Brick Lane

Publié le 18 Septembre 2009

I happened to watch Brick Lane (2007, by Sarah Gavron) recently, a movie based on the acclaimed book by Monica Ali. It’s a well-made, well balanced film about emigration and multiculturalism, to put it positively, or – in a less positive light – about the still ongoing oppression of Bangladeshi women, torn away from their native land and community and, in their teens, sent to marry in England against their will someone they have never seen. It so happens that the film’s heroine, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), will find happiness in the deal, but the film-maker clearly denounces the brutal and inhuman practice, which will not only cause the girl pain and confusion, but also mean that her children will be torn apart between two worlds.

Nazneen in England

In fact, Nazneen’s story is subtly told: when all is said and done, we are not really able to be that clear-cut about the director’s purpose. The young woman’s life in London contrasts sharply with that of her sister, who stayed in Bangladesh, and with whom she was almost like a twin before leaving their village at 17. The sister runs away from home soon after she did, marries against her father’s will, and is repudiated. Then her lover kicks her out of his life. She becomes a prostitute, before finding work in a factory, and then being kicked out by an ogling manager, and will have to fend for herself in ways her emigrated sister would certainly not envy. Yet Nazneen has only one wish: be reunited with her. The film’s full of the letters they write to one another, and this constant tie condemns those who have separated them.

But slowly things change in Nazneen’s life: her daughters grow up, and are British through and through: Bangladesh to them is a parent’s thing, a nagging obsession they have always spoken about: Chanu, the father (Satish Kaushik), 40 something, who hopes to be promoted in all the jobs he finds, but never does get that promotion (he’s a sad reminder that British good society is closed for Asians, whatever their academic titles, and he has no lack of them), and of course Nazneen herself who, jobless at first, scrimps and saves once she starts earning money stitching batches of jeans, in order to put enough aside and one day be able to go back. But with those jeans comes the delivery man, young Karim (Christopher Simpson, photo above), who notices her doe-like eyes, and soon gives her hope of a relationship based on a tenderness she had never dreamt might happen to her. The three children (one boy died young) she had with Chanu have been conceived in the “old” fashion, shall we say.

So Nazneen starts fitting into her little English nook. There is also Razia (Harvey Virdi), the jolly widow from next door, who first got her the sewing job, and then she learns about her sister’s mishaps back home. Obviously, and in spite of the racial tensions in England (abruptly increased by the 9/11 events which happen during the film), Nazneen doesn’t see her two daughters go back to a life which now appears far less easy and attractive than it used to appear. In England the girls will be able to study, find a job, etc. Then her story with Karim teaches her more than one thing. With love comes the realization that she can choose herself what her life is going to be. This was never an option before. For women like her, independence and self-reliance is just inconceivable. Karim’s love has opened her eyes on the world and on herself. For instance, she now sees that her husband, who had never beaten her (she’s thankful for that from the start), is a generous and open-minded man.

At one stage, they both go to a community meeting, where post 9/11 Muslim young men (and women!) gather to voice their oppressed concerns as a result of increased multi-ethnic tensions in the East-end. Karim is one of the speakers there. Chanu, who has noticed something going on between his young wife and the smart-looking “brother” intends to say things, and even if Nazneen doesn’t want him to talk, he does, and he does so with the effect that the activists’ perspective is badly questioned by his testimony that no, they aren’t all brothers just because they share the same faith. Brotherhood needs something more than religion to become reality, and he mentions a slaughter that took place in Bangladesh between Muslims, who normally should have been brothers, according to the community creed.

All this serves as a lesson for Nazneen: Chanu might be fat and ridiculously too old for her, he stands out more and more as a man of experience, tolerance and reflection. In a society where her girls will have to fight for their place as second-generation Bangladeshis, men like Chanu are valuable counterweights to hot-headed and possibly manipulated Islamic mavericks. In a Britain fraught with distrust and fear, he represents a go-between, a good-humoured believer in a spirit of cultural achievement which many young Brits despise or ignore. He’s become the judge of what it means for a culture to cross borders and reach out to universality. Neither the young suburbian whites, nor the entrenched soldiers of Allah can fathom his understanding of a better humanity based on common sense and education. Perhaps he leaves England in the end not only because he has to go back home, but symbolically because England as a country has also failed to embody what its culture used to represent. (Let me finish this evocation of Chanu to pay homage to Satish Kaushik, whom I had already appreciated in a serious role in Calcutta Mail. Here, he convinces utterly.)

Home on the other hand is what Brick Lane has become for Nazneen. She manages to express this to Chanu who at first had intended to drag all his family with him. How? By showing her love for him, and in a moving scene stroking his big flabby cheeks with a tenderness which was never experienced before between them (and which clearly is a fruit of her love with Karim). And because he loves her too, he leaves on his own – the spectator hopes he will come back – but she stays, with her daughters, and there's that scene where they revel in the white magic of the freshly fallen snow outside. His departure is in fact a reunion, for his older daughter, Shahna (Naeema Begum), especially, who had led the fight for staying and who fled from the flat on learning she had to go to that absurd faraway destination, embraces him and asks for his forgiveness and wishes him with them.

