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Sarah Gavron admits she was nervous about filming Brick Lane. Though she had made short films and an award-winning documentary, Gavron had never before made a feature film. And Brick Lane was a tall order. Monica Ali’s acclaimed novel about the lives of Bangladeshis in London had put Brick Lane on the map. And therein lay the problem.
Though Brick Lane, the book, is obviously fiction, Brick Lane the place is real. And some of the flesh and blood denizens of the real Brick Lane weren’t too thrilled with how their neighborhood had been portrayed: drab, dingy, claustrophobic, riddled with heroin and fundamentalism. Well, at least that’s how they saw it.
Gavron saw it differently. “It was a compelling story,” she says, “a compassionate story of a family set against the shifting cultural landscape of London, a love story. That was what I wanted to put on the screen.”
Protests En Route
Gavron was nervous that viewers would have high expectations of a movie based on a famous novel. She also knew she’d have to somehow compress the 500-plus page book into a feature film and that was bound to annoy some people.
What she didn’t necessarily foresee were the protesters. As a non-Bangladeshi taking on the story, Gavron thought she had covered her bases. She had reached out to the Bangladeshi community in East London. She had taken on many of the locals as cast and crew. She was even working with Bangladeshi filmmakers in London and in Bangladesh as consultants.
Gavron says at one level she thinks being an outsider can help the approach to any subject: “You stand at the door and pull out the universal story.” Growing up in London as the grandchild of immigrants from Eastern Europe, she has a sense of the immigrant experience. Brick Lane, for example, has always been a haven for immigrants. “I think that is summed up when you look at the Brick Lane Mosque, which once was a synagogue when the Jewish community was there,” says Gavron. “Before that it was a church for the French Huguenot community. And that shows how that area has shifted over time. Really the story is about the search for home, and Brick Lane has become synonymous with that idea.”
The protesters, of course, were having none of that. Halfway through filming, Gavron heard threats reported in the media that if they filmed on Brick Lane itself people would be hurt. “What we soon discovered was it was this tiny but vocal minority who were objecting to certain things that were in the book, some of which weren’t in the film,” says Gavron. “Still, the majority of the community was behind us and believed in freedom of expression.”
But Gavron’s team took heed of the warnings and relocated the shoot, at least for a while. There was a protest held, but on that day Gavron says they were actually far away from Brick Lane, shooting near Buckingham Palace. Eventually, the filmmaking team came back to Brick Lane, but with a scaled down presence.
“We didn’t change anything in the script and continued to make the film we wanted to make,” she says firmly.
As a matter of fact, Gavron points out that some of the principal objections about the film were about issues that weren’t even in the film: “They cited scenes like a leech falling into a curry pot in a curry house in Brick Lane, which which they were concerned might do damage to the business.”
But the larger and more universal issue is one of a community afraid of being represented by stereotypes yet again, this time larger than life on the screen: the oppressed wife finding a voice in the West, the boorish husband, if not a wife-beater, at least a snoring overweight pomposity.
“Certainly, Chanu does snore,” says Gavron with a laugh. “But in many ways he is the hero of the film.” She points out that although Chanu, protagonist Nazneen’s much older husband, is introduced as an unattractive character, he goes on to defy expectations. “Often, in the end, the sympathies of the audience lie with him.”
Understanding the Destination
The story of Brick Lane is both simple and layered. A Bangladeshi village girl, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), is married off at 17 to an older man, Chanu (Satish Kaushik), who lives far away in London off Brick Lane, the Bangladeshi area of town. Nazneen leaves her green, monsoon-soaked village for the drab grayness of London. Gavron was unable to shoot in Bangladesh but filmed those scenes in a village a few hours from Kolkata. “It had a named like Harry Potter,” she says with a laugh. “We found that funny, but obviously the locals didn’t.” The village was untouched enough by the modern world that it was easy to pretend it was 1985.
For Gavron, filming in India was a “fantastic experience.” Her Indian crew was not used to working with synch sound. It was overwhelmingly hot and people kept fainting from the heat. There were snakes in the field. Villagers would walk so often into the shot they ended up just using them. “But it’s a filmmaker’s dream, because the light is so beautiful and the vistas are so wide,” says Gavron. She didn’t even mind the goggle-eyed villagers who wandered on set. A flower seller who happened to be walking by ended up in the film and was most obliging about walking by several times when they had to repeat the shot.
