A British-Indian director’s own love of Springsteen fed into a film that the singer gave his blessing to after a chance encounter, writes Esther McCarthy.
WALKING into a bar for our interview, Gurinder Chadha is having, by her own admission, “a fan moment”.
She is thrilled to be in Dublin’s The Long Hall, whipping out her phone to make a social media video of the traditional pub, Bruce Springstreen’s haunt whenever he’s in Ireland.
Not that you could doubt her fan status after seeing Chadha’s latest movie, Blinded by the Light. It’s a joyful love letter to Springsteen and the transformative power of music, peppered with the types of calls for empathy and decency that have made the Bend It Like Beckham director a leading force in British cinema and TV.
Just like the film’s lead character Javed, a teenager of Pakistani descent growing up in 1980s Luton, she can remember exactly when she first heard The Boss’s music.
“I’ve been into Springsteen since I was in school. I used to work in Harrod’s record department There was a guy there who said to me: ‘Do you know Bruce Springsteen’s work? I said: ‘Yeah, but I’m not a rocker’.
He pulled out Born to Run, and what struck me was it was a picture of Bruce, a white guy, and a black guy, Clarence (Clemons). That was a very unusual thing at that time. I’d only ever seen it with KC and the Sunshine Band. That’s what got me interested.”
Her curiosity piqued, she started to play it and quickly became a Bruce convert. “In 1984 I went to see him in Wembley, and it just blew me away. He just spoke about the ordinary man with so much energy and passion and that’s what really appealed to me.
“I grew up in a shop and times were tough in the 1980s as well. My dad used to say: ‘Well, we’re part of the world. You know whatever happens we’re with the world’. In many ways that’s what Springsteen says — life’s a struggle, but you’ve got to just find your way through it and take
pleasure in the good moments.
"Also his ability to capture that sense of alienation and longing and yearning, for a better time, a better place, a better life. It’s beautifully captured in his words. I just think he’s really romantic.”
Adapted from Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir of the same name, the film tells how Springsteen’s music becomes cathartic for a Pakistani British teenager in 1980s England. Javed is struggling both with violent racism and the overwhelming expectations of his traditionalist father.
It feels timely and relevant, and it’s no surprise to learn that Chadha worked on the script in the months after Britain voted for Brexit.
“We had Brexit and a lot of ugly xenophobia around, and so I channelled all my anger and frustration about that — don’t let it happen again.
“I was coming back from Viceroy’s House [her previous period drama], I was deciding what should I do next. That’s when Brexit happened and I was like: ‘This is horrible. I’m going to do this film. And this is why’.
"That’s why the film is so resonant. We’re all together, we stand side by side. Without empathy for each other, we’re not human. And so when you have messages constantly trying to divide you, and division and politics will always use divide and rule, this film says the opposite.”
She had loved Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir of his own teenage experiences of Springsteen, and felt it was ripe for the big screen — but without access to The Boss’s tunes, including ‘Born to Run’ and ‘The Promised Land’, it was clear they could be no film.
Artists of the calibre of Springsteen hold enormous sway over where their music can be used, and even if you do get the green light, rights can be prohibitively costly.
Describing getting his backing as “a real miracle” Chadha recalls how she and Manzoor met The Boss at an industry launch in London.
“We both stood on the red carpet, watching Bruce, with our cameras ready. And as he approached he saw Sarfraz, who’d interviewed him before. He walked over and he said: ‘I read your book. It’s really beautiful.’ I just thought this is it. This is our moment.”
Upon hearing of the film project, Springsteen directed them to his management team and after reading a draft of the script, gave the film his blessing.
Regardless of her love of his music — she’d described Springsteen as “a prophet” on Desert Island Discs some years earlier — the filmmaker knew she had an obligation to make the story work.
“That was the hardest thing for me. I had to forget that Springsteen was who he was. And at the same time Springsteen is a frickin’ god. I had to forget about these songs existing before, to feel that this artist has written these songs for my film and for me.
Chadha has fond memories of Ireland, having hitchhiked all the way from London to Valencia Island as a young woman, via Cork and Kerry, with a friend. She remembers the nation going wild for a GAA match.
“It was between Cork and Kerry I think. It was amazing, crazy! I kept getting picked up by really lovely people. It was this experience of very laid back people but then also very passionate people.”
As a young woman, she had no sense what she wanted to do or that a career in cinema was even a possibility.
“I had no idea I was going to be a filmmaker, it was not even on the cards. When I was at school my careers teacher said to go to secretarial college, that men need good secretaries. And I was like: ‘She doesn’t know me!’” she laughs.
A eureka moment came when she read a piece on women in India’s media and pursued a journalism career.
She moved into TV research and did an item on being British Asian, leading a female executive in Film4 to mentor her, helping her to make her first feature, Bhaji on the Beach. Despite the huge commercial success of Bend it Like Beckham, she still finds getting films made a challenge, although American backing for Blinded by the Light helped.
“Any time you put a person of colour in a film, you’ve immediately got big crosses against you in terms of its commercial viability. That’s why there are so few.
"And that’s why sometimes I go so much the other direction, to make it feel universal. To make the point. I entered the media to tell stories about people like myself, who look like me, and that’s what I’ve done virtually my entire career.”
Blinded by the Light is in cinemas from Friday