Gurinder Chadha & Sarfraz Manzoor on “Blinded by the Light”

Acclaimed director Gurinder Chadha teamed up with journalist Sarfraz Manzoor to tell a deeply personal story. Their film “Blinded by the Light” is based on Manzoor’s memoir, following a young Pakistani-British teenager in 1980s London as he finds unlikely salvation in the music of Bruce Springsteen. They sat down with Hari to tell him about their own fateful encounter with The Boss.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, the boss meets Bollywood with our two next guests. Acclaimed director Gurinder Chadha, known for her film such as Vend it Like Beckham, has teamed up with journalist, Sarfraz Manzoor, to tell a deeply personal story. Their film “Blinded by the Light” is based on Manzoor’s memoir and it follows a young Pakistani British teenager in London in the 1980s who finds unlikely salvation in the American icon Bruce Springsteen. It is also an intimate portrait of escapism in the face of racism and the shackles of tradition. They sat down with our Hari Sreenivasan to connect the dots and tell him about their fateful encounter with the boss.

HARI SREENIVASAN, CONTRIBUTOR: Gurinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor, thanks so much for joining us. Sarfraz, I want to ask. How does a Pakistani kid in the U.K. get enamored by the boss?

SARFRAZ MANZOOR, AUTHOR, GREETINGS FROM BURY PARK: By having a very lucky encounter with a friend, to be honest. I was 16-years-old in 1987. I really didn’t know anything about Bruce Springsteen at that point because I was just listening to what was in the charts at that time. And I started college, and this kid with a turban. He’s got headphones on, he’s listening to his music. I said, what are you listening to? And he says “Bruce Springsteen”. And that seemed a very unusual choice for someone of that age and that ethnicity, but he just says Bruce Springsteen is a direct line to all that’s true in this world and he’s just had such passion that even though I knew nothing about Springsteen, I just thought, maybe I’m missing out. So he gave me some cassettes and I listened to the music. And I suddenly thought, oh, my God, this guy is connecting with me. He’s writing and singing songs directly about my life. And that’s kind of where the fandom started.

SREENIVASAN: OK. And we’ve got a clip after you’ve heard some of his words.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I listened to everything, both tapes. I could feel it all right here. It’s like Bruce knows everything I’ve ever felt, everything I’ve ever wanted. I mean sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode, explode and tear this whole town apart. Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart. I didn’t know music could be like that. I mean is a dream a lie, if it don’t come true or is it something worse?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations. You popped the Bruce Cherry. You never forget your first time.


SREENIVASAN: Now, Gurinder, is that what drew you to it? I mean did that idea of a scene, this passion, fly off the page when you’re starting to read this stuff.

GURINDER CHADHA, DIRECTOR, BLINDED BY THE LIGHT: Well, I’ve been a Bruce fan myself separately in London, and I just thought he was masterful with his words, and I didn’t know I was going to be a filmmaker then. But to me, everything he was writing seemed filmic. So that’s what drew me to him. And then I read an article where they’ve interviewed him, and I thought, oh, my God, there’s another Asian in the United Kingdom that likes Springsteen. And that’s how we connected.


SREENIVASAN: You know it’s interesting is that at the time, and you bring this out in the film, the music was escapist. It wanted to drive, especially if you were poor and underclass. You were looking out beyond there and Bruce Springsteen’s music is the opposite of that.

MANZOOR: Yes. There was a great line I read about him. It said most music is about Saturday night, and his music was about Monday to Friday. Now, everything that I was listening to, whether it’s Madonna or Michael Jackson, or the Pet Shop Boys, it was about escapism. It was all kind of romanticized and sort of hyperreal. Whereas Bruce is talking about people who work in [13:40:00] factories, living in dead-end towns. He’s talking about people who don’t get along with their dads. And that’s not the stuff that pop music normally deals with. And I just thought, well, it’s kind of obvious why somebody like myself who came from that kind of background, had a difficult relationship with my parents, it’s kind of obvious why I would connect with them even though at the time everyone laughed and said, what’s a kid like you liking Bruce?

