When I spoke to Sarah Gavron at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 25, 2008, her film, BRICK LANE, was screening and she was anxious to find out what Bay Area audiences would make of it. She needn’t have worried, but then, worry was part of the process of bringing Monica Ali’s novel to the screen. Condensing a story of over 500 pages about a Bengali woman who doesn’t have her voice had its own inherent problems, as did Gavron’s distinctly non-Bengali background. She was game, and during our talk, she ebulliently recounted finding the right actress to play Nazneen, coloring Nazneen’s world, and finding just the right chemistry on screen.
All credit to director Sarah Gavron and company for taking on the task of adapting “Brick Lane”, Monica Ali’s finely realized novel to the big screen. They’ve made bold cuts, condensing the story, but not the emotions, and distilling from it the essence of a woman’s journey from darkness to light.
The darkness is the overwhelming self-abnegation that Bangladeshi society demands of its women. Specifically the demands on Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a village girl brought to the eponymous gritty, working-class area of London by Chanu (Satish Kaushik) her husband, an older man with a weakness for English literature and the British Civil Service to whom she was married off at a tender age and without having had a say in the matter. Years of living in London have isolated Nazneen in more ways than one. Her husband, a man with his own difficulties in being a Bangladeshi in England, treats her with the sort of off-handed affection usually reserved for a pet, talking at her, not to her and certainly not having conversations of any substance. Her teenaged daughters, Londoners to the core, barely notice her. The hubbub generated by her family in the morning as they prepare to leave for work or school is suddenly replaced by the thundering silence of an empty house whose inhabitants have lives that don’t include her. She makes up for it with a deep nurturing faith that refreshes her with the light she asks Allah for, and with the endless stream of letters from her little sister left behind in Bangladesh, whose adventures in romance provide Nazneen an emotional connection. The letters she writes back sustain her by giving her an outlet for her own thoughts and dreams, even as her memories of village life sustain her through the gray London winters and grayer ex-pat life that includes dirty looks from Anglo neighbors and racist gangs roaming the area. Visually, Gavron creates a brilliantly poignant juxtaposition between the present, with Nazneen being a fixture rather than a person, even during a dreary and mechanical bout of coitus with her husband, and the luminous memories of her childhood and the joyous, laughing closeness she enjoyed with her sister in tropical lushness.
Click here for the full review of BRICK LANE.