cetera. So, I saw the director, and I was like, “Go audition for this” regardless of whether I like the script or not.
I read the script, was amazing and just was sort of something I could relate to in an odd way, and which is rather wonderful. When I read the script, I related to it more than anything else I’ve read in my life ever. Three auditions later, somehow, I was playing this character in this film, and it was incredible. It was a lovely experience, lovely auditioning period. A very particularly odd audition experience, actually, because Gurinder is quite a character, and part of the audition was going in and singing.
DEADLINE: So you had to sing as part of the audition?
KALRA: Yeah, so I had to sing. I didn’t sing it a capella. Gurinder had this speaker and she blasted the volume up on the speaker and she said “All right. Go now.” I had to sing over the music, which was lovely. I mean, not at the time, but I grew to love it. I grew to love this sort of craziness and the mental-ness that was our set and I lost inhibitions. I lost bits of self-consciousness, which helped me play this character because the character wouldn’t have those things. It was incredible, running up and down the streets of Luton singing “Born to Run.”
DEADLINE: We know that Sarfraz is a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen, but how familiar were you with him?
KALRA: I’d heard Bruce’s name, but wasn’t familiar with the music, and I remember very early on, we were sitting in a rehearsal, but it was before we started, essentially. And we sat around a table with Gurinder and Sarfraz. Gurinder started playing a Bruce song — I don’t remember which one it was — and I looked at Saf and his head was bopping. I thought, “Wow, that’s rather wonderful. His music affected someone to his core, to the point where he’s still bopping along to the song.” And it wasn’t like a casual bop, it was something very endearing for that moment — to see someone really still engaged with something that hit them as an epiphany when they were 16.
DEADLINE: It was like he was listening to it for the first time.
KALRA: You know, you can get that thing where you listen to songs for a few times and then you get sick of them — Saf isn’t bored of Springsteen at all. When someone affects you to your core, there’s a timelessness to it. When someone affects the way that you live your life, you don’t get sick of that, because that’s helped you through situations. That’s helped you when your circumstances aren’t as great as it could be.
DEADLINE: Safraz, at what point did you know that you wanted your story to be a feature film?
MANZOOR: The book came out in 2007, and I started thinking about a film in about 2010 — but then I met Bruce Springsteen, and he told me that he liked the book. So, that made it feel like there was a reason to fully think about it.
My thing was, first having written the book, and the fact that it’s a personal story, I didn’t want anyone else to write the screenplay. When it comes to real people, I can’t have a fictional version of me doing things that I wouldn’t be comfortable with. And so, I knew I had to do it. But, I’d never written a screenplay before. But luckily I met Gurinder by this point. She loved the book, and she thought there was a story in it.
For the next couple of years, what she basically did was give me a masterclass in screenwriting, so she’d say, “Okay. You need to do a three-act structure.” And I read books about it as well. You have to try to find a way to tell a story about it. So, I just went away and tried to solve the problems and the tasks that she and Paul sent me to try and come up with a plot.
DEADLINE: What was one of the biggest pieces of advice she gave you?
MANZOOR: I just kept holding on to the truth — but you can’t hold on to the truth, because we’re not making a documentary. So she said, “You got to change the name.” So, I changed the name — because initially the character had my name. I changed it to Javed. Javed is the name that my mom calls me and was the name I was given before Sarfraz. So it still echoes.
DEADLINE: How did you balance the truth with cinematic storytelling?
MANZOOR: My whole thing was, I wanted it to be emotionally true, even if it’s not all literally true. There are scenes that are made up; there are plot points that are a bit made up; there’s a love interest that’s made up, but there is nothing in the hopes and dreams and attitudes and worldview of Javed, his mom, his dad, that is false — and that was really important.
For example, there’s a moment where something bad happens and Javed goes out and he gets in the car and one of the suggestions was, “Why doesn’t he just get drunk?” And I was like, “He can’t drink. I don’t drink. It was really important to me to have these red lines of what was acceptable for Javed to do. He could be fictionalized, but he couldn’t be so fictionalized that he was no longer close enough to that. So that was part of the journey of trying to do that.
DEADLINE: Did you have any other reservations about how your life would be portrayed on screen?
MANZOOR: There’s still a danger that the person who’s playing the character doesn’t come through. That you put all this effort in, but in the end, you have to invest all that faith in the person who plays Javed. And so, when I first met him, I just think I was quite nervous, because I was like, “Oh my god, please, please be good.”
DEADLINE: Viveik — were you nervous when you met Sarfraz?
KALRA: No, not really.