CHADHA: Well, also the ’80s and in the early ’80s, we had a lot of disturbances up and down the country. We were the sons and daughters of the original immigrants of England. And we were — in the political landscape, we were all trying to figure out who we were, what our identity was. Were we British? Were we Asian? Were we British Pakistani? All of this was going on around us. And perhaps it was the time of Margaret Thatcher and so there was mass unemployment and hardship and poverty. And particularly for young people, a lot of people leave school and just go adult and never had a job for like 10 years. So this was also the backdrop, I think. And so Bruce resonated with that kind of political context.

SREENIVASAN: You guys bring up identity and race is almost a character in this film. And here we are looking at these events that happened 30 years ago in the context of what’s happening in the U.K. But for a lot of people in the United States right now, it’s actually very interesting to watch, and even across Europe, it’s interesting to watch, that some of these things are cyclical and they’re back again. And we thought kind of as a society what we’ve learned from that, we’re better now but maybe we’re not.

CHADHA: Well, we have been working on this project for quite a while on the script, and in the meantime, I had gone off to make “Vice Race House.” And after “Vice Race House,” I was thinking like what am I going to do next? What film do I want to do next? And I was worried about the overlap of Blinded by the Light with Bend it Like Beckham because it’s in an Asian community set story. But then Brexit drops in England. The vote happened. We were like, oh, my God, what’s happening? And then overnight suddenly all these xenophobes came out and there was a lot of sort of tension around race and hate and people thought it was OK to get on buses and shout abuse to elderly black women who worked in our hospitals their whole life. And for me, it was like a complete breakdown in the fabric of society, especially being in London, my hometown. It’s very distressing. And that’s when I made the decision, I said OK, I’m going to make this film next and I’m going to show exactly what it was like. And normally, I kind of shy away from being too visual around racism, but in this film, I said no, I really need to make that point. It was his reality being spattered on the way home from school. The character roots in the film. His family regularly had people who would urinate through the letterbox. And all these things we need to tell these stories now so people understand. And so this film for us became extremely relevant to make today to kind of stem the tide, really, and show an alternative way of being.

MANZOOR: But I also think these divided times that you’re talking about, I think that’s why the film is kind of connecting with people, because ultimately it’s a very hopeful message it’s giving. You’re saying a Pakistani kid in England can be completely turned on by the most American idol there is. And in ’87, that was completely plausible that kid could think America was a promised land. Someone who is Pakistani could think that. And I think that that makes people feel good about themselves. It also suggests to people an idea of an America that maybe doesn’t feel quite as close as it was in ’87 but it’s still possible and it’s still plausible. And I kind of feel like that also was sort of hitting the core.

CHADHA: Absolutely. And we see that. There’s a scene that’s actually in the trailer. That scene actually happened. And I took it out because this is too corny, no one is ever going to believe this. And we had to put it back in but the scene, when it plays, you see it with an American audience, with all audiences, they’re very uncomfortable at the beginning of this scene because of present events. But at the end, what the guy says, is what actually happened to Sarfraz.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I’m going to visit Bruce Springsteen’s hometown.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can’t think of a better reason to visit the United States than to see the home of the boss.


CHADHA: And I think it’s moments like that that make people think there is an alternative and there is some kind of hope, you know.

SREENIVASAN: There is a scene when you were talking about your character extolling the virtues of the United States. At least in a screening in New York City, there was almost audible laughter. I mean he was talking about this idyllic place where everyone is–

MANZOOR: Everything that’s good about America but even better in America.

SREENIVASAN: Yes. And in a city like New York, we’re like, oh, my gosh. They are harkening back in their minds. It’s like, yes, you know what, that might have been true and perfect and maybe we could get back to that more perfect union.

MANZOOR: The crowd that you’re talking about, they’re cynical about America. But in a way, outsiders have always been the ones who are the most idealists in a way about America because they sort of see in the most purer sense. We were talking earlier, you know, if you’re growing up in (INAUDIBLE), the idea that New Jersey town plays like sound incredibly exotic. If you’re actually having to do that on your morning commute, maybe not so much.


MANZOOR: Si I think that’s always been true. But I think it’s quite nice to be reminded of that kind of wide-eyed hope.

