This is my interview with the writer of the book, ‘Greetings from Bury Park,’ Sarfraz Manzoor. He also helped write the script for new film ‘Blinded by the Light.’ Both the book and the film were based on teenage years. Though our encounter was brief, it was easy to see that he’s a considerate, deeply thoughtful and introspective man. I hope this film proves to be a success and I hope you like my interview with him.
TMC: I loved the movie and I finally understand Bruce Springsteen and why everyone loves him so much. What I liked in particular was that it’s his art being used as a common thread binding everyone together.
MANZOOR: You didn’t understand him before?
TMC: Not as much as I do now.
MANZOOR: If you take Springsteen’s jeans off, metaphorically, and take the guitars away, what is he talking about? He’s talking about growing up in a town that you hate. This is my interview with the writer of the book, ‘Greetings from Bury Park,’ Sarfraz Manzoor. He also helped write the script for ‘Blinded by the Light,’ which is based on the book about his teenage years. Though our encounter was brief, it was easy to see that he’s a considerate, deeply thoughtful and introspective man. I hope this film proves to be a success.
TMC: I loved the movie and I finally understand Bruce Springsteen and why everyone loves him so much. What I liked, in particular, was that it’s his art being used as a common thread binding everyone together.
MANZOOR: You didn’t understand him before?
TMC: Not as much as I do now.
MANZOOR: If you take Springsteen’s jeans off, metaphorically, and take the guitars away, what is he talking about? He’s talking about growing up in a town that you hate. He’s talking about not getting on with your dad. He’s talking about friendship. He’s talking about working in a factory. I grew up in a place I wished to get out of. My dad worked in a factory. I had friendship and I had dreams. The whole point of the film is that words and music and art are more respected than religion or race. I could be touched by Springsteen, thousands of miles away and people here could be touched by YouTube, thousands of miles away and that’s the joy of empathetic storytelling.
TMC: How was it meeting Bruce Springsteen for the first time? Did you lose your cool at all?
MANZOOR: You know what? I didn’t really lose it. I’ve met a lot of people through my work, who I admire, and Bruce Springsteen is, essentially, a regular guy. He’s a regular guy who happens to be extraordinarily talented. If I had met Dylan, it might be different because Dylan has this aura of not being that friendly, do you know what I mean? But Bruce… he’s a regular guy. You can sit and have a drink with him, not that I have, but you can imagine doing that. First time I met him; I had a conversation with him. He’s very down to earth, every generous-minded and about as lacking in ego as you can imagine a Rock God being.
TMC: With what’s going on in the world politically, do you think people will see your film and realize we have to fix this trend of disconnect?
MANZOOR: Good questions. So, I wrote the book, ‘Greetings from Bury Park,’ which inspired the film, yeah?
MANZOOR: While I was thinking about writing the book, I was thinking about my mom. My mom now is in her mid-eighties but when I wrote the book, she was sort of in her early seventies. So, imagine you walking down the street and you see this old Pakistani woman wearing traditional clothes, who can’t speak English, walking around. You might want to talk to her but she’s of another culture, you don’t know anything about her, certainly don’t have anything in common with her. But imagine you found out that she works as a seamstress making clothes until midnight and that she has three or four children she sees after that; and that she had to sacrifice a lot of her dreams to make sure that she can make everything else happen. Imagine if you realize the reason, she couldn’t speak English was because she was so busy looking after four kids all day and then had to look after her husband who works double shifts at the car factory that there was no time for English lessons. So, suddenly, she’s not just some random Pakistani woman, she becomes a mother and a wife and somebody who’s a human being. And it becomes slightly harder to just think of her as the other.
So, in my book, I wanted to try and do that. I wanted you… I wanted to take your hand and show you my mom’s and my dad’s life, really intimately so they weren’t just figures of, you know, a stereotype. They were real people. That’s what we tried to do in this film, you know? You see my dad. You see my mom… or people playing them. You see their struggles. And by seeing that, hopefully, you realize they’re not that different from people in working-class cities across Britain and America who are struggling. Suddenly you start thinking about the linkages between people. And the hope is, and I think it’s working, is that after a while, you start to forget that those people are Pakistani. If you can start seeing these people as human beings, they get closer to empathy and we get closer to healing some of the divisions that exist in my country and in yours.
TMC: There are two moments in the film that stood out to me. The trip to New Jersey and the final speech. Were these what really happened or developed later for your book and script?
MANZOOR: The New Jersey trip really happened. It wasn’t developed in any way. The speech was entirely fictional. Didn’t have a competition. I went to America to sell books door to door; Encyclopedia’s door to door. I went to Northern California and traveled across America on a Grey Hound bus, which was an amazing time. So, I did go to America, but it wasn’t that way. The origins of the speech… there are two things. One, write what you feel. Just say it and we’ll put it in Javed’s mouth. Write all of this as though you’re doing a poem. Say what you want to say to the world, and we’ll stick it in Javed’s mouth. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that the film ends in 1989. Six years later, when I’m getting to Manchester, I got a phone call saying that my dad had a heart attack and he dropped dead at the age of sixty-two. That was three days before I turned twenty-four. So, I never got to have the relationship with my dad where he got to see anything I ever did with my life and I was still stuck as the son who didn’t give a damn about my dad. I never asked him any questions about what he was like as a human being, cuz I was too young to. So, the speech was the adult me saying all the things to my dad that I never go to say in real life. It’s the wisdom of me now given to the sixteen-year-old boy.
TMC: Was there anything that went into the film that you didn’t agree with? Did you have any problems?
MANZOOR: Everything was. When I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch any TV, Film or program where there was any kissing because my parents would start getting a bit, like… intimacy was not allowed. So, I would have to turn the channel as soon as anyone started kissing. The fact that he (Javed) kisses the girl makes me a little bit nervous about watching it with my family. So, I haven’t seen it yet. I’m literally nervous about sitting with my mom to watch it because the idea of a boy playing me kissing this girl makes me cringe. I’d rather she cut before they start kissing.
TMC: You need a special edit to show your family.
MANZOOR: I really need a family edit. In the family edit, there’d be no girl at all. I’m not sure if I should say this but twelve years have gone by since I wrote it and I think I’m a better writer now. When I wrote it, I interviewed my mom and I interviewed my family, to try to get all the stuff in. I forgot a lot of it! I forgot a lot of the details. I didn’t remember all of it myself. I was so pleased to have written the story down; not only for anybody else but for myself and also for my children. I thought I am so pleased that I wrote this down when it felt fresher to my mom. My mom is like, eighty-six now, she’s losing her memory but I’m so glad I wrote all this stuff down. It genuinely felt like a new read to me cut I had forgotten quite a lot of it myself. That was quite interesting. And the final thing was that there were bits that were quite emotional to read again. So, there’s a moment actually, where I broke down while I was reading it. The reason was is because there was a bit about my dad… after my dad died, I had to go back down to Luton where I lived, where my family lived. After my dad died, there was this sort of temptation to give up everything I was trying to do in Manchester. Batten the hatches, circle the wagons get back home and live a normal (unintelligible). Just see it. You know, it’s a massively dramatic thing. But! There was still a bit of me that wanted to follow the dream of being a writer. My brother said to me, ‘You know what? You go ahead. Go up to Manchester, I’ll take care of everything down here. I’ll take care of everything down here and give you a chance to follow your dreams.’
TMC: Was there a genre, or phase, of Springsteen music you didn’t appreciate as much as others?
MANZOOR: In early 1993, he ditched his E Street Band and he came out with a bunch of other people to play with. I know why he did it because he got bored being with the same group for a long time. He wanted to see what was out there. But looking back, that wasn’t a wise decision and that’s why he went back to the E Street Band. So those years. I think it’s an example of what he creatively had to do to see what else was out there, but it wasn’t actually, musically, the right thing for him and eventually, he went back to his base. So that era was a bit of an error in some ways.
It’s 1987 in Luton, a factory town north of London besieged by racial and economic turmoil, where Pakistani British teenager Javed finds himself yearning to follow his creative passions as the means to escape from both his rundown hometown and the rules of his very traditional father. As he unexpectedly discovers the music of American rock legend Bruce Springsteen and his lyrics about working class life, Javed finds not only a cathartic parallel to his own life in Luton but the inspiration and courage to stand up and challenge familial and cultural expectations, discovering his own voice and navigating his dreams to become a writer and transform his life
Paul Mayeda Berges , Gurinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor
Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra and Aaron Phagura
August 16, 2019