MANZOOR: I was a bit nervous. And so, I took him to Luton, which is my hometown, I showed him my old house and my teenage poems. I gave him all my poems. I gave him diary entries. All I was trying to do was just say, “Here’s a load of material. There’s my book as well. You’ve got the book. And, just imbibe it all, and then do with it what you will.”
DEADLINE: How did you overcome your reservations?
MANZOOR: Filmmaking is about faith. You’ve got to put faith in the director, you got to put faith in the craft. You got to put faith in other people, and then hope that they don’t let you down.
DEADLINE: How was it when you saw Viveik as you on the screen?
MANZOOR: I mean, I just think that his performance is a revelation, but the other thing is what’s really funny is I watch it and I really get a profound sense of gratitude, too. Genuinely. [Turns to Viveik] You are now the embodiment of a particular character that was a bit like me, and the world, when they see it, will see you, and so that’s an amazing thing to have done. And I think it’s a beautiful performance.
DEADLINE: How was it the first time you saw the film with an audience?
KALRA: Gurinder recommended that I watch it once before Sundance — even though I didn’t want to watch it before Sundance. So I did. I watched it around Christmas time and I went with [Nell Williams] who plays Eliza and honestly that time we were just squirming through it [laughs]. It was terrible because she plays my girlfriend in the film — it was incredibly awkward to sit there watching romantic scenes.
But the first time I really got a sense of it was at Sundance and that audience was lovely. I am eternally grateful to that audience because they were so open, so warm and receptive.
MANZOOR: I saw it at a test screening with a focus group. It was in West London, and it was about 300 people and my wife was with me. It was the first time she’d seen it as well. That was a very weird experience. Somebody said, “I would describe it as the feel-good film of the year.” I was like, “Oh my god, who has paid this person to say this?!”
But the most lovely thing was my wife. I told her, “Look, this is fictionalized. We had to do lots of compromises to make it work for a Hollywood film.” She said, “You know what I love? When I saw Viveik, I saw you.” I thought that was so nice. Amongst all the things you have to do to get a film made, all the loops you have to go through, and all the compromises, my own wife recognized me in the film.
KALRA: That’s so good — and that is brilliant acting. [Laughs] I’m joking!
DEADLINE: Bruce Springsteen’s music definitely has a huge role in the film, but what is more interesting are these deep cuts into race relations and being an immigrant as well as a child from an immigrant family. What kind of reactions have you seen when it comes to all these topical issues at a divisive time?
MANZOOR: The thing I find interesting about that is that there were these words that people throw around when you’re trying to sell a film. And they just sound like words and one of them is universality. Everyone wants to know about universality. When people watch the film and that word becomes real to them, they suddenly start seeing this person who is from that background and in some ways is a universal person, character, and they see him as a boy who wants to do something different and is having trouble with his dad. And it just happens that the specificity of his culture is that particular one.
We were talking to a woman this morning, and I was just saying it’s amazing that this British-Pakistani character is at the center of this story. She said, “I don’t really see any of that. I just saw a kid, who is from a different place than America, who wanted something different.” And I thought, “That’s incredible.”
What’s quite interesting about it is that people are transcending when they experience this film. They’re seeing Viveik as a young lad who wants to do something different, who wants to have a girlfriend, who wants to be a writer — and he just happens he’s from a different background. But that’s not written in bold. It’s not written in capital letters. For me, that says something really positive about where we are with the times.
To speak to your point about division, I feel as if it’s a suggestion of hope. That if people can see beyond, music can transcend boundaries — and cinema can as well. So, if anything, I hope this film can be helpful in trying to heal some of those fears and suspicions people might have of the other because they’ll see somebody who looks different, but kind of wants the same things that we all want.
DEADLINE: To your point about universality is that this story could be in any part of the world, honestly. The film does not tokenize race like a lot of films tend to do.
KALRA: I think race is highlighted in the film and is important if you set a film in Britain in 1987. For me, the idea is that I don’t want to be involved in telling their story that presents them simply victims of other people’s bigotry because we’re more than that. Far more than that. There’s nuance. You have these wonderful characters, who are more than the injustices that they face. They rise above that.
MANZOOR: When you’re at a Springsteen concert, you get “Born to Run”, you get “Dancing in the Dark,” you get “Badlands.” And people are punching their fists in jubilation. But you also get “The River,” you get ballads where people are really subdued, and they’re feeling really thoughtful. This film is like a Bruce Springsteen concert. You have moments of joy, and romance, and love but then you got the darkness as well. That’s what life is like. That’s also what Bruce Springsteen’s music is like. If you just had a film with just racism and somebody being treated like crap, that would be pretty miserable. And so, the film is actually a bit like a Springsteen concert, and it’s got everything and that’s what, hopefully, makes it powerful, cohesive, and welcoming.