CHADHA: And it’s interesting is the film is getting these great responses in America. People are connecting with it. People are not necessarily seeing race, they’re just seeing the father-son story and the universality of that, which is fantastic to say.

SREENIVASAN: You’re almost dealing with some of these heavier topics juxtaposed with a certain joy to this. It’s almost like a Bollywood dance number that breaks out in the middle of somewhere.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runway American dream. At night we ride through the mansions of glory and the suicide machines. Sprung from cages —


SREENIVASAN: You’re not just hitting people over the head with it. They are heavy ideas but somehow you’ve kind of managed to wrap it in this very digestible format.

CHADHA: Well, I think obviously having Sarfraz’s story is fantastic because that’s a great way of telling a story about being interconnected across oceans, you know, with words. But at the same time, you know, it’s a very truthful story about racism and coming through that and wishful film it. He had a dream and it came true. That’s the great premise for a movie. But at the same time having worked now for as many years as I have in filmmaking, it’s tough. As soon as you want to put a person of color in a movie as a lead, immediately everyone is like, well, that’s not going to be commercial, that’s not going to work. That’s not going to be successful, ya da, ya da, ya da, still to this day.

SREENIVASAN: So let’s talk a little bit about the music. You’ve been to 150 plus Bruce Springsteen concerts? What makes number 149 worth going to? Like what is new? Why do it?

MANZOOR: Well, it’s very simple. If somebody said to you, you know, at 8:00 tonight in Madison Square Garden, if you turn up, I can guarantee for the next three hours you’re going to have an indecent amount of pleasure. You’re going to feel jubilant. You’re going to feel exultant. You’re going to be moved. It’s going to be profound. You’re going to be surrounded by people who are decent, caring people and you all are going to be just together for those three hours having an amazing time. Do you want to come? What are you going to say?

CHADHA: Exactly.

SREENIVASAN: So in the world of filmmaking and music, this is very expensive to get the rights for something like this.


SREENIVASAN: So how do you go about getting Bruce Springsteen on board?

CHADHA: Well —

SREENIVASAN: You have 17 songs?

CHADHA: Nineteen.

SREENIVASAN: Nineteen songs?

CHADHA: Nineteen. Well, what happened was America happened, basically. Sarfraz wrote his memoir. I read it. I said this is great, I know how to turn this into a great movie, but it’s nothing without Bruce’s songs. There is no movie without it. And luckily for us, Bruce has come to London in 2010 for the premiere of his film “The Promise.” I got invited. I took him as my plus one, and we both stood like fans on the red carpet with cameras waiting for Bruce to go by so we can both like be (INAUDIBLE). And we felt somehow — we haven’t told him but beyond that, didn’t really have a plan. And then as he walked the carpet, we got very, very excited. And because of his 150 shows that he’s been to, and he doesn’t look like many other Springsteen fans, Springsteen recognized him. And he walked over and said —

MANZOOR: He comes right up to me and says, “I really love your book”, out of nowhere. And I had the book with me. I was thinking I was going to give it to him because I didn’t even know if he knew it existed.


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: How are you doing?

MANZOOR: It’s been a while. I’m good. I’m good.

SPRINGSTEEN: Your book was really beautiful.

MANZOOR: You read it?


MANZOOR: Oh my God.

SPRINGSTEEN: It was really a lovely thing.

MANZOOR: How did you know about it?

SPRINGSTEEN: Someone sent me — people sent me copies.

MANZOOR: You took the time to read it?

SPRINGSTEEN: Yes, it was really really —

MANZOOR: Fantastic, man. We should have a chat about that. I want to make a film of it.


