Thursday, March 12, 2009

Film Review #190: Brick Lane
2007/DVD 2009
Director: Sarah Gavron
Cast: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson

“Why do you like me?” asks Nazneen (Bengali actress Tannishtha Chatterjee) one day of her younger lover, the hip, hunky, London-reared Karim (Christopher Simpson).

“Who says I like you?” he answers, suddenly shy. But when pressed into emotional territory Nazneen has never entered with her older husband, Karim says she’s unlike the modern girls with their mini-skirts or the religious girls, always arguing. He says she’s “the real thing” – a girl from a village in their homeland of Bangladesh.

It’s this exchange that a friend of mine recalled most vividly from Monica Ali’s 2003 novel, Brick Lane, an exchange that made it into director Sarah Gavron’s 2007 film version of the same title. But equally charged is a later scene between Nazneen and her husband Chanu (Bombay-based director and occasional actor Satish Kaushik), when he admits he’s never become the “big man” he felt he must before he could return home.

“What is this ‘big man’?” she says, grasping his shoulders. “Do you think that’s why I love you?”

In Nazneen’s world such choices have a steeper price than you might think. Except for flashbacks to Nazneen’s childhood, the film compresses the novel’s longer time-span to the year 2001. Having been sent from her village in the 80s to London at 17 to marry Chanu, Nazneen has lost an infant son and is raising two daughters. (As the elder, Shahana, Naeema Begum delivers a small gem of performance as a rebellious teen whose turmoil penetrates her mother.)

For those long years in chilly London, Nazneen has imagined love at second hand, mostly through intermittent, well-embroidered letters from her beloved younger sister Hasina. Around her affair with Karim and against growing backlash to the World Trade Center attacks, a series of criss-crossing reversals and decisions occur. Dutiful and retiring, Nazneen comes to see London, her husband and herself differently. Karim morphs from street entrepreneur to more observant Muslim community activist. And Chanu, admirer of novelists Thackeray and Proust and the philosopher David Hume, decides he cannot stay in the West, though for years he’s ignored Nazneen’s pleas to visit home.

The East London neighborhood called Brick Lane has always been what the Irish actor who plays Karim calls a “place of diaspora.” In the 1700s French Huguenots settled there, later Methodists, and then it became a Jewish enclave. The racial harassment portrayed in Brick Lane – Karim’s participation in the cultural group called the Bengal Tigers occurs partly in defense against a gang of harassing right-wing thugs who go by the name Lion Hearts – builds on a history of real attacks against the London Bangladeshis alone that dates from the 1950s, when they were a considerably smaller community.

By 2001, the Bangladeshi concentrated there numbered about 300,000, the vast majority Sunni Muslims from Bangladesh’s northwest Sylhet district. Many lived in the shabby, hulking, public housing high-rises the British call “estates.” The largest wave arrived in the 1970s following their war of independence from Pakistan, during which 3 million Bangladeshi died. This is slaughter that Chanu cites in his pivotal speech in the film, when he attends one of the Bengal Tigers’ community meetings – partly a challenge to Karim and partly an elder’s warning to the young – after which Nazneen, in simply taking his hand, shifts everything between them.

By last year, another shift had occurred. Brick Lane’s Bangladeshi population had nearly doubled from 2001 levels, making it one of the UK’s largest, youngest and fastest growing immigrant groups. And in the summer of 2006, when Gavron filmed her movie, Brick Lane’s ethnic shops and restaurants had also become tourist destinations.

Gavron has emphasized the support given the production by that community, and she credits assistant director Rahul Amin, himself a Brick Lane resident and filmmaker, with being able to finally make the film at all. Young men from the neighborhood met with Simpson as he prepared to play Karim, and Brick Lane women with Chatterjee. But some Brick Lane merchants objected so strenuously to the novel – saying it portrayed their community as “uneducated, illiterate and unclean” – that Gavron had to move even exterior shooting elsewhere.

But such complaints seem disingenuous. Chanu is devoted to learning and for years Nazneen’s tie to dreams beyond her own arranged life lies in the power of letters with her sister. And it’s another independent countrywoman, her Westernized friend Razia (Harvey Virdi) – who smokes cigarettes and has cut her hair (“all that brushing and brushing!”) – who offers Nazneen a job sewing if she decides to stay, a perhaps troubling example of encouragement.

Some commentators see objections to the novel and ensuing film as having more to do with Nazneen’s own journey, her creator’s telling tales – Ali was born in Bangledesh though reared mostly in England – and the similar reception other Muslim women artists have received from conservative elements in some European immigrant communities.

Paradoxically much of Brick Lane’s strength as a story stems from these cultural clashes. It’s not just that Nazneen is a woman imprisoned by convention (A.O. Scott says she echoes Emma Bovary.) It’s no coincidence that Chanu favors 19th century novels. This traditional, conservative man shares sensibilities with an era in which adultery mattered in plots and communities in ways it may not now. In a review of Ali’s novel – published pointedly on 9/11/03 in The New Republic – James Wood suggests the “ties of marriage, burdens of religion, obligations of civic duty and pressures of propriety” found in the some immigrant groups reinvigorate and clarify our Western stories precisely because they hark back to the themes and concerns and oppressions that helped generate the Western novel to begin with.

The Brick Lane DVD’s extensive commentaries – out since March 10th – are well worth seeking out. But Community Folk Art Center screens the film this Saturday afternoon with a talk afterward from Bangladesh-born Dr. Farhana Sultana of Syracuse University, who lived and taught in London during the film’s 2006 production controversy.

Screening of Brick Lane on March 14 at 2:00 PM, Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St. A shorter version of this review appears in the 3/12/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly.