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'For me, this film is more visceral in terms of racism than my other work'

Blinded by the Light, inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen, tells the tale of a British teen of Pakistani descent growing up in 1987 England. Georgia Humphreys chats to filmmaker Gurinder Chadha to find out more about bringing the story to life

Teenage journey: Viveik Kalra as Javed
Teenage journey: Viveik Kalra as Javed
Gurinder Chadha

By Georgia Humphreys

Brexit is the reason Gurinder Chadha decided to make her latest film, Blinded by the Light. The writer, director and mum-of-two previously had reservations about the project - a coming-of-age story about Javed, a 16-year-old British-Pakistani boy growing up during the austere days of Thatcher's Britain - for fears it was too similar to her 2002 hit Bend it Like Beckham.

But following Britain's decision to leave the EU in June 2017, the 59-year-old was "absolutely shocked by the xenophobia that was unleashed".

"I got really sad about incidents where people felt they could get on buses and abuse elderly black women who'd worked in the NHS for years," says the energetic, talkative film-maker, who was born in Kenya to Indian parents, but grew up in London.

"For me, this was such a breakdown of society and it was happening here in London. It really upset me.

"I was like, 'Okay, what can I do? Where's my voice in all this?' So, I pulled out the script and then started doing a rewrite and that's when I put all my frustration about what I was seeing around me into this script, which, although it's set in 1987, has a lot of resonance with today."

Blinded by the Light is inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen and based on Sarfraz Manzoor's memoir Greetings From Bury Park: Race. Religion. Rock 'n' Roll, which tells how the music of The Boss changed his life.

In the book Manzoor, who was two years old when his family emigrated from Pakistan to join his father in Bury Park, Luton, also discusses the battle he faced as a teenager to reconcile being both British and Muslim.

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One way in which Chadha hopes Blinded by the Light has an impact on audiences is by showing the brutal reality of racial tensions at the time (one particularly poignant scene sees a National Front march near Javed's home).

"I wanted us to remind ourselves of what it was like to see those marches down the street, with people with so much hate in their faces, and the ugliness of that, you know?" says Chadha, who's married to American screenwriter and director Paul Mayeda Berges.

"We've moved on enormously as a society, definitely, but I did want to remind people that those were very dark times for our country and what those people stand for is a bygone time.

"By making this film, I think it shows young people what we went through and hopefully will educate - as well as entertain - people to take a stand."

Not only was Chadha aware of the duty she had in telling Manzoor's story truthfully but also dramatically, and there was the question of how to incorporate Springsteen's music into the film too.

Even though she remains as bubbly as ever while talking about it, it's clear she felt pressure.

"Once Bruce Springsteen gave us permission to use his music, I was suddenly like, 'Oh my God, now I've got to live up to that music'," she says.

"This is music I've grown up with, songs I knew inside out, and then suddenly I'm like, 'Oh my God, what is Bruce going to think?'

"So, I had all this anxiety, actually, about Bruce watching the film and me messing about with his songs."

Chadha was sure of one thing, though: she "never wanted to make a jukebox musical".

"I never wanted to just have songs playing in the background," she explains.

"This is a film about words and writing, so I had to take the words that mattered and make them part of the journey of Javed and find a cinematic way of telling that story.

"I made the words cinematic, I hope, and there's a sequence that I spent ages on, when he first hears Bruce, because I knew the film was going to fall or stand by that sequence."

Chadha's CV is mightily impressive. Having started her career with BBC Radio as a news reporter, she went on to direct a number of award-winning documentaries, before setting up her own production company, Bend It Films, in 2001.

Other examples of her writing include teen comedy Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, drama Viceroy's House - about the transition of British India to independence - and, most recently, ITV drama Beecham House, which followed a former soldier of the East India Company arriving in Delhi in 1800.

How emotional was the process of making Blinded By The Light compared to her previous projects?

"This film, for me, is more visceral in terms of racism than my other work," she says carefully but with passion.

"Shooting scenes like the National Front scene was tough. When we shot the first take, it was really harrowing.

"It looked so real and everyone was silent at the end of it. I've got the gift of the gab and even I was like, 'Oh my God, are we doing the right thing? This is too real'.

"But we carried on and after two or three takes what happened was amazing. Basically, all the actors playing National Front people stopped and said, 'We can't do this and we don't want to do this. We feel horrible doing this'.

"I had to go and give them a big pep talk and tell them how important it was and how it was critical for the film, then they came back so we could do more scenes.

"I was the one who started doing the shouting, saying, 'Come on guys - 'if they're black, send 'em back',' and I was asking other people, 'What did the National Front used to say?' because it was hard for people to do that.

"In many ways that was a heart-warming moment because it showed how much progression there's been. But at the same time, it was very human that everyone was having that response."

Blinded by the Light is in cinemas now

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