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First Time Screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor on 'Blinded by the Light'

August 13, 2019
5 min read time

In 1987, England was in the grip of racial and economic turmoil under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, a neo-Nazi movement was on the rise, and in a crappy town northwest of London the music of Bruce Springsteen was blowing the teenage mind of a Pakistani Muslim boy.

Sarfraz Manzoor was that teenager, and with one simple act of pressing PLAY on his Sony Walkman, a working-class poet from New Jersey changed Manzoor’s life forever. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, Blinded by The Light is a heartfelt journey inspired by Manzoor’s memoir, "Greetings from Bury Park."

Chadha, her husband Paul Mayeda Berges, first-time screenwriter Manzoor, and lyrics from one of the most iconic singer-songwriters of our time, Springsteen, are all credited writers on the script. In less capable hands, it could’ve turned into a too many cooks in the kitchen scenario, but Chadha had a method to streamline the process. “I gave Sarfraz first crack at the screenplay to get it all out of his system. It is his story, after all. And to make him realize how hard it is to write a screenplay,” she laughs. “Then I took over. Then Paul came in to make sure it actually worked.”

Although based on his book, it took some coaxing for Manzoor to open up when it came to putting it on the page in script format. “In the memoir, I could see Sarfraz had taken out a lot of the drama trying to protect his family, meaning, everything we needed to put in for a screenplay,” Chadha says. “And we all do that because we all want to protect our parents.”

“I wasn’t able to emotionally let go and create,” Manzoor says. “The journalistic side of me was too strong. If you read the book, when I was born, I was named Javed before Sarfraz, so that’s sort of a metaphorical thing. Javed (Viveik Kalra) is me, but he’s not quite me, and that made it easier. The hardest thing was the fact that it isn’t fiction. I wanted you to feel and believe that those are my real parents. I thought if this isn’t going to be real enough for me it’s going to be a failure.”

Under the guidance of Chadha, Manzoor found a safe atmosphere to test his limits and craft a first draft. “Gurinder was very good at pushing me to be harder and rawer and go deeper. To create things that films need. In this case, the relationship between the father and the son, and the mum, and Roops. I wanted them to be true.”

With an emotional thread established, the accomplished journalist and author still needed to learn screenplay structure and format. Before a word was written, Chadha pulled out her hit film Bend It Like Beckham. “We broke it down into the three-act structure, Robert Mckee-style.”

He also did what all new screenwriters do, he hit the books. “I read Syd Field and Blake Snyder. I printed out the beat sheet. And I thought, in the story of my life, what is the inciting incident? What’s the end of the first act? Second act? So, I went back to my book and wrote down all the little bits of color I could find. It took about two years to do an outline because I was working my day job as a journalist, and I wasn’t confident enough to just start a script.” He smiles. “You know what I actually find appalling to the point of offensive is when people say, ‘The characters start talking to me, and then they start doing things I didn’t even know they were going to do.’ What the fuck are you talking about? Come on man. I’m going to have it laid out as much as I can.”

While characters didn’t speak to Manzoor, music sure did, and that’s when the words turned cinematic. “I listened to everything that was #1 in 1987 because music was incredibly important for this and I don’t just mean Bruce. When I listened to Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin” I thought, oh my god, that is the song that tells me what the film is about. ‘Everything I ever wanted…it’s a sin.’ That is the opening sequence because it’s not only going to throw you into 1987, but it’s going to tell you what this boy wants and what he can’t have.”

After rewrites, Chadha ran the script through her rigorous screening process. “I ask what is this scene about? What do we want the audience to take away? What is the intention? I demand a lot from scenes to make sure they’re not repeating and that they are moving forward.” As for Springsteen’s lyrics, Chadha faced some unique challenges. “A film about words and writing is not the most active, cinematically. I came up with the idea that these words would be characters and have their own emotions and arcs.” Chadha said her approach was forensic in regard to fitting Springsteen’s lyrics into the script. “They only appear when Javed really needs to hear them.”

“We knew that the storm sequence when Javed hears Bruce for the first time would either make or break the film,” Mayeda Berges chimes in. “We had to convey the impact that those words had on this young guy who didn’t know Bruce at all, and suddenly his whole world is turned upside down from. When he hears Bruce for the first time—when he gets it—it’s an emotional shift. It was so wonderful being able to use Bruce’s music for that very reason, to move the story forward. There are moments where a song can convey so much more than a scene.”

So, what does it take for Chadha to move a script into production? “I feel every script needs to get to six drafts before you know what it is. After that, it’s all about honing it down to the vision. You might chop it all up and start again, but you have to get to that magic number six to know what you’ve got. And you might go forward in one direction or you might go back and say version two had this great thing going, but you fucked it all up in three and four. You won’t know that until you get to six.”

At the very heart of the story is a family struggling like every other. Financial problems, religious conflicts, teenagers with raging hormones, and the ever-present racism right outside their door. Chadha has a focused approach to tackling these issues in her work. “Paul and I have a very similar world view. We see films as a way of dealing with larger questions of society. For me, the whole reason to get involved in film was to show people that are in the margins, in the center of the frame. To change the narratives about us that are out there. And tell stories about us from the inside out, as opposed to from the outside in.” Mayeda Berges adds, “You want to document racism, but celebrate the joy of everyone transcending.”

With the film launching in theaters across the U.S., Manzoor is well aware how lucky he is to have his first script land on the big screen. “I’m a very big fan of the movie Beautiful Girls. I love the scene with “Sweet Caroline.” And I was like, oh my god I’d love to write a script like that. I read an interview with the writer, Scott Rosenberg, where he said before he did his first produced film, he’d written fourteen other scripts that weren’t made. And I remember thinking, I literally haven’t got enough years left in my life to write fourteen scripts that don’t get made. It’s got to happen with the first one.”

Blinded by the Light is a film crafted with cinematic heart and humor, but for Manzoor, perhaps, it’s a chance to set things right in real life. In his own words, Manzoor explains how this film became a love letter to his father.

Blinded by the Light is for the underdog in all of us, and if there’s one person who understands a long shot, it’s The Boss. Chadha said he was on board with the story from the get-go. He is after all, the man who instigated the whole journey.

As for Manzoor, faced with having to choose just one Springsteen album that truly nails the heart of this film, he said without a doubt, it’s 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Blinded by The Light is in theaters this weekend!

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