English director Gurinder Chadha flips through the menu of a D.C. Indian restaurant while deciding what to order for lunch on this early August afternoon. Is she craving chaat? Chicken tikka? Lobster malai?
“Jesus Christ,” she says of the last. “Or gobi matar? I love a good gobi matar.”
It’s somewhat amusing to hear, given how many scenes in Chadha’s most successful film to date, “Bend It Like Beckham,” involve the protagonist Jess’s Punjabi mother chastising the teenager for not knowing how to make aloo gobi, a similar cauliflower dish. Jess just wants to play soccer, at one point venting to her best friend, “Anyone can make aloo gobi, but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”
That was Chadha’s own story, she says, one of dodging “that box, that sweet little Indian woman who’s going to grow up, get married and cook Indian food the rest of her life.” She acknowledges the flaws in that youthful perspective, of course. Her films showcase a knack for telling coming-of-age stories with honesty and empathy, all while centering characters who might appear on the margins elsewhere.
Her latest, “Blinded by the Light,” pulls from a memoir written by a friend, English journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who was raised by Pakistani immigrants in Luton, a working-class town north of London. The film’s protagonist, Javed (Viveik Kalra), struggles to reconcile his dual cultural identities amid racism and economic struggle in the Thatcher era. But after his Sikh classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) introduces him to Bruce Springsteen’s music — “Bruce is a direct line to all that is true in this [crappy] world,” Roops says — Javed realizes that the singer’s outlook on life could help him shape his own.
Chadha herself became a fan of Springsteen while working her Saturday job in the record department of Harrods, where “this English guy with long hair and a beard” approached her to recommend she listen to “Born to Run.” She latched on to the sound immediately, mesmerized by how Clarence Clemons’s “spiritual and all-encompassing” saxophone paired with Springsteen’s “gravelly lyrics.” A live performance at Wembley Stadium in 1985 cemented her fandom. So when she happened upon a newspaper article Manzoor had written about Springsteen, she knew she had to get in touch.
“I said, ‘You and me, we’re the only Asians in Britain who like Springsteen,’ ” she exclaims.
They stayed in touch long enough for Manzoor to feel comfortable handing Chadha a rough copy of his 2007 memoir, “Greetings from Bury Park,” to see whether she would want to adapt it into a film. The title, a tweaked version of Springsteen’s debut album, swaps out Asbury Park for the Luton neighborhood with a large Muslim population, Manzoor’s family among them.
In the film’s Bury Park, Javed experiences malicious othering via racist slurs and graffiti left around his neighborhood. Chadha says she has often shied away from depicting the “visceral racism” that she, Manzoor and other people of color faced in the 1980s because she doesn’t want negativity to define their stories. But she felt compelled to incorporate the trauma into this project after witnessing what unfolded after the Brexit referendum in 2016.
“All of a sudden, there were these xenophobes that sort of came out of nowhere,” she recalls, arms outspread. “That’s when I picked up the script and I did a couple passes with all my anger and frustration about what I was seeing around me, with Brexit. And that’s why the film, even though it’s set in 1987, feels so relevant to today.”
When placing such a story within an immigrant family where the parents and children don’t always see eye to eye on how to respond, Chadha says, “suddenly, you’ve got this tremendous drama and conflict to mine.” Javed finds a sanctuary in poetry and essay writing, for instance, but clashes with his father (Kulvinder Ghir), who loses his job at a factory and demands that his son pursue a more stable career. Javed understands this reasoning but, at the same time, laments the unfairness of it all. Springsteen validates his frustration.
To avoid turning “Blinded by the Light” into a traditional jukebox musical, Chadha knew she had to find a cinematic way to weave in the music. The script — for which she, Manzoor and her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, are credited — lists Springsteen as a character’s name, his lyrics as dialogue. The singer, who had read Manzoor’s memoir and was at least familiar with “Bend It Like Beckham,” Chadha says, had given the team “carte blanche to use anything” from his discography. She didn’t want to exploit that kindness.
On the day she shot a fight between Javed and his father, Chadha decided she would substitute the actors’ audio with “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” a 1978 song about a sort of internalized dissatisfaction persisting throughout American culture. As the camera zooms in on Javed’s face, his father a few steps behind him, we hear what he hears — not his father lecturing him, but Springsteen’s words: “Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny, something that they just can’t face.”
“I couldn’t risk the audience not feeling what I want them to feel — the connection between a Pakistani kid in Luton and Bruce, in the context that he wrote those words in the ’70s and early ’80s, and how this kid is taking those words for meaning in his life,” Chadha says. “Words were critical, and I had to make sure … I didn’t just leave the song playing in the background.”
Springsteen’s lyrics are about unsung heroes who yearn for something better than what they’ve been dealt, a form of conflict Chadha approaches with a level of optimism that almost feels bold in this oft-cynical era of entertainment. She works to find common ground, most prominently between Javed, who pursues his writing career behind his parents’ back, and his father, who eventually comes around.
“Somehow, through the words and music of Bruce Springsteen, his philosophies and the idea of the story — this Pakistani kid discovering what life’s about — become this collective hug for us right now,” she says, a smile on her face. “Yeah, times are hard, and the struggle is always going to be there. But if we stand together, and if we empathize with each other … that’s the way forward.”
At a time when there seems to be a collective depression going on, she continues, “I hope the movie does sort of feel like a Bruce song, by the end.”
“Blinded by the Light” is now playing in theaters nationwide.