Writer/director/producer Gurinder Chadha is one of the most beloved, prolific filmmakers in the UK, and is a rare case where the fact that she is a woman is incidental. She landed on the Hollywood radar with 2002’s Bend it Like Beckham, which threw Keira Knightly’s career into hyperdrive. Among her films is the cult favorite of Jane Austin fans, Bride and Prejudice. And, she’s developing Pashmina, a new animated musical series for Netflix.
Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, releasing this month, is based on the life of Sarfraz Manzoor, who wrote about his devoted fandom for Bruce Springsteen in his book, Greetings from Bury Park, and co-wrote this script with Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges. The film portrays Manzoor (played by Viveik Kalra) as a hopeful young underdog who wants to be a writer against father’s wishes, has no friends and is bullied by racists in his neighborhood for being first-generation Pakistani. It’s 1987 in Thatcher’s Britain, and he learns to live life and find his own voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen.
I spoke to Gurinder Chadha about Blinded by the Light, about the joy that carries through the movie, the universal power of Bruce Springsteen, and how she believes being a woman impacts her work as a filmmaker.
Leslie Combemale: The way in which this film stands alone, really, is that it is so suffused with joy. You do seem, in all the interviews, to be quite empathetic and joyful. I’m curious to hear you talk about the balance of joy and cynicism, or maybe helplessness, in the film.
Gurinder Chadha: I had been writing the film for a while, and I took a break. When I came back in 2016, I was considering what film I’d do next. I was worried about Blinded By the Light, because of the overlap with Bend it Like Beckham. It had been 17 years since that movie. Then Brexit dropped. All of the sudden, xenophobes came out of the woodwork. The Britain that I know and love, suddenly had middle-aged English people that actually felt they could get on buses, and harass and abuse the black women that had worked in the HNS their whole lives. I thought how terrible that was. It was a breakdown of the social fabric of the country, and particularly London. It was appalling. That’s when I decided this would be my next film. I pulled out the script, and took a few more passes, and all my fear and upset to do with Brexit, I poured into this movie. That’s why it has such a visceral feeling, and has such tension, and seemed so relevant to today, even though it takes place in 1987.
I was also making a movie about a dream come true. A movie about a kid who made his dream come true. He did become a writer. There’s wish fulfillment going on as well, much like the songs that Bruce wrote. They are about the hardness of life, the struggle, but the message is “don’t let that define you, because there’s always hope around the corner.” That’s what Bruce sings about, and that’s what I wanted to get across. Life is a struggle, but there are ways, if we stand together, that we can come out of the other side with hope.
Combemale: There are so many parallels with what’s happening in the US now. I think some people here are after bringing back a way of life that many people never had access to in the first place. Also both then and now, those in power have tried to rearrange the economy to benefit a tiny percentage of the people.
Chadha: This is a film about poverty and the dignity people have despite being poor. That’s what Javed and his family are going through. That’s what a lot of families went through in Britain in the 80s under Thatcher-ism. There wasn’t a lot of money around and very few jobs. Factories for manufacturing and industry were being closed down, with no plans to redeploy people. It was a decimation of society, but also a coming together of society where young people that I knew, and bands, were coming together to create resistance. I think what that period created was economic insecurity and about losing jobs, or having not jobs for life. Everything that wasn’t profitable anymore had to go, or at least from Margaret Thatcher’s perspective of what was profitable. By not having any other plans in place, the idea was to create a downtrodden working class that would move to anywhere to do jobs for very little money. What ended up happening was a lot of British people didn’t want to do those jobs, and preferred to stay on the dole. Then you had immigrants coming in and doing those jobs, and then resentment started growing. It’s all more about economics than anything else. We have a situation in Britain, that we don’t have a lot of manufacturing. We have service industries. The whole thing about Brexit, is it’s a cry for people who feel completely alienated, in a Britain that doesn’t have an empire anymore, and can barely keep its own purse strings intact, because it’s so reliant on money and people and markets from abroad. You see that fear coming out as xenophobia and it’s easier to be xenophobic, to ask why it can’t be like it was, when people don’t necessarily realize what it was was not what they thought it was. They are chasing something that never existed.
Combemale: The universality of the story is beautiful. It is so much more than about music or about Bruce Springsteen.
Chadha: What’s so attractive about the story, is the fact that what Bruce was writing in the 70s and early 80s about himself in New Jersey, word for word, is completely relatable to this Pakistani kid in Luton, England, 10 years later, and 3,000 miles away. For me what was attractive is that they are the same. You think they are two very different experiences, but they are the same. It’s not just the power of music, but the music that inspires. Bruce is a poet. His words are incredibly stirring, especially if you’re searching, trying to find something about who you are and where you’re going. I find over the years, I find him to be like an old friend. He’s always there, and there’s always an album for every occasion or problem, anytime. When you want to be happy, listen to Live in Dublin. What a joyous album that is. He’s having so much fun. The more melancholy albums are perfect to feel like you aren’t alone whatever you might be going through that’s hard. The new album Western Stars is a beautiful album.
Combemale: He’s not an artist that has ever put something out he doesn’t love.
Chadha: When I finished my movie, (Bruce’s manager) Barbara Carr watched a finished version of it, at Sundance, and she told me Bruce had this song that he never used, and suggested we get it for the end titles. Bruce has this song called, I’ll Stand by You, and it never got used. The lyrics really worked for our film. Barbara said, “Yeah, this could work, and they could put it at the end of the film and it’s a new song by you.” Bruce said, “Well, see if she likes it. Don’t force it on her!”
Combemale: Do you have for yourself, when you were the same age as the character, Springsteen songs that resonated with you?
Chadha: The album The River was that for me. When I listened to it, I thought they were all all cinematic vignettes. For all the stories, I can imagine it all like he is going to the river at night, and he’s going to get in trouble… it was both depressing and exhilarating, but it was truthful. The integrity with which he writes is just astounding. It always felt like having a full conversation with a friend. I think of late, what was so moving with his book and his show, was it was very honest and fearless about how depression effected him, and once you hear him talk like that, you understand why he writes the way he does. I find it terribly moving that he is so open to talking about that side of himself. It makes me feel like he has even more integrity as an artist.
Combemale: Getting Bruce on your team, by stopping him on the red carpet and telling him you are doing a movie, feels like the kind of opportunity a female filmmaker might take to try to make things happen, like always being ready for seizing the day. What’s your take on that?
Chadha: I don’t see the gender in that, I just see the personality in that. It was seize the moment, and in my mind that I needed to do it. That’s really my personality.
Combemale: As a filmmaker, where do you see your gender showing up?
Chadha: A lot of places, like in the way that I’m really quite brazenly emotional. I don’t hold back. I like making films about men, because it’s new territory for me. I like to work with men, who are open to being directed by a woman, who is pushing them. I like that this is a father/son story that is told by a woman. I don’t know, because I only know about my process, not about any other directors. I just do what I think is right for me and my personality. I think I’m always trying to get a good connection with the audience watching, and my actors and script and camera work everything is pushing me and helping me and are elements and ingredients that help me connect with an audience. That’s how I direct. If it doesn’t move me, if I don’t believe it, I don’t think anyone else will. I won’t chose movies that I don’t think will somehow be moving or show human empathy. I guess that’s the nurturing side there. Being a mother now has made me more selective of what I do now, and making sure I am trying to choose things that will help make a change, that people are changed by it, and empowered. I hope young people see this and feel empowered to be part of the process so that what we went through in the 80s doesn’t happen again.
EDITOR’S NOTE: You may be interested in reading Blinded by the Light – Review by MaryAnn Johanson.