Sarfraz Manzoor was 16 when he first heard The Boss, back in 1987.
Struggling to make sense of life as a teenage boy from a working-class British Pakistani family, growing up in Luton during the austere days of Thatcher and the racial and economic turbulence of those times, Bruce Springsteen’s music changed everything.
Finally, he had an inspiration. This American superstar singing about dead-end towns and not giving up on your dreams might have been worlds away from Bedfordshire, but he seemed to be soundtracking his entire life.
The young Manzoor, who had never dared to dream of a life less ordinary, suddenly felt like anything was possible. Springsteen had given him a voice.
Now, more than 30 years later, he is getting ready to see his story play out on the big screen. Based on his 2007 book Greetings From Bury Park, Blinded By The Light tells how Manzoor, now a journalist, became inspired to become a writer.
The film, which comes fully Springsteen-approved, is directed by Bend It Like Beckham’s Gurinder Chadha and stars the up-and-coming Viveik Kalra as Javed, the character based on Manzoor.
Speaking to Sky News ahead of the film’s release, Manzoor says it is like having an “out of body experience” seeing his formative years played out on screen.
“It’s quite a big deal. A bit surreal. You know, it’s not something that you can really get your head round.
“I can’t believe that people who don’t know me now know about my dad and about my mum and know a little bit about the way I grew up. It’s also kind of amazing because a whole load of people are now listening to Springsteen as a result of watching the film, in a way that they might not have otherwise.
“Even on the way here, to see billboards and posters in the tube… it’s a complete out of body experience.”
Introduced to Springsteen’s music through his double-denim wearing friend Amolak, Roops in the film, Manzoor was given a “direct line to all that is true in the world”. The pair went on to see The Boss in concert at shows all over the world.
He has now seen the film for himself, telling Chadha he loved it. It is no surprise; the film is basically a love-letter to his music.
“What’s weird is for somebody whose work I know intimately and I know really well – he’s obviously shaped me and I’ve been a fan of his for 32 years – the fact that he’s aware of my story and has actually invested time in knowing about it and has seen the film,” says Manzoor.
“Gurinder flew out to show it to him and he loves it. It just feels weird because for so long to be a fan and now to be somebody who’s… he knows my work as much as I know his work.
“It’s not something you can really get your head round, it’s quite hard to put into words. But I guess it feels validating… it sort of shows to me that all that effort and all that time and all those years spent travelling and seeing him, you know, it wasn’t pointless, it did lead to something.”
Chadha says of her meeting with Springsteen: “We sat in a little room with him and a few managers. I sat kind of behind him so I could see the side of his face.
“He just watched the film really intently and then [there were] laughs here and there… then at the end there was no clapping, there was absolute silence.
“I was like, okay, well this hasn’t gone exactly how I wanted. But as I put the lights on he got up and he walked over to me and he gave me a big kiss, and then he put his arms around me and he said, ‘Wow, thank you for looking after me so beautifully. I really love it. Don’t change a thing’. And I went…” she pretends to melt. “Oh my God. Yeah, he had his arms around me.
“He said, ‘the kid’s great’, meaning the lead actor, Viveik. He said he really liked the politics. He really liked the juxtaposition of his songs with some of the comments I was making. And he really loved Born To Run. That was his favourite bit, he said.
“So it was great having the endorsement, especially the risk that he took in handing me over his entire life’s work. You know, that was a big thing for him. So I was immensely grateful that he had that reaction.”
Blinded By The Light pays tribute not only to Manzoor’s relationship with Springsteen, but also with his father, who died in 1995. While most of the other British Pakistani adults he knew worked in factories or drove taxis, his father wanted more for his children, with hopes of jobs in medicine or finance.
The film details the vile racism that was rife at the time, with National Front protests, racist graffiti daubed on walls and children urinating through Asian families’ letterboxes.
But Manzoor says it was the subtleties that were the “most depressing aspect of those times”.
“We had the National Front and people being abusive and things like that, but I think the more dangerous sort of racism is the more subtle stuff that tells you that you can’t dream the same dreams as everybody else.
“When I was growing up, I couldn’t even imagine really being a writer because there was literally nobody I could look up to to do that.
“For me, it isn’t somebody calling you a name on the street, it’s this idea that you can’t have the same aspirations as somebody else, not because of a lack of talent but because of a lack of opportunity, because other people are judging you on things you can’t control. That’s the saddest and that’s the most depressing thing I think.
“I sometimes read my own teenage diaries back, partly as a result of working on this film, and I just really feel so teary when I read them because it’s a little boy who just desperately wants more out of his life and just does not feel it’s going to happen.”
Both Manzoor and Chadha, who have worked on the project for several years, say 2019 feels like the right time for its release.
“I was worried about Blinded By The Light because I knew there were moments that were similar to Bend It Like Beckham so I was a bit reticent,” Chadha tells Sky News. “But then Brexit happened and I was really shocked by all the xenophobia that exploded and all the hatred.
“I felt there was a bit of a breakdown in society, because some of this was happening here in London, my hometown, and I thought I’ve got to do something about this. I channelled all that into my draft of Blinded By The Light. I was like, I’ve got to do something that shows people a better way.”
“The weird thing is that now feels like the exact right time for it to be out because we’re in very divided political times,” says Manzoor. “We’ve got people going on about how if you come from a different community you don’t really fully belong.
“So a film which is about hope and is about the way that we’re linked together and about how we all want the same things, feels like it’s of the moment, even though it’s set in 1987.”
Chadha says the themes of the film will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong, or can’t achieve their dreams.
“What people are warming to I think is the fact that here is a vision of America, Bruce Springsteen’s vision of America, but through the eyes of a 16-year-old Pakistani kid from Luton, and that conflict somehow is what’s terribly moving.
“I think the idea of a kid who so wants to follow a particular dream but his father is dead set against it is also very universal. If you strip away Bruce, strip away race, strip away everything, just that pure story of father-son you know, trying to find a way to meet when they’re both at opposite ends.
“I think that’s a very moving story for me and particularly because Bruce had that with his father. His father never sat him down and said, ‘I’m proud of you, son’. And it damaged him. That’s why his songs are so melancholy in many ways, because he never got that affirmation. The film picks up on that.”
While his father never got to see his son’s work published, Manzoor says he hopes he would be proud of everything he has achieved, and that the family’s story is being told.
“With my dad, it’s a hard thing, he died when I was 23,” he says. “But what I do feel is people now know his story and know what he went through. And this is somebody who lived and died in complete anonymity… so the fact that the world now knows who he is and what he did. I think that would please him.”
- Blinded By The Light is out in cinemas on 9 August