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Diaspora Angst: Brick Lane
Reviewed by Ras Hafiz Siddiqui.
Rating: **** (Superior)
Directed by: Sarah Gavron
Assistant Director: Sangeeta Datta, Ruhul Amin
Based on the novel by: Monica Ali
Music: Jocelyn Pook
Starring: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Zafreen, Christopher Simpson, Harvey Virdi, Naeema Begum and Lana Rahman.
(Above): Tannishtha Chatterjee walks down the eponimous street in “Brick Lane.”
Brick Lane has finally arrived at theaters in the United States and played in Sacramento, Calif. where we got a chance to view it. This finely spun story by novelist Monica Ali charts the story of an immigrant Bangladeshi woman who ends up in a flat at London’s East End at Brick Lane. Directed by Sarah Gavron (if this is her first major effort she has quite a future in filmmaking), who works with a complex story here and ends making it seamless for viewers of any background.
The movie starts with a young girl of seventeen in Bangladesh named Nazneen, who once thought that she would never leave the predictable happiness of her village paddy field or be apart from her sister. Instead she is led by fate into an arranged marriage to an older man in Britain after the suicide of her mother. Many years pass and now she lives with her husband Chanu Ahmed and two daughters Shahana and Bibi in completely different surroundings. Pavement and bricks now dominate her surrounding landscape instead of the greenery of Bengal. But within the contrasts there is also a deep sense of discovery and loss.
(Above): Tannishtha Chatterjee (3rd from l) and Satish Kaushik (r) with two young actors in “Brick Lane.”
Brick Lane exposes the core of a complex immigrant dilemma. Asians who move to the Western world often live with this dilemma and just choose to ignore it. But that does not mean that it goes away quickly. Memories we discover need as much time to develop as is needed to forget them.
Nazneen (beautifully played by Tannishtha Chatterjee) is a Muslim woman who keeps very much to herself in her Brick Lane flat and lets Chanu (Satish Kaushik in a convincing turn), her aging overweight husband, make all of the family decisions (which according to her village wisdom are is supposed to be made by and are the domain of males). But changes are in the works for all concerned. Old beliefs are challenged.
Chanu prides himself on being educated and is doing the best that he can for his wife and two daughters. But he is passed over for a promotion as a local is preferred, and with his pride hurt, he resigns. For the first time in her life Nazneen herself has to worry about the family finances and takes up sewing garments to earn a living, aided by a liberated neighbor Razia (Harvey Virdi) who gives her an old sewing machine. And, as one can guess, the focus of her life also changes with her new-found independence. She has been a dutiful wife to Chanu but has lived in an unexciting and loveless marriage. Her main joy has been the letters that she gets from “back home” in Bangladesh from her sister Hasina whose life seems to revolve around many men. Nazneen continually dreams of going home before her own life changes.
(Above): Images of the verdant cropland like this recur in the mind of Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) in “Brick Lane.”
Nazneen is slowly attracted to a young garment merchant Karim (Christopher Simpson) who makes her smile and with whom she has a physical relationship. Adultery is one troublesome aspect that enters into Nazneen’s life, but there is something more ominous that impacts all Bangladeshis and Muslims in Britain. That is 9/11. The terrorist attacks in New York increase the racial and religious divide in London, too. The fact that Karim is also politically active in his community does not escape Nazneen’s attention either. Karim is at home because he is British. Nazneen and Chanu, on the other hand, are immigrants but their daughters Shahana and Bibi, like Karim, are true Londoners.
Two mini-stories emerge in this film from beyond Nazneen’s focus and also capture the viewer’s attention. The first is the disintegrating life of Chanu, who in spite of his shortcomings, is not really a bad guy. His character could easily fit the life of any aging immigrant in the West who has migrated from his roots to make it big. He dreams of going home successful, but falls way short of his goals. Chanu is forced to drive a taxi. His story is not an easy one to tell but many viewers, especially immigrants, here in the U.S., will be able to relate to it. Chanu now feels that he is no longer wanted because of his age and, after 9/11, also because of his religion and race. He wants to take his family back to Bangladesh. What he neglects to find out is that he does not have their consent. His older daughter Shahana in particular rebels.
(Above): Tannishtha Chatterjee in “Brick Lane.”
The second story that emerges powerfully in this movie is Shahana’s (Naeema Begum) and her relationship with her parents. While Chanu certainly and Nazneen on occasion want to go “home” Shahana is already home. She does not want to leave. When she runs away, Nazneen chases her. Over the long distance of the chase, much symbolism comes into play. This pursuit is a desperate one. Children of South Asians are growing up overseas, in Britain and America, and their parents discover how difficult it is to mould them to their own way of life. It is just not possible. They can chase them all they want, but in the end they themselves are forced to confront the fact that these kids are not from the land of their immigrant parents but from where they were born and grew up. That message is highlighted quite convincingly in Brick Lane.
This is Nazneen’s story, about women in changing roles. But it is also about immigrants who bring with them their own baggage of memories. It appears that for some, over time, these memories get selective. The bad ones are suppressed and the good ones remain. In a way, Brick Lane rekindles both. It is about barriers but not about erecting them. The film is a reminder that winning and not losing is the goal but home is an ever elusive place if one has to choose between different kinds of love. A wonderful film!
Ras Hafiz Siddiqui is a South Asian American writer who lives in Sacramento, Calif.