By Aaron Hillis
British filmmaker Sarah Gavron began her career making documentaries and television projects. Her BBC drama “This Little Life” won two BAFTAs, she’s been nominated for one more, and her shorts have racked up jury awards and acclaim on the festival circuit. Gavron’s vibrant feature debut “Brick Lane” is an adaptation of Monica Ali’s controversial bestselling novel about a Bangladeshi woman named Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee, in a truly anchoring performance) who’s forced into an arranged marriage at 17 to the much older Chanu (Satish Kaushik). Moved into the titular block of flats in London’s East End, Nazneen tries to make sense of her new life while dutifully raising a family, but her unrealized passions are awakened when she meets and begins an affair with a politically confrontational young Muslim local named Karim (Christopher Simpson). Gavron and I chatted about adapting Ali’s book and her surprising experiences within the Bangladeshi community.
As a first-time feature filmmaker, was it a challenge getting all the period details correct?
Yeah, I suppose this project was daunting for a number of reasons, and that was one of them. By deciding to set the majority of the story in 2001, there are subtle but explicit changes from that time, then we had Bangladesh of [Nazneen’s] childhood, which was 1985. But you go to villages in that part of the world and they’re still untouched by the modern world. You can find villages very near urban centers that have no televisions, no telephones, no cars, no electricity. With this film, [the greater challenge] was the cultural element I was an outsider to that community. I had to work really closely with people from the Bangladeshi community, who helped me fill out the particulars of that world.
I realize when adapting a 500-page novel that spans three decades you’d have to distill some of the material, but why did you decide to concentrate the story on 2001?
In our imaginations, you could have told the parallel story of two sisters. The sister’s letters are a large part of the novel, a literary device you would have to translate. You could have told the three-part journey of Nazneen as thesis, antithesis and synthesis of her life, but we decided to focus on looking through that prism of 2001, partly because that’s when her journey begins. That’s when she meets Karim, that’s when her eyes open up to the world, that’s when the background of the world changes with the cultural shifts in London and political shifts through 9/11. So it was the year of transformation, and everything else you could suggest.
How did you approach Karim’s post-9/11 radicalization to avoid oversimplification?
We’re saturated with images of radical Islam, suicide bombers and wife beaters %#151; all those stereotypes of the extreme version of the Muslim community in drama and literature. And post-Monica’s book, there seems to be an abundance of it on British television, I have to tell you. So what seemed unique to me about the novel was that at its heart it was a human story that happened to be set in this community, against that backdrop. These are characters that people could relate to, connect to, across generations. So you’d see 9/11, but through this very particular perspective, and only in glimpses. You’d see the change in Karim, but only through [Nazneen’s] eyes. It wasn’t a film that even pretended to embrace and explore those issues. It was this one woman’s journey, and as these things touched her, you saw them.
The book itself had a few detractors within a Bangladeshi minority group, who apparently didn’t want the film to be shot in the real Brick Lane. How did that affect the production itself?
It’s worth unpacking because it’s distorting if you just read the regional stories. As an outsider, I couldn’t have made the film without working very closely with this cast and crew, many of whom were Bangladeshi. What you realize about filmmakers in [South Asia] is that they’re very subversive, particularly in Bangladesh, because if you make films, you’re already on the edges of society. Whereas in Britain, you don’t often count just making a film as a political act.
What I discovered through making this film was what was deeply political about it, that the Western perspective completely misses, that it’s told from the point of view of a marginalized voice. It’s about a woman’s journey towards independence, and that was what they react to because they’re not interested in political unrest on the streets or radical Islam. It’s not a representation, it’s one fictional story. When we were shooting the interior of the flat, we got this phone call at midnight saying that there was this threat as we were about to shoot on Brick Lane itself. Do you know that area?
Only what I’ve read while researching for this interview.
It’s a great, vibrant, interesting area. Anyway, this threat got a lot of media coverage because there was an implicitly violent agenda there, but what emerged was that it was this tiny group five men really a vocal minority who were saying they objected to things that weren’t in the book or the film. They cited things like a leech falling into a curry pot in a Brick Lane restaurant that might do damage to business. What was probably underpinning it was that they didn’t like this story of a woman, where her journey ends up.
The western media picked it up, and it became this story of controversy. All the Bangladeshis on our crew were upset and saying, “These people don’t represent us.” But you wouldn’t have known that from the press coverage. It felt like the entire community was out there. We carried on, didn’t change anything in the film or the script, but we did shoot other stuff. Film is a machine, you never stop. We slightly relocated a market scene, but we came back to Brick Lane with a slightly smaller crew and got the shots we needed when the media coverage died down.
With plenty of exceptions, there seems to be a certain dry, bleak, kitchen-sink sameness to British drama these days. Do you feel this way? Do others in Britain?
Yeah, I think they do. As you say, there are many exceptions, but somehow, that doesn’t come through. There hasn’t been [something like] Denmark, which had a revolution with Dogme, and you felt that their whole film industry had changed and re-identified itself. Even though these gems come out of Britain, somehow they haven’t made their mark, and you still associate it with this particular kind of drama. I made a conscious decision to go for an aesthetic that was outside that. We know [Nazneen’s] council estate’s grim and we do see there’s graffiti, racist attacks and poverty. What we don’t see so much is there was this blossom tree that all these women would stand under. You go into these Bangladeshi homes and they have these rich fabrics that remind them of the colors of home; you don’t expect that so much. When the council estate is forbidding because [Nazneen] sees it as that, we show it as that. When she has delusions [of being] in love, she sees a brighter and more welcoming world. I made a decision that the aesthetic of the film would be driven by that, which is less usual to British cinema.
What did you find most surprising about Bangladeshi culture?
Just going to Bangladesh was an experience… if you go into small villages in the U.K., they’re backward and culturally devoid. But if you go into small villages in Bangladesh, they have classical music concerts. There are people who’ve been studying the flutes for years. There’s a kind of inbuilt cultural sense that I find fascinating and inspiring. It’s also a country that’s beset by natural disasters and political instability; what was striking was how confident the new generation are and how they’re now contributing politically. There’s such a sharp difference from parents to children. The younger generation of Bangladeshi men and women used to shock their parents by going clubbing and wearing short skirts, and now they shock their parents by wearing the hijab. We wanted to touch on [this], not explain or offer easy answers on radicalism or arranged marriage, but suggest things. It’s all political. In Bangladesh, if you put a kiss in a film, it’s political.
[Photo: Tannishtha Chatterjee as Nazneen; Satish Kaushik and Chatterjee; director Sarah Gavron on set – “Brick Lane,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]
“Brick Lane” opens in limited release on June 20.