x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Brick Lane

The tender tone and gentle pace are instantly engaging and about as uncontentious as you could wish for.

A delicate performance by Tannishtha Chatterjee.
A delicate performance by Tannishtha Chatterjee.

The making of this film was so controversial it drew protests from a small but vocal placard-wielding group within the Bangladeshi community of East London. The book from which the movie is derived was written by the Anglo-Bangladeshi author Monica Ali and was wildly popular with almost everyone except the elders of the Sylheti community populating the area now known as Banglatown for its high proportion of Bangladeshi inhabitants. The protesters, who called themselves the Campaign Against Monica Ali's Film Brick Lane, said that Ali (who is not a Sylhet) had misrepresented them, and were adamant that no filming would take place on Brick Lane - in spite of the fact that most members of the community were in favour of the film. The protesters won and the film crew conceded, filming elsewhere in London.

Ultimately, the shoot location is something that would disturb only viewers who are very familiar with the area surrounding Brick Lane - after all, London's post-war council estates differ little from postcode to postcode. But the extreme reaction does tell us something about the power of this subtle book and its subsequent film. In fact, after such an ominous lead-up, the tender tone and gentle pace of Brick Lane are instantly engaging and about as uncontentious as you could wish for. Opening in the vivid dream landscape of the paddy fields of Bangladesh, the young Nazneen and her younger sister Hasina's carefree childhood ends with the tragedy of their mother's death.

Nazneen's father arranges a marriage between the 17-year-old girl and Chanu (Satish Kaushik), a Bangladeshi man living in London's East End: educated, older than her, obese, pompous, but ultimately kindly. Cut to 16 years later, and Nazneen (delicately played by Tannishtha Chatterjee) is living a closed life ministering to her husband and her daughters Shahana (the excellent Naeema Begum) and Bibi (Lana Rahman), who are torn between their western upbringing and understanding their parents' traditional roles. Barely speaking English and leaving the council estate only to go to the market for food, she is desperate to return from the miserably cold, grey Brick Lane to her wild, beloved sister and the green fields of Bangladesh.

She takes on some piecework to save money for the journey, sewing garments for the dashing, fiery young market trader Karim (Christopher Simpson). As her husband reacts to what he sees as a criticism of his masculinity, she yearns for freedom and finds the world opening up beyond her house to the society surrounding her, including the post-September 11 politics of Muslim East London. As she begins to explore her own character and her environment, she realises that Brick Lane has become home not only for her but for her daughters who, like Karim, were born there. Especially poignant to anyone who is living away from home, this is a beautiful tale of independence (does she really need either her husband or Karim?) and of the different kinds of love she develops for Chanu, for her daughters and for her community.