Written by: Ron Bricker
It was a little movie that created a big controversy: in 2006, members of London’s Bangladeshi community protested the filming of Brick Lane, the movie version of Monica Ali’s acclaimed novel. They claimed that the book—and the film—portrayed Bangladeshis as uneducated and crude, specifically citing a scene (which does not appear in the film) where Bangladeshis infested with lice are coming over to England on the hold of a ship. When the film crew planned to film around the real Brick Lane—a street in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood—the protesters took to the street, allegedly threatening to burn copies of Ali’s book. The controversy didn’t end when filming stopped: in September 2007, the British royal family canceled the Royal Film Performance, an annual film screening that had been held every year since 1959. Although a royal spokesman claimed the cancellation was due to the inability to find a date when Prince Charles was available to attend, he did note that the controversy had been taken into account.
In spite of this, Sarah Gavron and Tannishtha Chatterjee, the film’s director and star, are quick to point out that the protesters only represented a small segment of the Bangladeshi community in London. Says Chatterjee, “The protests were kind of shocking because when I was doing my research, I felt the community had really embraced [the film] because they were so open and welcoming. […] So it came as a shock when I heard there was a group of people who were protesting.” Adds Gavron, “[The protesters were] this really small group of [primarily] men who were objecting to things, some of which weren’t in the film or the book. It became a press story because there was this underlying threat of violence, but in terms of the community it didn’t represent the majority view.”
In spite of this, they were forced to make some concessions to the protesters: when threats of violence were received, the Brick Lane crew was forced to rearrange its shooting schedule to avoid the protesters. But one thing Gavron and Chatterjee both insist they haven’t changed: the story.
Brick Lane centers around Nazneen, a woman who immigrates to London from her native Bangladesh as a teen to enter into an arranged marriage with a much-older man. Seventeen years later, Nazneen, her husband Chanu, and their two preteen daughters live in a cramped apartment on Brick Lane. She feels stifled by Chanu, who has very traditional ideas about a woman’s place in society. She also longs to see her sister, who is living a seemingly carefree life in Bangladesh. When Chanu quits his job abruptly, Nazneen begins taking in sewing to supplement the family income. Through this job she meets Karim, a man who is everything Chanu is not: young, handsome, a Londoner by birth. As her relationship with Karim evolves, Nazneen begins to discover long-repressed feelings.
Nazneen’s reserved, emotionally withdrawn ways are a startling contrast to the way Western women are often portrayed on screen. But in spite of this, Gavron believes Nazneen’s story will resonate with Western audiences—possibly because she is more authentic. “I think there are different ways of connecting with an audience,” she says, “One of the attractions was that it wasn’t about [an Asian woman] who throws off her sari and dons Western clothes. In a way, I thought what was intriguing was that this was a woman who was still connected to her culture […] but was still able to live in England and be who she wanted to be.”
Culture is an integral part of Nazneen’s story, and the stories of the other characters. All of the characters are inherently divided between their Bangladeshi roots and their English lives. Yet interestingly, neither Gavron nor Chatterjee is Bangladeshi. Although Gavron acknowledges that her lack of cultural similarity with these characters was a challenge, she also believes that it was a unique asset. “I think sometimes it helps you pull out the emotional truth,” she states. Chatterjee’s challenge was different; although she is not Bangladeshi, she is from an area of India that shares many cultural similarities with Bangladesh. However, some of the minutia is quite different, and Chatterjee feels that the audience will expect a greater level of authenticity from her because she shares so many cultural similarities with Nazneen. “I had to research out those differences. And sometimes, it’s tough to actually research those nuanced differences.”
But in the end, Brick Lane was never supposed to represent the entire Bangladeshi community or every immigrant experience. Says Gavron, “[It is] just one story.”