Director Gurinder Chada doesn’t mind being likened to the proverbial hamster in a wheel. It sums up her year. One that started with a standing ovation for Blinded By The Light at Sundance, and followed by the arrival of her series Beecham House on British TV. Now she’s taking a break from her movie’s promotional tour of America – by promoting it in the UK. Her adaptation of Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoirs of an aspiring teenage writer inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen has been gathering a head of steam for weeks and has already been described as this year’s feel good film.
It’s a description she’s clearly happy with, but she’s equally quick to point out that there’s another side the movie, one with a gritty tone that’s also true to the 1980s setting. “Sarfraz and I were both raised in the 80s and it was important to me that those scenes were very visceral – the National Front demonstration, the skinhead spitting, the kids peeing through the letterbox. They’re all based on truth, that all happened,” she reflects. “I wanted to create a warm, emotional setting and then throw these things in because that was our reality in our community. We are not defined by racism and the hate that others might have for us. They’re there, they’re part of our lives, but our lives are also about fun and joy and happiness and love. I think a lot of people from my cultural background often think I should just do the hard, gritty stuff, but I don’t want to do that, because that’s not us.”
Racism isn’t the only issue that raises its head in the film. The effects of rocketing unemployment, the miners’ strike and general social division are all part of the context, giving the film a contemporary relevance. It’s something that Chada was driven to include after the result of the 2016 referendum. “We’d been working on Blinded By The Light, and I was worried about the similar overtones to Bend It Like Beckham, but then the vote happened and it felt like, overnight, xenophobia took over – it was a horrific moment for me. People felt it was OK to get on a bus and start shouting abuse at elderly black women who’d worked in the NHS for 40 years. I thought this was a breakdown in civil society and thought what can I do about it? How can I say something as a film maker? And that’s when I thought I’m going to pick up the script and all my anger and frustration about the breakdown in society as I saw it and the politics of division that were being peddled were channelled into it. Even though the story is set in 1987, I was saying in my head that this is a warning. Don’t let it get like this again.”
But that serious side is balanced with the joy and happiness that Chada is so determined to portray and, in particular, Blinded By The Light is a celebration of the music of The Boss. Both she and Sarfraz Manzoor are devoted Springsteen fans and, in what she describes as a “miracle” moment, got his approval for the film on a London red carpet several years ago. His agreement was crucial for the director and, while she stayed in touch with his management throughout the making of the movie, the acid test came when he saw the finished version for himself. “Bruce didn’t ask to see the film, but I needed to show it to him,” she says. “All the decisions I made in the film were based on ‘will Bruce like this?’” I ended up going to New York, sat in a little room with him and he watched the film very, very intensely and smiled in a few places, but at the end there was total silence. So I went down to turn the lights on and was going to scurry out and then he walked up to me, gave me a big kiss, put his arms round me and said “Thank you for looking after me so brilliantly.” And we sat there for an hour and talked about all the things that he really liked. He said “the kid’s great” meaning Viveik (Kalra, who plays Javed, the teenager at the centre of the film), he loved all the Bruce jokes where I’m taking the micky out of him a little bit. And I asked him which was his favourite bit and he said he really liked the way I did Born To Run.”
He also liked the politics of the film and it’s the Springsteen factor that’s helped the film find its way into American hearts, whether or not they’ve heard of Luton. That standing ovation at Sundance was just the start. Chadha says the response has been “amazing.” “People are just loving it in America because it’s an antidote to some of what’s happening there right now. It’s a different version of America that we’re portraying, it’s Bruce’s America and what Bruce stands for, as seen through the eyes of Javed. I think audiences there are really responding to that – the ones I’ve seen it with certainly have.”
His music, however, is never much more than a heartbeat away in the film – or for Chadha herself. The fan in her loves the fact that Springsteen’s latest album is number one in 14 countries just as her film is being released. “I love that album so much I’ve been listening to it on a loop and when I was in Dallas I bought myself a cowboy hat. Now I’m wondering if that was a wise fashion choice! It’s my Bruce Hat. I’ll wear it with pride in New Jersey.”
Gurinder Chadha was talking to Freda Cooper.
Blinded By The Light is released in cinemas on Friday, 9 August.
Read our review of the film here.