My interview with director Gurinder Chadha and actor Aaron Phagura of ‘Blinded by the Light’ started as they typically do but ended much differently. I came to know Gurinder in an intimate way that I wasn’t expecting. She’s one of the most caring, thoughtful, warm and compassionate people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. I’ll remember her fondly in the way she showed me what an incredible person she is, and I’ll be forever touched. To find out what I’m talking about, read on and find out what happens in the middle of this interview. My one regret is that I felt so terrible physically that at the end of the interview, I just shook her hand and left rather than give her the hug of gratitude that I wanted to… and get a picture with this woman whom I’ll always feel enormous respect toward and bit of a connection to.
TMC: How did you get involved in this project?
PHAGURA: Firstly, I was interviewing for the role of Javed. [Unintelligible] called my agent and said, “I really think she wants you for film. She wants to meet you. The whole reason is because there was me Viveik (Kalra) and another guy who was in the run for the role. So, I went into the meeting, I had two normal scenes of dialogue. I had done the first two scenes and then Gurinder (Chadha) pulls out her speakers and she’s all like, ‘Okay. Let’s just go straight into it.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, cool. We’re really doing this.’
CHADHA: (Laughs) I said, ‘Now what are you gonna do when this song comes up? What would your character do?’
PHAGURA: I just went for it. I just acted like no one else was in the room and I– at first I was very self-conscious about what I was doing and [unintelligible] by the first three or four lines and I was like, ‘Do you know what? I’m not getting in the room with her every day. Let me just pretend that I’m in a room alone.’ And it worked. And I think that’s how
I got in the running for the role. I think with the way I was portraying the character; she saw a lot more confidence and she saw me as more of an extroverted person… and saw me fit in the role of Roops.
CHADHA: I felt that with him if anyone had said to him, ‘I’m sorry… you can’t be a writer, you can’t do what you want.’ He would have taken them up against the wall, like this. (She gestures) Whereas with Viveik, he had a kind of sensitivity. They both did great auditions, but I felt that Viveik; I felt like he wrote poetry. (She laughs) This guy was more of the Bruce man.
PHAGURA: He was much more believable, Viveik. And that’s one thing I love about this film. I’ve noticed that a lot of the characters have a lot of mutual personality traits. I see a lot of me in Roops and when I met the real guy, I honestly thought this could be me in a few years.
TMC: With the politics of today, and what’s going on in your film, does it make you feel as if a few more of these films need to be made?
CHADHA: I’d say another twenty, right? Interestingly, I’ve been working on this film for quite a while with Sarfraz (Manzoor) and the script needed a lot of work. And then I stopped, and I went off to make another movie called, ‘Viceroy’s House.’ And when I came back, basically, I thought, ‘What movie am I going to do next?’ I was worried about this movie because it did have a similar era to ‘Bend It Like Beckham.’ And I was thinking, ‘Is it too small for me to do next, after ‘Viceroy’s House?’ And then Brexit happened in England. I was like, ‘What the heck is going on here?!’ And suddenly, there were these xenophobes everywhere and people felt like they could get on buses and start shouting at elderly black ladies who had worked in the national health service all their lives, and… it was like a breakdown of society that people felt it was a free-for-all to just go and abuse people racially. And I said, ‘This is terrible and it’s happening in my city and I’ve got to do something about this.’ So, I picked up the script and I said, ‘Okay. I’m going to make this movie.’ And I poured all of my frustration and pain of what I was seeing into my last few drafts of ‘Blinded By The Light.’ I thought this movie’s gotta matter, it’s gotta be relevant and it has to have resonance. Because what we went through in the ‘80s, you know, we don’t want to go back there. And so… so, that’s the reason I went back and made this movie now.
TMC: The Camera just loves you. You have this persona that absolutely shines. You show Javed that light. How did Bruce Springsteen’s music influence your character and how did it influence your direction of this character?
CHADHA: The one thing about Springsteen is that he’s very relevant. That’s one thing I couldn’t wrap my head around at the beginning because what is it about Springsteen’s music that resonates so well with a sixteen-year-old Indian and a Muslim boy from Luton? I think that after listening… it helps after me listening to Springsteen and me becoming a fan to understand what it was about; what’s so deep and resonates with these guys. It’s the fact that he’s so grounded and in touch with humanity.
*I’m epileptic. At this moment and much to my surprise, as well as theirs, I have a seizure. I’m helped to the bathroom by someone to collect myself. In the meantime, Gurinder Chadha very sweetly picks up my recording device. I can hear her asking if I have seizures. I hear her say, ‘Poor thing’ and she gives the reason why she isn’t startled by seeing mine happen. She grew up watching her Epileptic father have them. She then picks up my notes and says the following:
Okay, my dear. So, you’re in the bathroom and I’m going to… I have your notes in front of us so I’m going to do the interview for you, okay? Cuz you’re not feeling too good. It’s very kind of you… you said, ‘Thank you for your inspiring film.’ Thank you for saying that.
She states my questions and then answers them one by one.
I started off as a BBC News Reporter, that’s right, and then directed a documentary, but what made you want to go into directing narrative features?
I just wanted to make sure that I told stories about people who looked like me and people like me who were either absent from the screen or were on the margins of the screen. And for me, I wanted to see people out there so that I could, sort of, deal with some of the stereotypes that I saw out there and also so that people would have a better understanding of what people like me were like.
