The director of ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ returns with this coming-of-age story set in 1987, during the austere days of Thatcher’s Britain. The film follows a British Pakistani teenager who learns to live life, understand his family and find his own voice through the words and music of Bruce Springsteen.
I believe you were a fan of Bruce Springsteen long before you made this film?
I’ve been a fan of Bruce since my school days. I saw him live in 1984 and that was it. He was amazing and I was hooked. I have seen him many times. That first time in Wembley was so special. I saw him at Glastonbury when he played for four hours, and I have seen his Broadway show a few times which was so moving. So, yeah, I am a big fan of the man, his philosophy on life, and his politics.
You were friends of Sarfraz Manzoor before the idea of the film came about. How did you decide to make a film with him?
Sarfraz and I go way back. I had read the pieces he had written about Bruce and we met at something and we bonded over being the only two Asian fans of Bruce in Britain. One day he told me he was going to write his memoir and I really looked forward to reading it. When he was writing it he was hoping I would like it because he had seen one of my films, Bend it like Beckham and he thought I would be the person to turn his book into a film. He didn’t tell me that at the time. When I read it I thought it was great and really could see it as a film, but we couldn’t do anything without Bruce’s permission. In 2010 a miracle happened. I got invited to the premiere of Bruce’s theatre show, The Promise, and I brought Sarfraz as my plus one. We didn’t have a plan, but we thought somehow, we would find a way to take to him. We were standing near the red carpet hoping he might come close and then the miracle happened. He saw Sarfraz and stopped and said “Man, I read your book. It’s really beautiful.” Sarfraz was practically hyperventilating so I jumped in and told him we wanted to make the film. He just looked at us and said: “sounds good, talk to John.” John is one of his managers and he was there as well so we stayed in touch and got the go-ahead to make the film.
It is inspired by Sarfraz’s story, now it’s the character Javed’s story, but did you relate to it?
Totally, the parents in the film became my parents as well. It’s very much a story of being a second-generation British Asian, which is what we both are. What I like about this film is that it is about a boy and his relationship with his father which is different from other stories I have told. It is a masculine story told through the female gaze which is what makes it so emotional. Lots of men have come out of the film crying which is really nice to see and for them to experience.
Javed is played by newcomer Viveik Kalra, he is perfect in the role. Where did you find him?
I really liked his audition, he had something about him that was inward and deep. He seemed like the type of kid who would write poetry which is what Javed does. He was still in drama school and started off really green, but by the end, he had really blossomed. We had a wonderful time working together. I really enjoyed taking that journey with him.
You have a long history with newcomers – Keira Knightley, Parminder Nagra to name just a few. Do you enjoy helping to mould young actors?
It is important for me to work with actors who will listen to me and take my notes onboard. If they are experienced and arrogant it would never work. I like to work with people. As it happens some of my films suited young actors like Keira, Parminder and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. It is exciting being part of the start of someone’s career. I loved watching what they do next and seeing the type of actors they become.
I would imagine Viveik is going to have a big career ahead of him now. He is in your latest tv show Beecham House, is that a coincidence?
I think he is going to be a huge superstar. I loved working with him and when I told him what I was going to shoot next and said come with me, be a part of it, so he did!
The timing of the film is pertinent with regards to Brexit, and the rise of the far-right which sadly is starting to mirror some of 1980s Britain. Was this in the back of your mind when you were filming?
Very much so. Brexit makes me very sad and it weighs heavily on my thoughts. 1987 was a terrible time in Britain with racism, violence, and despair and we don’t want to go back there which is why this story is so relevant now.
Culturally this is very much a British Asian story, but it is also a coming of age story which is a universal theme.
Exactly, anything to with family and kids is universal. If a kid has a dream which is different from your parents than you are f***ed. Every family has that. Every family has an expectation for their children and then the children might want to do something different, but they don’t want to completely shit on their parents. It’s all careful negotiations. We all have something we wish was different in our families and that is universal.
I read that you had to push Sarfraz a little when it came to writing the script because he has gentled some of the plot with regards to his parents.
He was protecting them; he didn’t want them to be the villains. I completely understand that. I did the same with Bend it like Beckham. I said to him that the story was inspired by him, but that this is a film and I asked him to let me take it and make changes and let it be a film. So, there are differences, but it is still his story in essence. It’s about a boy who feels trapped and finds his voice through Bruce.
Without saying too much there is a fantasy element in one scene. Why did you decide to play that scene in that way?
Ah, the Epiphany as I call it. I knew I needed something truly cinematic and without it, I don’t think the film would have worked so well. We all have that one song that defines us or changes us. Something we play on repeat. Javid needed his song. He needed a great moment to find it. Fantasy allowed me to do it as cinematically as possible.
What does it feel like to have this small budget film go on such a big journey?
It is a dream come true. I wish every independent filmmaker could have this happen at least once in their career. We all work so hard to get our stories out there. We fight all the time for money, for distribution and to get to experience the bidding war for my film was incredible. It made me feel that my work is relevant. That the film is relevant and that it is touching people. I want my films to make the world a better place. This response lets me know that it is. It is a credit to Sarfraz for telling his story. It is a credit to Viveik’s performance. It’s a credit to Bruce’s music and it’s a credit to me for bringing it all together.
Has Bruce Springsteen seen it?
He read the script and approved it and then he saw my director’s cut. We sat in a dark room with his managers. He laughed a lot during it and when it was over, he gave me a big hug and said: “thank you for looking after me so well.” We talked for an hour and he told me not to change a thing.
Words – CARA O’DOHERTY
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT is at Irish cinemas from August 9th