The contrast between the green vistas of the village where Nazneen roamed with her sister, Hasina, and her apartment in the cookie cutter council flats where crowded immigrant families huddle is harsh. She raises her two daughters while Chanu struggles to get the promotion he feels he deserves. But though he can quote English literature and thinks he is worldly, he is continually passed over and eventually resigns his jobs and becomes a cab driver.
Nazneen, who was hoping his promotion would help them afford a trip back to Bangladesh to visit her sister Hasina, is shattered. The two sisters cling to each other through letters, though Hasina’s letters hinting at liaisons with men worry Nazneen. Finally, Nazneen decides to earn some money on her own by taking up sewing jobs from home. That brings her into contact with a handsome young Bangladeshi-British man Karim (Christopher Simpson). As their contact blossoms into a tentative affair, the ground shifts under Nazneen’s feet. At the same time, she is, for the first time, on surer footing in her new home.
Then 9/11 happens, and everything changes. As angry young Muslim men form groups like the Bengal Tigers (modeled on the Black Panthers), Nazneen realizes that her relationship with her family, her homeland, and her new home are all slowly shifting. Karim finds a new identity in his religion, and Nazneen finds herself at a crossroads. “She does find home in a place that has for so long been alien,” says Gavron. “She can be in Britain and feel she belongs and still wear her sari and do her prayers.”
Gavron decided for cinematic reasons to compress the entire action to 2001 and “see it through the prism of that year, the year Nazneen transforms after she meets Karim, who is the catalyst of that transformation.”
Characters Leave the Page
Chatterjee was the first person to try out for the role of Nazneen in India. The film’s producer tried out several other people because it seemed too good to be true that the first person to walk in would be the one meant for the role. But the National School of Drama-trained actress eventually nabbed the role. Chatterjee’s grandparents lived in East Pakistan before they moved to India, so she was not unfamiliar with the culture. Did the filmmakers have any concerns about Chatterjee’s ability to play a Bengali immigrant, since that was not an experience she was familiar with?
“I suppose everyone in this new world has had an experience of displacement of some kind,” says Gavron. Chatterjee had never been to London before, which gave her an immediate sense of dislocation. On top of that, the actress spent a lot of time with the women of Brick Lane learning how to sew and to say her prayers. “Actors have to play a lot of different roles,” Gavron says, “even murderers. They have to find their way into their roles in different ways.”
But if Chatterjee fell into her role serendipitously, finding the right person to play Chanu proved to be a much tougher task. Gavron spent eight months finalizing the cast, searching for the right actors all over the world. “Actors on the whole tend to be slim, fit, and good-looking,” laughs Gavron. “It was hard to find someone who fit Chanu’s role as described in the book.”
Finally, three weeks before shooting was to begin, they were ready to offer the part to another man whom Gavron describes as an excellent actor but not physically appropriate. Then someone suggested Satish Kaushik’s name. Bollywood actor Kaushik has a busy life these days as a director and was off the radar of the film’s casting directors. “I Googled him and thought ‘he’s physically perfect, but can he act?’” recalls Gavron.
Chatterjee said she’d seen Kaushik recently playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, a character verymuch in the Chanu mold. Gavron and her team flew to Delhi in a mad dash to meet Kaushik, who showed up in a suit he’d specially made for the audition. “After that he took us to his restaurant, Food Unlimited,” remembers Gavron. “He really did embody Chanu in all respects, apart from the fact that he is very successful.”
Author and Director
Monica Ali shared Gavron’s opinion on Kaushik when she saw an early version of the film. Gavron says Ali had been so hands off about the whole production, she had been getting nervous. They had sent her scripts, which Ali hadn’t opened. They had invited her to castings, but the author hadn’t come. But when Ali finally saw the rough cut, she told Gavron it had been “unnerving watching her characters walk off the page.” She said she especially liked Chanu; he was very much the man she had written. Ali has been a big champion of the film, accompanying Gavron and the team to Toronto as well as to the BAFTA awards.
In the end, Gavron is glad the film has already provoked a dialogue about representation, culture, and artistic freedom. She says writers like Hanif Kureishi have long complained of “literary apartheid, where writers have felt they can only write about their own culture.” Writer Tanika Gupa has claimed she wasn’t allowed to write about Caribbean people, because she’s not from the Caribbean. Ali, herself the product of a mixed marriage, has been perceived as “too brown” by some and “too white” by others. But in cinema, Gavron says, there is precedence for making stories about cultures not your own. “Brick Lane by Sarah Gavron” follows in the footsteps of “Elizabeth by Shekhar Kapur” and “Sense and Sensibility by Ang Lee.” Gavron says her job is to find a way into other worlds. Otherwise, each of us could only tell our own story.