 

Tannishtha Chatterjee cuts a very nice character all along. She’s “the real thing”, as Karim tells her, meaning for him a real Bengladeshi woman, as opposed to more or less westernised girls he can’t love. But the real thing she is also in terms of acting. Silently submitting to her plight, her eyes down and mouth tight, or later these eyes glowing and in rapture, she’s always true and pleasant. Her moments with Karim are never vulgarised, never cheapified. By the way, I’ll not tell you what happens in the end between the two of them, to keep a little suspense. She’s hope and despair, she’s strength and weakness, she’s the past and the future.

I have not read the book, Brick Lane, which tells Nazneen’s story to much greater lengths than the film could. Still, I’m told the movie follows the main lines rather faithfully. Here are two blogs where the movie is reviewed as well, and whom I thank for having given me one or two ideas: filmiholic and rediff.com. You can also check the wiki article.

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Film reviews

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Commenter cet article

Ashok Vaishnav 13/07/2012 05:31


The fact that most of the societies talk about Empowerment of women, in some form or the other - like can a woman become US President or in the countries that have had woman Heads of the State or
Government, studied articles on how women can break the glass ceiling of corporate world or more statutory representation in the governance or meaningful incentives for girl education etc. -
probably shows that the society , as a whole, has yet to come out of the mind-set of male dominance.

yves 03/08/2012 14:54



Or at least (put in a more optimistic light) is in the process of doing so!!



Ashok Vaishnav 12/07/2012 06:26


Dera Yves,


Yes, I indeed typed out the message as a draft, to take care of typos goof ups which do creep in if not edited subsequently. I have now typed here and then taken help of MS Word for an offline
editing, before publishing.


It is indeed very difficult to speak, even envisage, the kind of milleu prevalent in the orthodox communities and families even today, for someone, like me, who has not been brought up in that
type of environment. So , the vicarious experience remains the only source to look at the issues.


One would have expected that spread of economic wealth and more exposure to outside world would have made an impact on these mind-sets. But the [so-called] honour killings, perhaps, tells the
state of affairs, as they are.


Social perceptions take time to change!

yves 12/07/2012 20:11



Hello Ashok,


You're right of course about cinema as a good way to be informed about what you can't experience first hand. But it then has to be challenged by other sources of information, if
you have the time and energy to do so!


I believe that some progress exists, as far as backward practices are concerned. Surely exposure and wealth, which you rightly mention, must have a long-term impact in terms of education. There
are also other factors, such as schooling, and the empowerment of women, on whose influence I think we can count to further peace and life values.



Ashok Vaishnav 11/07/2012 05:47


Nazneen’s
character epitomises the complexes of an adolescent girl, grown up in an ultra-conservative society. The flashback
vividly depicts the travails of a growing girl child in such a society a couple decades in the past from now. Suppression of natural curiosity, instincts are apparently the norm in such an orthodox society. She is given away to an ‘old’ man in a marriage. Just as she has entered the age of puberty.


The
married couple moves on to Britain, in the hope of  a
‘better’ life. The

yves 11/07/2012 18:04



Hello Ashok,


You say this situation is "a couple of decades in the past from now": would you say this situation has evolved today, and that such a situation wouldn't be possible any more?


It seems that the end of your message hasn't been typed



Filmbuff 19/04/2010 06:38



Hi Yves


A very good review of a truly good movie. I saw this movie couple of months back ad really liked it. Saitsh Kaushik and Tanishtha have indeed done very well. I liked the way Satish keeps teasing
his daughter saying " I will get this memsaab married to a guy in Dhaka"!



yves 19/04/2010 23:33



Filmbuff,


Thanks for passing by and congrats on your interest in Brick Lane. Satish is really a fine actor, full of humour and humanity!


cheers



astia 22/09/2009 03:33

Wow, what a wonderful review! Thanks a lot. I will not only watch the movie but read the book also. I know that it is bare reality and I feel really bad for those women who have experenced this situation. Hope that this kind of film will shake people's mind and the Bangandeshi authorities!

yves 22/09/2009 11:24


Hello Astia,
It was nice to read your enthusiastic message. In fact I know that the film, and the book as a result of the film, have already shaken things in Bengladeshi circles, because Monica Ali (book
author) has been the target of attacks of various kinds. This shows that certain people are willing to let things remain as they are, and aren't ready yet for women to change their traditional
roles.
cheers
yves


dustedoff 19/09/2009 07:48

That sounds like an interesting (and somewhat unusual) take on the entire immigrant-in-a-foreign-land theme. I'd been discussing this issue, and its reasons and ramifications, with a reader on my blog, and learnt a lot of things - why the fascination for the West, why the need to go West even if it means risking one's life for it, and so on. This, of course, seems to go beyond that and look at life in the West more closely - and in a less masala manner than, say, New York or Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal though those too touch on the theme of Asian immigrants sticking out like a sore thumb... will look out for this.

yves 19/09/2009 10:40


Hello Dustedoff,
Yes, Brick Lane is not done at all in the masala style, and the theme is perhaps less "why" go West (because Nazneen never has the choice) than forced marriages to rich cousins abroad and
therefore the problem of the balance between blood ties and money matters. How much are the girls worth in both aspects is the core of the subject.
And then there is the theme of adaptation to emigrant life, the community pressure, the links with home, the second generation, etc.