Sarah Gavron's adaptation of Monica Ali's best-selling novel Brick Lane
is a familiar tale. A repressed woman in an arranged marriage finds inner strength from several life changing events, such as acquiring a sowing machine and embarking on a tasteful affair with a hot younger man. While the story's machinations may feel familiar, the setting and characters are vividly, wildly new, as the story pivots around Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a Bangladeshi immigrant living in London's East End, nearby the titular Brick Lane. The book (which, to its credit, has achieved the airport/Target popularity for the past three years) and the film give a powerful voice to a marginalized woman, the type of woman who isn't heard from in everyday media and culture.
What interested Gavron is that "the immigrant experience is where the interesting stories are coming from." In fact, the "tattooed white woman," (as she is called in the script) who appears in the background of some scenes as an object of Nazneen's fascination, "is the only white person in the film."
Nazneen's fear and curiosity regarding that woman makes sense as well according to Indian actress Chatterjee. She talked with Bangladeshi women who ventured to London in similar situations, recalling that they were "transported to an alien place." One interviewee was "so scared, I never walked out of my apartment, I wouldn't dare buy vegetables from the vegetable seller," going as far as throwing down money for vegetables out of the window and getting them at her door in return. Starting from that sort of fear is a small journey, and yet it's completely analogous to Nazneen, who is learning to"make her own choices in her own terms." The resulting film is inherently feminine and interior, where the action plays out on Chatterjee's expressive face. The actress mentioned that—in what is a rarity—the production team was primarily female, from the writers and producers to Gavron and much of the cast.
And yet, what is a small-scale story of one woman in one situation can set off a world of troubles. As the thirty-something
Gavron noted, Brick Lane
is political: "It's rare that you see a film just from the female perspective. These women, their stories are not so often told." As a white British woman directing a story about Bangladeshi immigrants, she was "daunted" by the prospect of the film. While Gavron credits her background in documentary for giving her a way to "go into cultures that aren't my own and not taking no for an answer," her film school teacher and mentor Stephen Frears also served as a guide. "He hugely influenced me. My Beautiful Laundrette
(Frears' 1985 classic about the London Pakistani community, featuring an amazing young Daniel Day-Lewis) taught me that you can make films about the world around you. But he's brutal as a teacher. He'll tell you, 'It's horrible. Get out of here, it's rubbish!'"
However, what's political can be dangerous as well: When the film began production in London, although Gavron had gone into the Bangladeshi community and "had all this support," they still had to deal with threats. Three weeks into shooting at a council house estate, production received a call: "If you shoot on Brick Lane tomorrow, people may be hurt." According to the director, the threats originated from a tiny group who were against the portrayals of literacy and adultery in the book, who then spread tales about fake inflammatory scenes from the film, like "a leech falling into a curry pot."
This controversy was stoked by the British media with the likes of Germaine Greer and Salman Rushdie weighing in, culminating in Prince Charles refusing to see the film during a Royal Performance. British writer Hanif Kureshi (who wrote Laundrette
) asked, rhetorically, whether the hullabaloo should "make us wonder what being British is all about." Ultimately, however, Ali had the last word on what she called a "media generated controversy" in a Guardian essay (recently reprinted in the recent movie-tie-in Brick Lane
reissue), recalling a conversation she had with two young women that illustrated the power of Nanzeen's story: "Both [women] said they wanted to write. Both were worried what their parents would think, what people in general would think. What should they do? "Keep writing," I told them blithely. "Find your voice and use it. Be brave." I would tell them the same thing today, but I wouldn't be so blithe about it, and maybe today, after all that has happened, they wouldn't even ask."