I see you’re quite political. (She laughs) Next question is, do you think now that Boris Johnson is Prime Minister, the past has come back with a vengeance? Good question. I think that Boris Johnson is a bit of a Plonker (a fool), personally. You know, he used to be very funny on comedy shows, on news shows, but now I think he’s a bit of a scary character to be very honest with you. I’m a bit worried because he can’t be trusted. I think politics in England are quite interesting right now and I think the liberal democrats are gaining favor with a new leader, a female leader they’ve elected. I think she’s gonna go from strength to strength.
Your film stresses the importance of an artist to be motivated and energized by one great person. Who are your some of your favorites and do you think the artists of today can live up to the art made in the past from such people as John Lennon? I absolutely think that people who live in the past are people we can learn from. One woman who has been very important to me, and who has been very inspirational, is Maya Angelou. When I read, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ it really changed my life to see how someone, who had been through the struggles that she had as a child, and to grow up to be such an elegant, urbane, political activist, it absolutely blew me away. So, we should always look to history to make sense of our presence.
What is your favorite part of being a director? You know, my favorite part has to be when I follow my instincts. When I make a movie, I’ve never been to film school, I learnt on the job, and everything I do is very intuitive and… I go with instinct. I find the humanity in me and I put it into my characters and into my storytelling. And… and some people say that I’m too joyful, I’m too celebratory but I find the world is a very cynical place and I try and capture that cynicism by making films as joyous as I do but I don’t shy away from talking about the problems. And so, one of the favorite things for me is when people come up to me for selfies, or whatever, and say, ‘Oh my God! That film meant so much to me and I believe them, you know? And I know that I’ve touched a lot of people all over the world and that’s what matters. That’s a great feeling for me.
I thought the song ‘Blinded by the Light’ would be focused on more. Why was it used so little? Well, I think that it’s a great title. I like the title and I like ‘B’s’ in my movies. I like my movies to start with a B. Someone told me once it’s a very lucky letter for me. I can’t get away from it. You’re damned if you do. You’re damned if you don’t. So, I go with B’s. But, ‘Blinded by the Light,’ has great meaning for our character when he talks about it in his speech at the end of the movie. You understand sometimes we get blinded; we can’t see the wood for the trees, you know? And, the other thing is that no one knows what the heck those lyrics mean in that song. No one knows. I mean Bruce knows and when we put that song where I have in the movie, suddenly those lyrics make sense! And I don’t even know how or why but it’s like, you know, teenage… I can’t think of the words right now but when you go back and look at that first and second verse, it totally fits Javed’s story at that time. It’s a miracle, to be honest with you.
*Now I’ve returned from the bathroom. The interview briefly continues.
TMC: You had mentioned that there are some similar themes between this one and ‘Bend It Like Beckham,’ you seem to have a lot of stories where the parents aren’t very supportive of the dreams of their children. Seemingly because of their culture or religion or traditions or whatever. There seems to be a lot of that to me.
CHADHA: I think there’s a lot of that because it’s human. It happens in every family, in every culture. Particularly in cultures where parents have come from one place to another, and have struggled and worked hard, they have dreams for their kids. But then the kids have their own dreams, the kids want to do what they want to do, and there’s always a negotiation. So, I feel that… when you add the struggling parents, it’s so emotional and part of it is that when parents have kids, they want their kids to be like them, or they want to protect their kids. That cuts across every culture. And when the kids then go, ‘Hold on a minute. I’m gonna do it like this. That’s what I wanna do!’ It takes a very special parent to say, ‘Yes. You are an individual. Your desires matter. You’re going to make mistakes, maybe, but they’re your mistakes. We’ll be there in the back.’ Sometimes people go, ‘Well who the hell do you think you are?! I know better than you! No! You can’t do that. I don’t care if you do that, I’m not going to be there for you.’ That’s reality. That’s the universal language of family. Bruce went through the same thing. His dad never sat down and said, ‘Well done son. I’m happy for you.’ And that messed him up for so many years. One of the reasons the film is so moving I think for people is because they recognize that. I think it’s just an area I feel very strong about and close to and I love working out those negotiations and trying to find the drama in that. It really appeals to me and I do it over and over again in different ways.
TMC: I got the sense in the story that each relationship was a bridge between two people. There’s a human inner-connectedness between the characters that I think is apparent throughout the story. The next-door neighbor, Mr. Evans, pushed Javed in front of his parents to continue to pursue his writing and ambitions. And his teacher encourages him to continue his poetry. I appreciated that sentimentalism and that emotional connection because I connected with it and think others will, too. The songs bring the audience back to a time in their lives when they first heard Bruce.
CHADHA: I had teachers like that. Sarfraz had teachers like that. People were very instrumental in making us who we were. And I had neighbors like Mr. Evans and if I was going to make a film that showed [unintelligible] in the right way, I had to show the other side, too. There were a lot of good English people, caring English people, and I had neighbors like Mr. Evans who said things like that. So, I just wanted to show the love for that kind of Englishness that had an impact on me. Thank you. That was a great question about bridges because that’s actually what this film is about. It’s about bridges. He says I wanna find a way to build a bridge to my future, but not a wall between my parents. That is what our world is about. Our world is about building bridges towards each other; bridges of empathy and understanding. As opposed to walls that are going to constantly separate us and keep us in our own little boxes.
She finishes by telling me what an interesting interview it was. I’ll have to agree and add that it was the most memorable yet for me!
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