CHADHA: So while he was having his meltdown with Bruce, I thought, oh my God, this is it. I got to do a movie deal right now, about five seconds before he’s moved on. And I thought OK, I’m going to be really professional, think how are you going to do it? How are you going to say to him we need your music? We know notoriously does not give his music, we know that. So I just thought OK, I’d just had to ask him. And I was trying to be professional but it came out very high-pitched, I’m afraid. And I was just like, Bruce, I’m Gurinder Chadha. I’m going to make this a movie. Please, will you help us, will you help us? And he looked at me and he looked at Sarfraz, and he went, “Sounds good. Talk to Jon.” And behind him was Jon Landau, his manager. And Jon came out, he says, “What are you guys talking about?” He said the book, he likes the book. We want to make a movie. And then we exchanged contact, and they said, you know what, he likes the idea. You should do it. And that’s exactly what we did. We wrote a script that we knew Bruce would like —

MANZOOR: Yes, we hoped that Bruce would like.

CHADHA: You’re right. But we were writing it for him. And then where it came back and he said — his manager said, “He’s read it.” And I was like, oh my God, what did he think? And she said he said I’m all good with this. And I said, and? And she said, no, he just said, I’m all good with this. I said, what does that mean for the music and everything? And she said, he said I’m all good with this.

MANZOOR: And that was it.

CHADHA: She go, make your movie. And that’s how it all happened.

MANZOOR: It’s amazing that his –all he needed to say was sounds good and I’m all good with this.

SREENIVASAN: Because he liked it?

CHADHA: Yes. Sometime later I came to New York to show him my director’s card and said I got to show you the movie, Bruce. I will need to have at least some feedback. If you don’t like something, I can change it now. And we sat in a small room, him and his managers. Put the video on. He watched it very intensely and at the end, there was absolute silence. And I was like oh my God–

SREENIVASAN: It is good to go either way?

CHADHA: Either way. And I knew the managers wouldn’t say anything because they wanted to hear what he said. And then I thought, well, I’m going to go to the front, I’m going to put the lights on, I’m going to get my tape and I want to get out of the room so they can all discuss it. That’s what’s going on in my head. And so I stumbled to the front in the darkness. Put the lights on. I was going to get the tape. And I turned around and he walked over to me and he put his arms around me, and he gave me a big kiss and then he said, “Thank you for looking after me so beautifully. Don’t change a thing.” And I was like — I remember that because I was lost in his blue sweater. And then I said, pull yourself together, Gurinda. And then he sat down and for an hour he talked about what he loved about the film. All the moments, all the nuances. He loved that there were lots of ’80s tracks that weren’t him because he loved the fact that they gave the film a great context. He loved that Tiffany was in there. And he turned to Jon and said, “Yes, that Tiffany, you know, she was like riding so high on the charts and I couldn’t even get a song on the charts.” So it was really cool to hear his feelings of ’87, actually, but he really appreciated the way that I brought the songs to life in this current context and in this current climate, because they had been, you know, been given a new meaning, if you like, obviously with Sarfraz and his experiences. Obviously, he loved the cultural side because he loved the book, which is why he gave us permission. But seeing it in reality, I think it was that urgency of seeing his words being transported through a 16-year-old come to life again in a way that was very relevant to today.

SREENIVASAN: Sarfraz Manzoor, Gurinder Chadha, thank you both for joining us.

CHADHA: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: What a great story and tribute to Bruce Springsteen that his words have such an extraordinary impact in an entirely new and different context. Join us again tomorrow night when we will go to the hall of Africa the population of cheetahs is under severe threat. Fueling this drop, demand in the Arabian Peninsula where the animals are kept as pets and feature in the social media post of the uber-rich.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People who have a cheetah as a pet are causing the species to go extinct.

LAURIE MARKER, BIOLOGIST: It’s leading the way towards extinction. Mr. bottle is one of the favorite toys that we found.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: American biologist Laurie Marker and her cheetah conservation fund are raising to save this species from extinction.

MARKER: This is not how a baby cheetah should be living. They need to be living out in the wild.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They set up this safe house in Somaliland for the rescues. It’s bursting at the seams.

MARKER: Seeing them here, it breaks my heart.

About This Episode EXPAND

Scott Jennings and Christiane Amanpour discuss the latest instance of gun violence in the United States between police officers and a gunman in Philadelphia. Journalist Jaafar Abdul Karim explains his efforts to build bridges between the far-right and Germany’s migrant community. Gurinder Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor tell Hari Sreenivasan about their new film “Blinded by the Light.”