I tried to finish reading Monica Ali’s much lauded debut novel Brick Lane before going to a recent screening of Sarah Gavron’s film adaptation, but only got as far as Nazneen’s first pregnancy.
The film opens with the briefest of gloss over Nazneen and her sister’s early days in Bangladesh (the part I had read about), and by the time the opening credits have rolled, Nazneen has long been married, and is residing near London’s Brick Lane in a council flat (in Dublin, we used to call them corporation flats, but they looked exactly the same) with her husband, Chanu, and two daughters, one who is a young teen, in full eye-rolling, mouthy rebellion, antagonizing her father at every opportunity. (Mumbling her way through a forced performance of Tagore’s poetry when a guest is over for dinner.)
Tannishtha Chatterjee plays Nazneen, the (literally) much put-upon wife. (Not only does she endure her oversized husband’s silent-then-wheezing mating habits with her eyes wide open, on other evenings she tends to the corns on his feet.) It was drummed into her and the sister who remains back in Dhaka that we must all accept our fate, which must be why Nazneen goes about with much of the film with her eyes downcast, head covered and silently going along with most of her husband’s ideas and directives.
Chanu (played by Satish Kaushik, a man many will recognize for his comedic roles in Hindi movies) takes great pride in his knowledge of Chaucer and Thackeray, and as he trundles off to work every day, anorak over his suit (just like Bertie Ahern in his early days as Taoiseach), he is convinced that a long-awaited promotion is just around the corner.
When Chanu gets passed over, he quits in a huff, thereby setting up a situation that will lead Nazneen into the arms of hunky Karim (Christopher Simpson): her neighbor, Razia (Harvey Virdi), a short-haired and independent woman, gives her a sewing machine, allowing Nazneen to make some money for the family by taking in tailoring work, delivered each week by the afore-mentioned Karim.
Attraction and love bloom between the two, in Karim’s increasing visits to the close quarters of the flat. In those scenes between the two, you can feel the warm undertow as they are drawn to each other. Then September 11 happens. Karim tries to go funda, growing a beard and attending local meetings of the Bengal Tigers. Chanu declares that, to avoid the backlash he expects to come, the family will return to Bangladesh, and he slowly begins planning for that event, much to the despair of his elder daughter, and the bewilderment of Nazneen.
Visually, Brick Lane is lyrical and lush with color. The action will often cut back to Bangladesh, to rich greens and Nazneen’s memories of her young self and her sister. In the dull, redbricked low-income housing estate and the grey London streets, the many different saris Nazneen wears (honestly, for a woman whose family is not well off, I don’t think I saw her in the same sari twice) are a rich contrast. Other rare flashes of relief to the urban English monochromatic landscape come as cherry blossoms and snow appear and disappear with equal speed.
But where I had problems was with the main characters. I couldn’t see enough of what was lurking behind the set pieces of The Domineering Husband, The Obedient Wife and The Brash Young Lover. Surely there was more? What were they thinking as they made the choices they did?
The film’s ending is somewhat satisfying, somewhat confusing, and bittersweet. I did feel a bit teary for poor Chanu and happy for Nazneen, but I wondered how this scenario could have realistically come to be.
See it or skip it?
Tough call. The film left me feeling curious about the storylines and the characters’ motivations, and somewhat unsatisfied, but I am very glad to have been introduced to Tannishtha Chatterjee and Christopher Simpson, as well as having a chance to watch Satish Kaushik in a more serious role, and to have enjoyed the visual treat of Gavron and her team’s use of color.
Naeema Begum, the young girl who plays the firebrand in the household, Shahana, does a wonderful turn in Brick Lane, and like Chatterjee and Simpson, I hope we’ll see more of her in the future.
Also, given the heft of India, it’s not often that we get to see a mainstream movie that tells a story of her neighbor to the East, and this too is welcome.