A movie about a teenage boy who falls in love with Bruce Springsteen's music after realizing how truthfully it speaks to his own life sounds like it could be an escape. And, on the one hand, it is. But, on the other, Blinded by the Light is about xenophobia, racism, a recession, and the immigrant experience. The Aug. 16 release couldn't be more appropriate for 2019, but for director Gurinder Chadha, making the film was a long journey — one that's also inspired by her own life.
"It was 2017, and I was like, what movie am I going to make next? What do I want to do next?" Chadha tells Bustle of her life after making Viceroy's House, a film about the Partition of India. "And that's when Brexit happened."
The Bend It Like Beckham director had Blinded by the Light on the back burner for a while at this point. The film is based on the memoir Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll by Sarfraz Manzoor. The director and author had met years earlier after bonding over their love of Springsteen.
"I read an article by a journalist about Bruce, and that was Sarfraz. And I was like, wow, there's another Asian person who likes Bruce Springsteen," Chadha says. Then, in 2007, when Manzoor wrote his book, naturally, he and Chadha started talking about the possibility of it being turned into a movie. "I basically said, 'OK, I know how to turn this into a great movie, but we can't do it without Bruce Springsteen. We need his support.'" (Eventually, they got it after meeting him at a movie premiere.)
The script ended up getting tabled for years as Chadha went off to work on the musical version of Bend It Like Beckham for London's West End and make Viceroy's House. It pulled her back in after Brexit.
"I couldn't get over all the xenophobia that erupted around me. I was like, I've got to do something about this. This is terrible, all this talk of hate and division," Chadha says. "And that's when I picked up Blinded by the Light again. I went through it and did a few passes, just really put all my frustration and anger into the script. That's when I made it much more political, if you like."
Chadha made sure that the script stayed true to the time period and to things she and Sarfraz had themselves seen or experienced as young people from immigrant families in England.
"I just wanted to show that in the '80s, life had been a struggle. People would spit at us and people would urinate through the letterboxes in doors," she says. "I didn't make any of that up. That was all there. That was our experience in the '80s. But I just treated it more viscerally and used those things in a way that's quite shocking. That you're not expecting in a movie like this."
Given the time period, this also meant including mentions of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and of the National Front, the fascist political party in the U.K. NF graffiti and swastikas needed to be drawn on buildings and in alleyways, but, as Chadha explained in a previous interview with Yahoo!, she and actor Kulvinder Ghir (who plays the lead character's dad) ended up drawing it themselves, because the crew couldn't bring themselves to do it.
"They didn't want to be associated with that," she tells me. "They just couldn't go there, because they were appalled by those kind of thoughts and ideas. But, for me, it was like, that was our reality and I was depicting that reality. I did it because it was truthful."
Blinded by the Light isn't just about xenophobia and racism, though. It's also about a teenager, Javed (Viveik Kalra), who is dealing with a strict father, a crush at school, and a yearning to get out of his hometown. And it's all set to Springsteen's music, which Javed finds relates to his life much more than he'd initially expected, through its themes of the working class, finding your place in the world, and hope.
"Whenever you make a film, the film has got to be bigger than the sum of its parts," Chadha explains. "Sarfraz's story is a fantastic story and a gift for a filmmaker because it's about a kid who has a dream that comes true, eventually. At the same time, using Bruce's music was wonderful, but I also have to make a film bigger than Bruce. So, for me, at the end of the day as a director, it's taking both those elements and pushing them forward to make a film that's about tolerance and empathy and a lot of what's going on in the world today."
For Chadha, empathy is what it all comes down to, and that's what she hopes the film promotes. "To have empathy, for me, makes you human," she says. "Being a civilized member of society is about having empathy."
She feels Springsteen is all about empathy, too. Chadha appreciates his music in the same way that Manzoor and Javed do. When she talks about the artist, there's passion in her voice. She can't help but recite some of his lyrics.
"He just dignifies ordinary people and ordinary people's lives," she says of the artist. "And makes you empathize with ordinary people who are struggling to get by for whatever reason, but still pointing to the fact that there is hope. There is a promised land somewhere."