Imagine growing up idolising and emulating someone as famous as Bruce Springsteen, from thousands of miles away, only to grow up and get a book deal... to write about idolising Bruce Springsteen. Then, imagine trying to make that book into a movie, assuming it's impossible, only to meet Bruce at an event in London. There, you find out, not only has Bruce read your book, but yes, he does like the idea of this movie and yeah, he's going to let you use all his music in it.
That is the true story of Blinded By The Light, a film based on Sarfraz Manzoor's autobiographical novel, Greetings From Bury Park. In it, Manzoor describes growing up and struggling to find his place in the world, only to become inspired by Springsteen's lyrics to begin writing his own poetry and other works. Now, it's a summer release from Warner Bros. with a nearly perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, and in case you were wondering, yeah, Manzoor is extremely aware of how lucky it is that this all worked out.
"There were those times along the way when it didn't look like it was going to happen," Manzoor, who co-wrote the new film, tells Refinery29 of the development process. Luckily, his co-writer, director, and longtime friend Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), was just tenacious enough to push the project through. "She was the one who had the confidence and the faith to say, Well, I don't care about all the people saying no. We're going to get this film made. We're going to find a way. You can't buy that level of faith."
Now, the film has hit cinemas with a slightly fictionalised version of Manzoor's life, played out by relatively new actor Viveik Kalra. Just don't assume everything you're seeing is exactly what happened to Manzoor.
"I really wanted it to be both fictional but also true at the same time," says Manzoor, adding that once again, Springsteen became his inspiration. "It's not like he's literally lived his songs. If you listen to 'The River' it makes it sound like that's a true story that happened to him and it didn't. And I thought, Well, that's the clue. You can make something which feels emotionally true, even if it isn't literally true."
He says that, in adapting the book and his life for film, Chadha advised him to let loose and let the characters be "active." She also told him his teen years needed a love interest. Enter Eliza (Nell Williams). "Sadly, when I was 16, there wasn’t a love interest," he says with a laugh.
Other changes included some instances between Manzoor and his father, who becomes furious in the film when his son buys Springsteen tickets. In real life, he was actually totally cool with it. "The reason [we added that] is I had loads of issues with my dad, but rather than making them all kind of concentrated, we just crystallised it into a single moment."
The biggest change was that of Manzoor's first name: In the film, he goes by Javed. And technically that's the author's name too. The story goes that Manzoor was born in 1971 in Pakistan, but his father was in England at the time, so his mother and father communicated about his birth by letter.
"The letter took quite a while to get to him, and by the time it got there, he said, Okay, so we're going to call him Sarfraz. But in the time that it had taken the letters to get there and come back, my mum had already named me Javed; that's what my mum calls me now," he says. "So, he is me and he's not me."
This distinction between Manzoor and Javed was helpful for Kalra, who got to use the source material as a jumping off point, and build the character organically from there.
"It's a part that is heavily inspired by Saf's life, but it's not like I could base it on him now because he's a grown man and he has a family and he's doing things differently to what he was back in the day," says Kalra. "But if you meet Sarfraz now, he speaks with the same sort of adoration of Bruce now that I assume he would have spoken with when he was younger."
It also helped that Kalra and Manzoor met shortly after casting was finalised and there was an entire novel of background on this "new" character, Javed. "The book really helped me get into it and [has] shit tons of source material. I don't know if I can say 'shit tons' in America, but tons of source material. A lot," he adds with a chuckle.
Adding to the semi-reality of the film is the setting. Blinded By The Light filmed in Manzoor's actual hometown of Luton, England. The production spared no detail, even using the actual papers and poems Manzoor wrote to decorate Javed's room and purchasing the exact car Manzoor drove as a teen. The production also used places Manzoor actually frequented — including a Luton café called Greenfields that still uses the same laminated menus from the '80s. It was great for authenticity, but this huge film crew filming everything from quiet diner conversation to high-energy musical numbers set to "Born To Run" in this tiny town truly shocked most of the locals.
"In between takes this guy came and was like, Oi, are you making a film set in Luton? And we were like, yes, and he went [sarcastically], That's going to be successful. And just walked away having just totally mocked where he was from," laughs Kalra. "There’s something so lovely and British about that."
"I think it is going to put Luton on the map in a nice, positive way, which is exactly what Bruce did, but in New Jersey," spins Manzoor.
And perhaps Manzoor is right, but who knows if the masses will actually be flocking to Luton to marvel at the Greenfields menus. What is certain is that the film is already off to a great start, having famously earned a five-minute standing ovation at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. But for Kalra, there's only one thing, at the end of the day, that truly matters.
"I don't know Bruce personally, I've never met the man. But there is no way in hell that Bruce would have sat down and thought, you know, there's probably a young Pakistani boy living in Luton who's had this epiphany moment around the ‘80s and he loves my music and my music has inspired him in his life."
Now, he certainly does.