The theme of the immigrant experience has become a burgeoning sub-genre in both cinema and literature. The latest such film on tap is “Brick Lane,” a debut feature helmed by Sarah Gavron, who previously had mainly a BAFTA-winning TV movie to her credit. The project presented multiple challenges. Writers Laura Jones and Abi Morgan had to compress the acclaimed 500 page novel by Monica Ali (short listed for Britain’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2003). Gavron needed to devise a visual equivalent for the rich inner life of a notably silent heroine. The filmmakers scoured the world in search of actors to play the Bangladeshi characters. Add to that, Gavron, who’s Caucasian, was making a movie about Bangladeshis.
The story concerns Nazneen (Tanishtha Chatterjee), a poor Bangladeshi village girl, who’s sent to London at age seventeen for an arranged marriage to an older, educated man (the splendid Satish Kaushik). The film focuses on the signal year 2001, with Nazneen now thirty and living with her family in a dreary apartment complex. Imbued with her mother’s precepts, Nazneen resignedly accepts her marriage to a corpulent blowhard with an inflated sense of his own prospects, raising two irreverent daughters, taking in sewing, and finding escape in shimmering memories of life in her native country with a beloved sister who married for love. Enter hot, young Karim (Christopher Simpson), who becomes her lover and opens her to the wider world.
To date “Brick” has been unevenly received. While Monica Ali’s novel was sprawling and Dickensian, the film is a chamber piece, foregoing dramatic thrust in favor of quiet moments leading a reticient woman toward self-discovery. With its delicacy and penchant for pretty images, “Brick” raises the uncomfortable notion of cinema that reflects a female sensibility. On the plus side, this story of a woman’s coming of age should resonate with female viewers across ethnic groups. “Brick” also takes a complex view of Islamic culture, often reversing expectations: the good-hearted, if clownish Chanu defies the usual stereotype of the Muslim husband to become a nuanced, poignant figure. And at the film’s heart lies the question, What is home? indieWIRE recently sat down with Sarah Gavron, a refreshing and unassuming woman who discussed her film in a Brit accent so plummy you could spread it on a scone.
indieWIRE: when you were filming in East London, the real inhabitants of Brick Lane raised hell and cadged a lot of publicity. What was that all about?
Sarah Gavron: Though I grew up around immigrant communities and knew East London pretty well, not being Bangladeshi, I was an outsider to that world. Now, there are certain advantages to the director being the outsider. Standing at the door looking in, you can pull the universal story. Look at Shekhar Kapur and “Elizabeth.” Ang Lee came over and made the quintessential English film, “Sense and Sensibility“. Anyway, we were about to shoot on Brick Lane – it’s called Banglatown, a really vibrant area, a symbolic type of place. A sanctuary for immigrants searching for a home. The mosque used to be a synagogue; before that it was a church — it reflects the changing population … And I got this call that there was a threat. If we shot on the street itself people might get hurt. You take that seriously, obviously. We investigated and it turned out to be a tiny minority, some of whom hadn’t read the book. They were talking about scenes that might upset businesses. Like a leech falling into a curry pot in a Brick Lane restaurant – which wasn’t in the book. A lot of people from the community came out and said this doesn’t reflect our view. But because they threatened violence, their voices were heard.
iW: What do you think was their real objection? Was it a fundamentalist group that was opposed?
No, mostly some older traditional men in the community. And probably underpinning their opposition, though they never stated it, was that the story is about a woman’s journey toward independence.
iW: What drew you to this story? Was it the notion of a woman’s self-empowerment – I hate that phrase!
I’m not crazy about empowerment either. How about finding her place in the world and her voice?
iW: Did you ever fear that this might be an overworked theme? It’s awfully common here in books, theater, and film. How did you meet the challenge of making it fresh?
