A Pakistani teenager’s Rock ’N’ Roll salvation

  • >>Sarah Lyall, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-08-11 10:18:39 BdST

Being a teenager in the unexciting London suburb of Luton in the 1980s was gruesome enough without the added complication of Pakistani parents who functioned as an in-house anti-fun squad. But for Sarfraz Manzoor, salvation came when he was 16, in the prosaic location of his high school common room.

The year was 1987. The sounds of Debbie Gibson, Duran Duran and the Pet Shop Boys wafted from the radio, ear candy to a generation of voluminous-pantsed youths. To Manzoor, these provided little relief from the agony of his particular disaffection. But one day, a classmate lent him a cassette tape of the music of Bruce Springsteen.

“I was like, ‘Isn’t he the guy who makes millions out of pretending to be working class?’ ” Manzoor said recently. His classmate responded: “Bruce Springsteen is the direct line to all that is true and meaningful in the world.”

The first song Manzoor listened to was a live recording of “The River,” with its striking, incantation-like spoken introduction. He had never heard anything like it.

“It wasn’t music about escapism but about confrontation — confronting what it’s like to grow up in a town that has problems, to have issues with your parents,” he said.

Unable to afford to buy the records, he went to the library. “I was borrowing the albums and photocopying the lyrics and studying them. I would come home from school and go upstairs and put on ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ and play it all night.”

How a bandanna-clad musician from New Jersey helped a Pakistani kid in suburban England survive high school by speaking directly to his troubles — restlessness, alienation, the burden of parental expectation, inchoate longing, being working class, being poor — was the subject of Manzoor’s 2007 memoir, “Greetings From Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock ’n’ Roll.” It is also the subject of the movie “Blinded by the Light,” which opens in the United States on Aug 16.

(Bury Park is the name of the Luton neighborhood where Manzoor was born. Alert Springsteen-ophiles will notice that the book’s title echoes that of Springsteen’s debut album, “Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ”)

Directed by Gurinder Chadha, the movie has a similar feel-good multicultural-triumph-over-adversity vibe as her best-known movie, “Bend It Like Beckham.”

Manzoor is now 48, a seasoned journalist and the father of two children with his Scottish wife, Bridget. He is working on a new book and often does his writing at the British National Library, where he sat down over coffee recently to discuss the film and his membership in the vast tribe of Bruce fans.

It is weird, Manzoor said, to see your life on screen, even if the fictional one diverges from the real one. The movie, for instance, leaves out his older brother, presents his mother as fluent in English and shows him actively arguing with his father, none of which is real. But the story is mostly true, he said, “emotionally autobiographical” in the way Springsteen’s songs are.

Sarfraz Manzoor’s drawing of Springsteen as he appeared on a poster for his 1988 “Tunnel of Love” tour, in his home in London on Jul 12, 2019. Manzoor’s memoir about his love for Bruce Springsteen’s music is the basis for “Blinded by the Light,” opening on Aug 16 (Suzie Howell/The New York Times)

Sarfraz Manzoor’s drawing of Springsteen as he appeared on a poster for his 1988 “Tunnel of Love” tour, in his home in London on Jul 12, 2019. Manzoor’s memoir about his love for Bruce Springsteen’s music is the basis for “Blinded by the Light,” opening on Aug 16 (Suzie Howell/The New York Times)

“My mum really did make clothes until 1 in the morning,” just as his movie mother does, he said. “My dad really did work at Vauxhall until he got laid off, and he really did wear suits to the job center” when he looked for a new job that never materialised, he said. And the teenager in the film, played by Viveik Kalra, is called Javed, which is Manzoor’s family nickname.

It is not realistic, obviously, to think that the people of Luton have a habit of breaking into Bollywood-style dancing in the streets. But that was a way the director helped incorporate Springsteen’s music and words into a film meant to tell the story of a young man yearning to be a writer and transformed by music. (This is another reality tweak. Back then, Manzoor wanted, if he wanted anything at all, to be a DJ.)

“I didn’t want to make a jukebox musical,” Chadha said. “The film is about writing and words.”

Chadha and Manzoor have known each other for a long time, but Chadha made it clear that in order to make a film of “Greetings From Bury Park,” they would “have to get Bruce on our side” and eventually secure permission to use his music, she said in an interview.

In 2010, Springsteen came to London for the premiere of “The Promise,” a documentary about the making of the album “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Chadha took Manzoor along as her guest.

By this time, Manzoor had been to more than 100 Springsteen concerts, and Springsteen had begun to recognise him as a superfan. (He stood out for being Pakistani, having big hair and positioning himself near the front.) On the red carpet, the singer unexpectedly spoke to Manzoor. “He said, ‘I’ve read your book, and it’s amazing,’” Chadha related.

After everyone stopped hyperventilating and went home, they began slowly to work on the screenplay (Manzoor and Chadha share credit with Paul Mayeda Burges, her husband and longtime collaborator). Then Chadha went off and made her next film, historical drama “Viceroy’s House,” putting the project on hold for a few years.

“And then Brexit was happening,” she said, “and it was very ugly. The world was turning into quite a divisive place. And I said, ‘I’m going to pick up this project, and I’m going to put all my frustration about the world in here.’ ”

There was still the question of the music. In 2017, Manzoor sent an impassioned email to Springsteen, pleading his case. Springsteen said yes, and so 12 of his songs — “Badlands,” “Thunder Road” and “Hungry Heart” among them — appear in the film.

The movie has particular resonance now. Anti-immigrant nationalism is again on the rise in Britain, just as it was in 1987, and race relations in the United States are increasingly ugly and violent. “Blinded by the Light” offers a nostalgic look at the sort of American values — tolerance, open-mindedness, inclusiveness, optimism — that sometimes feel like relics of another time.

“The thing that is touching to me, and sad, is the role that America plays for me,” Manzoor said. “When I was 16 I truly looked to America as the promised land. I thought, ‘If it gets too bad in this country, I can just go there.’”

© 2019 The New York Times Company