Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Brick Lane (Sony Pictures Classics, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a British production called Brick Lane, named after a street in the Shoreditch section of London where there’s a large concentration of immigrants from Bangladesh — and yes, they are clearly identified as Bangladeshi and not Indian or Pakistani, even though the sequences representing the characters’ memories of life in their home country were shot in India and the leading actress is a Bengali Hindu from India. The central character is Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a Bangladeshi woman who’s shipped off to London in the early 1980’s to take part in an arranged marriage with homely, large middle-aged Chanu (Satish Kaushik). By the late 1990’s she’s borne him three children, a son who died in his first few years and two daughters, Shahana (Naeema Begum) and Bibi (Lana Rahman), who survived — and Shahana is just entering teenagerhood and discovering the dubious joys of adolescent rebellion. Nazneen has kept up a regular correspondence with Hasina (Zafreen), her sister back home — Hasina is an on-screen character but is seen only in Nazneen’s flashbacks to their childhood together and fantasies of her current life — and longs for the chance to return.

Chanu himself decides the family should move back to Bangladesh, and in order to save up the money to do so he reluctantly allows Nazneen to buy a sewing machine (she borrows the money from a white-haired, puffy-faced female loan shark who has worked out the usual dipsy-doodles required of Muslim capitalists so they can actually charge interest while pretending that they’re not doing so, since the Koran strictly forbids loaning money for interest) so she can do piecework making jeans for a sweatshop factory. While doing this she gets involved with a Muslim defense group called the “Bengal Tigers” who organize to defend the community against gangs of racist whites who periodically invade the neighborhood and beat people up at random. One of her fellow workers, Karim (Christopher Simpson), is also involved in the Bengal Tigers and the two drift into an affair. He tries to get her to stay behind even as her family relocates, and eventually she declines his offer to marry him if she can divorce her husband but nonetheless she stays in London with her kids while their father moves back to Bangladesh.

It’s impossible at the moment to think of any movie about people from the Indian subcontinent — even one, like this, which doesn’t take place there — without making the inevitable comparisons to Slumdog Millionaire (whose protagonists are also Muslims), and the two films overlap in their depiction not only of the grinding poverty of the community but the grim determination of the people to survive it and do their best to get ahead in the face of the hamstringing traditions that are holding them back, but whereas Slumdog charmed with its fairy-tale atmosphere Brick Lane moves on many levels — as a woman-rebels movie, a resilience-in-the-face-of-poverty-and-racism movie, as a journey of self-discovery and as a film with a group of genuinely lovable and charming characters. Even Chanu is presented less as hateful than simply limited; as the film progresses we lose our distaste for this character (at first Brick Lane seems like The Color Purple transposed from rural African-Americans to urban Indo-Brits, and we think Chanu is going to be a stick-figure villain like the husband in that story) and he takes on a surprising degree of pathos — and in the scene in which he crashes the Bengal Tigers meeting and asks why they think they have to mobilize to “defend Islam” when the Islam he believes in is in his heart and no racist bashers can take it away from him is quite surprising and beautiful.

Though it was discouraging that cinematographer Robbie Ryan is yet another devotee of the past-is-brown school and a subscriber to the dictum that the way to illustrate poverty on screen is carefully avoid bright colors at all, for the most part the film is quite sensitively made, directed by Sarah Gavron from a script by Laura Jones and Abi Morgan from a novel by Monica Ali and dramatized in a quite subtle way that draws us into the lives of these characters. One interesting thing about this movie is that the 9/11 attacks are used as an important subplot — when they occur, the central characters are convinced (rightly) that they’re going to be in even more danger from the racist bashers than they were before — and it’s fascinating that the famous footage of them (shown in clips from the TV coverage we all saw back then) no longer carries the kind of emotional wallop it did seven or even four years ago (one reason last year’s Presidential election turned out so differently from the one in 2004).