No one has asked that question before. I felt what was unique about the novel was that though it’s set in this niche in society, the story’s universal. It’s about people we can all connect with. And it’s not dealing with the extremes or the stereotypes of Asian cinema – not about suicide bombers or a wife beater. In fact, the husband Chanu is not at all what you expect. And Nasneen doesn’t throw off her sari and put on Western clothes. It’s not that journey. It’s a rather quieter one that deals with the human story and views the political from inside. You know, in England, you sit next to a veiled woman on the underground and they feel like the Other, they feel very separate. But all sorts of white women bought the book and connected with the marriage. Which is unusual for a story set in that community about an arranged marriage
iW: What did women identify with?
The sense of entrapment. At a film festival an older Spanish woman came up with her son and he said, she wants to kiss you for putting her life on the screen. So it crosses these cultures. I could really connect to it because Naseen was closest to my grandmother, who was a first generation immigrant from Germany in the 50’s, a time very restrictive for women. And Nasneen’s journey happens in rather an original way, not the obvious way of a woman who becomes an outspoken person and reads feminist literature. She’s not that, but someone sophisticated in a very different way.
iW: How did you meet the challenge of conveying Nasneen’s inner life in cinematic terms?
That was the central challenge. How you cinematically capture that journey. It’s more of an emotional journey.. So my strategy was to project the film through her eyes. The camera, so to speak, is subjective; the mise en scene, the music, the lighting, the sound, the camera positions are all reflecting her emotional state in some way. And the Bangladesh of her childhood is deliberately idealized, and we subvert it later on. Because of course the reality is that Bangladesh is a country beset by natural disasters and political instability. But it’s also beautiful and culturally rich. And if you talk to immigrants, what they remember is an idealized version of it. And I wanted to capture that and show how she’s living in a dreamworld, sort of hiding from the harsh realities: her sister’s life, her mother’s suicide, the unsuitability of her lover. And it’s only towards the end when she has that breakdown and Chanu confronts her with the truth [about her sister] that she lets go of the past.
iW: Have you heard from Monica Ali?
Very much so. At first she was incredibly uninvolved. We sent her casting tapes and scripts. They were unopened. We invited her to the set. She didn’t come. She admitted that she’d read this quote by novelist John Fowles that having your novel turned into a film is like watching oxen turned into bouillon cubes. Then I pushed her to come to a rough cut screening of the film. And she said she felt that we’d really captured the essence of the book and she had the unnerving experience of watching her characters walk off the page. And from that point on, she was very hands on and supportive, and came to Toronto and the BAFTAs and really supported us through the process of putting it out.
iW: You’ve directed only TV movies, shorts and docs. What gave you the confidence that you could take on a film of this dimension?
At first I felt daunted and scared.
iW : Why did they offer it to you?
I’d made this film called “This Little Life,” and it went round the fests and won awards and did well. It was a subjective story told from a woman’s perspective, And the woman who runs Film Four liked it a lot. And when they optioned “Brick Lane,” they thought of me. I didn’t make it any different way than I made the other films. But just in practical terms, there was more pressure.
iW: Though the film is set in 2001, I was struck by how you soft-pedaled the political aspects of the story. What dictated that decision?
You go into those communities, and they’re not concerned with depictions of radical Islam and extremism. We’re saturated with those on our TV screens and drama and media. Y’know, that’s our only image. But an incendiary subject in those communities is a woman having an affair. For a Muslim that’s political. And what’s really deeply political is telling the story from the POV of a marginalized voice, which is the woman, and seeing the world through her eyes. Of course from a Western perspective, we don’t get that …
iW: But I meant the political dimension in the film seems almost an omission.
Well, what the novel does, and it’s very timely, is it approaches the politics from the interior. It’s not an issue film. We’ve had all these issue films. TV deals with it endlessly. What we haven’t had is something that looks at an ordinary family who is dealing with those struggles. And very deliberately sticks with this cloistered female perspective that sees those political events that we all know about. It’s about how they impact on one individual. The effect of 9/11 was that Nazneen’s little family realizes that they were going to be the target of Islamaphobic attacks. It motivated Chanu to want to go home. It changes the views of her lover. But Nazneen only glimpses these things fleetingly, because we stay in her very particular perspective. And I thought that would be the original thing to do.