On July 24, the Phoenix Film Society put on a rock star event. Director Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham” (2002)), writer Sarfraz Manzoor and actor Aaron Phagura arrived in the Valley to host a “Blinded by the Light” screening. Based on Sarfraz’s real-life experiences, the film is about a Javed (Viveik Kalra), a Pakistani-Brit who wishes to free himself from his father’s strict rules and leave his hometown of Luton, England, but, along the way, he discovers Bruce Springsteen’s music and becomes a massive fan.
The Phoenix Film Festival sat down and enjoyed a terrific conversation with Sarfraz, Gurinder and Aaron (who plays Javed’s friend Roops), and we talked about the comparisons between the film and Sarfraz’s teenage years, the racism portrayed on-screen and much, much more.
“Blinded by the Light” opens in Phoenix on Friday, Aug. 16.
PFF: If you didn’t have Bruce Springsteen’s music in your life, would you have stayed in your hometown of Luton?
SM: I would have probably left, but I don’t quite know what I would be doing today. Bruce is now so embedded in my life, it’s hard to make a distinct angle into that. I think my life would not be as rich, creative and fulfilling as it is.
PFF: Javed had three strong women in his life: his mom, his girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams) and his teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell). Were these women part of your life-story as well?
SM: My mom definitely was. The Eliza-character is entirely fictionalized. Sort of fictionalized, because she’s based on people, who I met later in life to some extent. When I was 16, I wasn’t allowed out of the house, so there’s actually no way that I was going to have a girlfriend, but (we wanted) the character to have a girlfriend to add richness to the story.
I did have a teacher. I changed her name (for the movie), but I had a teacher who really believed in me, had a lot of faith in me and encouraged me. She was charismatic and attractive, (and she) really believed in me and was inspirational in that way.
I’m still trying to contact her, and I message people on Facebook (and post), “Does anyone remember this particular teacher?”
So far, nobody has been able to track her down.
PFF: Javed’s journey was not a constant upward trajectory. He had peaks and valleys along the way. How important was it to show the peaks and valleys?
GC: Well, it’s real life. When you’re the child of an immigrant, you have certain dreams. Your parents also have dreams, but they are not always what you want for yourself.
(Parents may) say, “Look what we’ve done for you. How can you repay us like this?”
That’s a tricky area to negotiate, but that’s what I love, because that’s my experience. That’s what I know how to do: the tricky stuff between two generations of family. Finding those points where one can negotiate. To me, that’s drama. That’s a push and pull, and in the end, the hopeful resolution is moving.
Cultural negation, that’s what we all do with our parents.
PFF: Did you consider turning the movie into a musical?
SM: Gurinder had more (thoughts) about the musical-idea than I did, and I have to say that I was nervous about it. If you put those musical moments in (the movie), it becomes bigger. I was worried (that) if Javed jumps up and starts singing the whole time, are we going to care about him? Are we going to care about his struggle, if we think that he just prances around singing every five minutes?
So, I was worried about the tonal-thing, and whether one would care about him. (We didn’t go in that direction), and Gurinder did a really good job of making (the movie) feel big, feel warm and feel exciting, but at the same time, we still care about Javed. She did a really good balancing act, but I don’t think I would have been up for a full-blown musical, because I wanted to care about the characters.
PFF: Do you still have the poems that you wrote in high school?
SM: I keep them in shoebox, and they’re in the film. When you see Javed with his poems on the wall, those are my real poems. It was very weird when we were actually on-set. I mean, I just met the camera (team) and make-up people, and they’re reading these poems where I’m anguishing about my dad, about love or whatever, (and my writing contains) deeply personal stuff.
PFF: Javed’s new best friend Roops plays a vital role in the movie. He introduces Javed to Springsteen’s music, but I think that he plays a more important part by standing with Javed and being his friend. What do you think?
AP: It was vital, because, all in all, Javed’s confidence rose after to listening to Springsteen, so that played a big part, (but yes,) Roops is such a (supportive) guy. Everyone needs a friend like him. After Javed met Roops, he started doing a lot better in all aspects of life, (including his writing). We all need a friend like Roops.
PFF: Javed’s family and Roops had to cope with racism from some Luton residents. Was it difficult to insert those moments into the film, and how much has race relations improved in the UK since the 80s?
GC: It was hard doing those scenes, and it really reminded us of that time. In a way, that’s progress to show how much things have changed…a chilling reminder. So, I think there has been progress. That’s not to say that there aren’t extremists, but I think for the majority of people, they are interested in other cultures and backgrounds.
Look at the cuisine everyone eats, and the stories that people are interested in, so yea, I have to believe that things are better. I have children, and I don’t want them to grow up in a world, where people are cynical and prejudice. Parents don’t teach their children to be racist.
They don’t say, “Now, I’m going to sit down and teach you how to be racist.”
Little kids are not like that. Kids don’t grow up with that instinct. We grow up to have empathy. That’s what makes us human, and I think we, as parents, that’s our job: to remind our kids of that. That was my mission in this movie: to show tolerance and empathy across all boundaries.
PFF: Fathers, whether they know it or not, pass their passions and other qualities onto their sons. Sarfraz, you became a Springsteen fan on your own, but what did your father pass on to you?
SM: My father passed on a sense of trying to be respectful of his and his generation’s story.
To say, “Look, we came over from another country and put up with a lot of crap. We worked really hard. We lived our lives without any kind of respect from others, so you could have an opportunity.”
So, he passed on a sense of gratitude and an awareness of the sacrifices that he and my mom made.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008, graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.