Taking on the “Badlands” with ‘Blinded by the Light’ Star Aaron Phagura

In a summer of legendary musician-inspired stories (e.g. Rocketman and Yesterday) Blinded by the Light, the new film from Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha, genuinely separates itself from the pack. This is a film that’s, not only about  legendary music (in this case Bruce Springsteen’s music), but also speaks directly about how the power of music can provide encouragement for chasing ones dreams and promote acceptance within conservative cultures. Recently, The Nerds of Color was honored to be able to interview some of the cast and the director of the film. Thus, to countdown to the movie’s release on August 16, we’ll be releasing a series of interviews throughout the week chronicling what the dedicated filmmakers behind the film had to say about culture, music, racism, and dreams.

Among them, we were fortunate enough to speak with actor Aaron Phagura, who plays Roops in the film. In the film, Roops is a friend the film’s protagonist, Javed (Viveik Kalra), and introduces him to Springsteen’s music, inspiring Javed to seize his dreams of being a writer. Here’s what Phagura had to say about Springsteen, and his hopes for what audiences will take away from the film:

NOC: Hi Aaron! First thing’s first, what an amazing movie! Thank you so much for a lovely film.

Phagura: Thank you, thank you!

So I wanted to ask, you are such a hardcore Springsteen fan in the movie. Are you a Spingsteen fan in real life? And what was your experience like getting to know “The Boss?”

I had heard of Springsteen but that was the extent of it, but it wasn’t what I listened to. I’m a rap fan. Quite a die-hard rap fan. But when I got the call, I had to audition for a big Springsteen fan. I had to do the “Born to Run” sequence in the audition room with Gurinder — my first time meeting her. And that was me winging it because I wasn’t a big Springsteen fan. But there was something that she saw in that, which she really liked. As time went on, after I booked it, I read the book, from which the film’s adapted from. I read the script 3-4 times, back to back. And after that, I thought, the only way to do the character justice, given it was based on a true person who would be watching it as well… would be to understand what it is about his work and his lyrics that resonate with people from such different cultures, and countries, and backgrounds so much. It got to the point where I watched a lot of documentaries about Springsteen… about 3-4. And I listened to a lot of his music as well, and I grew to become a fan. And now a year after filming, I still listen to his music to this day. So I am a fan now.

That’s awesome. There’s nothing like doing genuinely hard work as an actor to turn you into a fan as well. That’s really cool. So I also wanted to ask, as The Nerds of Color, we really saw in Gurinder’s film, this message about how difficult it can be to be an outcast or minority in such a different culture that isn’t as open or accepting to people of color. Now as a fellow person of color, did you identify with any of the scenes in this film? For instance, one of my favorite scenes is when you and Viveik stand up to a bunch of bullies by screaming “Badlands” into their faces. It’s one of those scenes where if you were a bullied person of color growing up, that’s a triumphant moment. Was there anything you identified with from your life while shooting this movie?

Growing up I did get it quite a lot. But one thing I’m grateful for is that my family didn’t raise me to be a victim. And often what you see in the film is Javed’s character being raised to keep his head down and shut his mouth, because his family believes they’re in their country. But that was a different generation. By our time, we had more of a voice. So going into secondary school, which was around the corner from my house, there were about two other brown kids in our school. But I was prepped by my cousins and my uncles that if you don’t learn to stick up for yourself, they will eat you alive. So my cousins used to be very hard with me, and give me real hard punches, and told me “don’t worry you’ll thank us when you’re older.” That’s one thing I’m real grateful for — that I grew up with a voice and that I’d never let myself become a victim. But of course I did get a lot of racial slurs growing up, but I would make sure it was just the one time, and that they (bullies) wouldn’t get too comfortable saying it again. 


So I wanted to say, you and Viveik had amazing chemistry. And I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival as well. I really believed you guys were buddies. What was it like working together? Did you get to know each other beforehand, or was it off-the-cuff natural?

Viveik’s my boy, man! We are very different people… But we were lucky enough to be quite deeply involved in the pre-production of the film. So before we started filming we had a lot of meetings with Gurinder. We had the choreography for the “Born to Run” sequence. So we spent a lot of time together before that. So the chemistry we had on screen… it was very easy because we were friends. And just like with Nell Williams [who plays Eliza in the film], she was great! When you got so many days of filming with the same people, the camera picks up everything… It was a blast working with them!

If I can ask as well, the “Born to Run” sequence is my favorite. When you three are running through town, what Gurinder captures here makes it just feel like this amazing musical, but without being overly fantastical. It’s grounded in reality with three friends just having fun and singing to the top of their lungs and screaming in joy. What was it like to shoot that? Was it difficult? It felt very natural, but I can understand if it would take multiple takes to do.

It started out very difficult to me… It started out in this neighborhood. I wouldn’t say it was run down. But it was not… Beverly Hills, if you know what I mean. So these neighbors have never seen a film there. So with camera crews and actors running down the street, everyone comes out of their house and starts watching. For me that made me feel very uneasy. But as time went on I got so much confidence, not just to do the sequence, but as a person. To the point where I didn’t care what anyone thought or what  anyone said. And I carried that out with me. Once you’ve ran through a rough neighborhood… once you can do that, singing “Born to Run,” a song that’s decades old, you can pretty much do anything!

It came out beautifully at least. I can’t wait for audiences to see that scene!

It’s important to me to visualize what this is going to look like. And that’s the thing with Gurinder… When we did this “Born to Run” sequence, I was doing it with 100% trust in her. I didn’t know how it was going to look… I’d never seen a scene portrayed that way… It was hard to visualize what it was going to look like. And once I saw it, it was just a massive sigh of relief from me. 

It really evoked the Springsteen spirit. It was grounded. But there was a magical quality to it. So I really liked it. So we’re living in a time where I think, unfortunately, racial turmoil has become more prominent. I don’t think it ever went away, but I think people are a lot more open and can feel a lot more open about it now, more than anything. Without getting too political, I feel it’s because leaders in charge feel like they can get away with these things. I look at a movie like Blinded by the Light, and think it’s something the world needs right now. So I wanted to ask you, as someone who helped bring this film to life, what do you hope audiences today can take from this movie? And do you think there’s the potential for them to take something that may at least enlighten people to clean up a lot of these issues?

One thing I’m hoping is that, when I watch a film, or when majority of other Indians or any minorities for that matter, watch a film with actors that look like them in it, we can relate to them. When they see us portray someone on screen, they can relate and they don’t usually involve themselves in these kinds of films. So I am hoping that they can relate to these characters to the point that they see we all have a dream, and we all have struggles we have to go through. No one’s life is easy. We all bleed the same blood. And just learn to treat everyone equally. Yes the film shows a Muslim boy and a Sikh boy going through hardships. But that’s not the ultimate message of the film. I think the message is that they are human. And they have dreams, like everyone else of every different culture, age, and background. It’s the relatability that matters. And I hope that’s something people take away from it.

I thought very much that it was relatable. And there were so many aspects that were important that this touches on.

Exactly! Like the father and son. That’s another thing that’s at the top of my list. I’m hoping not just parents of now, but parents of tomorrow — I hope this resonates with them, to the point that when people have children they are much more supportive. Because of course, we’re getting better as a generation, there’s children out there with dreams that will just remain dreams because of their parents, which isn’t fair.

Absolutely. I thought that was one of those messages that’s really relatable, especially for me, as an Asian male in a conservative Asian family. I hope audiences see that too!

It was an absolute honor and pleasure to meet with Phagura! And we have absolutely more Blinded by the Light fun coming your way this week. Stay tuned, Nerds!

Blinded by the Light hits theaters August 16!