“[Brick Lane is] not a complete representation; it’s one story,” says Gavron. “I hope there’ll be many more.” She herself is moving on to her next film. It’s another coming of age story, but set far away from the fish markets and rosogollas of Brick Lane. It’s set in the Mennonite community of North America, and Gavron will once more get to be the outsider standing at the doorway, trying to distill for audiences some universal truth.
A Conversation with Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane
I understand you wrote Brick Lane late at night after putting the kids to bed. What gave you the confidence?
There is an old quote from Cyril Connolly, the grand old man of English letters, saying that that pram in the hall is the enemy of creativity, meaning that domestic drudgery wipes out your brain cells. Well, it’s a very male viewpoint. And it wasn’t that way for me. It’s true when I started writing Brick Lane I had a two and a half year old in tow, I was still nursing a baby, and I was seriously sleep deprived. And money was tight. But there was a way in which for me at least having children released some creative drive and some creative edges. And writing from the edge of sanity is quite good. Hunter Thompson and Hemingway did it with drinks and drugs. I had small kids to drive me crazy.
Nazneen lands up in Tower Hamlets after coming from Bangladesh. What is a place like Tower Hamlets like?
It has two very different sides to it. Brick Lane itself is the main commercial thoroughfare which has undergone a lot of regeneration in the last 15 years. It has a lot of new money coming in; it’s a bit of a destination place. And then around the sides and edges are some large council estates which you would call public housing projects, which suffer from overcrowding, unemployment, especially among older men, poverty, and a lot of attendant problems like drugs and crime. It’s a tale of two cities really.
Karim is a character described as being “born foreign.” Is that at the root of these problems?
I can’t give you a sensible soundbyte answer. Karim in particular is on a quest for authenticity. It’s ultimately a futile dream, but I can understand the desire and where it comes from. If you feeling alienated and rejected by mainstream society, you turn to something else and sometimes that something else is Islam. Sometimes it’s drugs.
You’re of mixed parentage. What did that do to your quest of authenticity?
My overriding memory of childhood was about wanting to “fit.” That’s a common theme for all children. But there were two things I needed to fit into. When I was with my white English friends in school I wanted to fit in with them. And then going into a family friend’s home, I needed to know how to behave in that context. So you are never quite in the thick of things. You are standing in the shadow of a doorway. That’s quite good training for a writer. That’s a good place from which to observe.
I was three when I left Bangladesh, but the issue of language had already cropped up. My brother and I both refused to talk to my mother (who is British) in English. That reversed when we came to England. After a few years, we refused to speak to my father in Bengali and even slowly lost the language—to my eternal regret.
Yes, you’ve been asked how can you write about what it means to be a Bengali mother when you don’t even speak the language.
I challenged that strongly. To be a mother is a universal experience. And even so, people write about motherhood without having experienced it. Male writers write from a female perspective. The key thing about writing is to tell the truth about the world as you see it. And that is your one and only duty. The primary role of the novelist as I see it is to take the particular and make it universal.
Does the appeal of Islamic organizations to young people surprise you?
When I go back to my town in the north of England where I grew up, there is a large Asian population there. When I was young, generally when you were out of sight of your parents you’d get into your short skirts and that was your way of rebelling. Now when I go home I see young Muslim girls wearing hijabs and burkhas, and that’s their choice. And they are rebelling against their parents. They are saying to the wider culture: if we can’t truly belong, we don’t want to, and we have our own group anyway.
Though you were born in Bangladesh, I read you were turned down for a visa because you wrote down writer as your profession. What’s the prospect forBrick Lane in Bangladesh?
The prospect for Brick Lane is very good. It’s been selling like hotcakes at traffic lights where the boys sell cigarettes and water—photocopied English version. Someone brought over a copy. It had a lot of pages missing. But a lot of it was there.
Do you want to go back to Bangladesh?
I would like to go back. I’ll have to try again.
Will you change your profession this time?
That would be key, wouldn’t it?
Monica Ali was interviewed by Sandip Roy-Chowdhury for UpFront while on book tour for the paperback edition of Brick Lane.
|Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.|