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Brick Lane
A Tale of Transformation of an Immigrant Woman

Fahmidul Haq

One can easily discover the thematic similarities between the film Brick Lane (2007) by British director Sarah Gavron and Paroma (1984) by the Indian director Aparna Sen. After serving her husband and caring for her children for several years, an ordinary housewife suddenly discovers that she has passed a large part of her life meaninglessly, not taking car of her own need. Of course, these feelings appear within herself after contact with a young man and she discovers how she has been deprived of the charms of life, how her mind and body have been dispossessed of heavenly happiness on Earth. Gradually, the late-thirties woman turns into a lover from a conventional housewife and feels like a young woman who has fallen in love for the first time. And most importantly, she becomes self-determined and self-asserting.

It is the first feature film by the documentary and short filmmaker Sarah Gavron. Though the title of the film is Brick Lane, adapted from the best selling novel of Monica Ali of the same title, you will not find the presence of Brick Lane or the Bangla Town, London much in the film. The storyline progresses as an indoor family drama. After the incident of 9/11, the ethnic Muslims faced racial hatred from white natives which is there in the text; even then you cannot say it is a political film. Rather, it is a story of a woman who came to London in the 1980s as the wife of an immigrant Bangladeshi. The story tells us about the crisis and relationship within the family and above all, the transformation of the housewife into a self-determined woman.

The adolescent Nazneen had passed her playful life with her sister Hasina by running through green and rich paddy or yellow mustard fields. But Nazneen's life changed when from the wide paddy field she was sent to a flat in Brick Lane, at the age of 17, as the wife of a fat and ugly looking 'educated' man, Chanu Ahmed. From a village girl she becomes an obedient housewife. He goes outside only for shopping. Chanu and Nazneen have two daughters. The elder daughter Shahana, aged 13, likes the western lifestyle and chooses mini skirts or jeans as her dress, which is not appreciated by her father. But the younger daughter Bibi, unlike her sister, is habituated with the Bangladeshi way of living.

In the early part of the film, Chanu resigns from his office because he was not offered the long-awaited promotion. His ego as an 'educated man' created financial uncertainty in the family which he tried to overcome by borrowing money secretly from a lender. But Nazneen came forward with a job which she can do by sitting at home. In relation to her job, she met Karim, a young man, who supplies garments to housewives for sewing. An emotional and physical relationship develops between Nazneen and Karim. From the affair, Nazneen comes to know what real love is. From a soft-spoken ordinary woman she gradually turns into a happy and bright woman. Meanwhile, Chanu tries to leave London, where he finds himself unfit and looks for jobs in Bangladesh. But their elder daughter Shahana does not want to leave London. She knows London, not Bangladesh, as her home.

Then there comes the event of 9/11 which made the living of Muslim immigrants in London difficult. To protect themselves, the young generation started upholding Islam as their identity. Karim becomes the leader of the community and with his newly-kept beard, he becomes a sincere Muslim. A community meeting has been called to decide how the racial hatred they are facing can be dealt with. Chanu and Nazneen attend the meeting where Karim is a speaker in favour of Islamism.

Though the character of Chanu is driven by patriarchy, his extensive reading makes him a humanist as well; he stands against Islamism. Chanu's speech in the community meeting was convincing, but not enough to divert the Islamists. He leaves the meeting and asks himself whether this is the right time to go back. Surprisingly, we see Nazneen hold Chanu's hand for the first time. We see the couple walking, holding hands, in the lonely street at night. The long shot creates an impression that Nazneen is not acknowledging Karim's stand in the period of ethnic crisis and supports her husband. Nazneen is not only becoming financially solvent but also growing politically aware and mature.

Karim asks Nazneen to divorce Chanu and marry him but Nazneen refuses. Nazneen came to know, after everything, that her husband and children are her reality and Brick Lane is her home. She joins her 'short-haired and smoker' neighbour Razia who also provided her the earlier job with Karim, in a sewing job. Nazneen tells Chanu that she cannot go and Chanu says that he cannot stay. Chanu leaves London. The film ends with the scene showing a happy and settled mother and her daughters playing in the white courtyard of the house complex after snowfall. But the plane in the sky makes Nazneen's happy face a bit gloomy with worries.

Though the film is on the Bangladeshi diaspora in London, little participation of Bangladeshis can be mentioned here. The main character Nazneen was performed by Tannishtha Chaterjee who is a rising Indian-Bengali actress in the art house cinema circuit. Satish Kaushik, a known face of Bollywood acted as the character of Chanu. Christopher Simpson as Karim is also not an ethnic Bangladeshi. Other than casts, there was little participation by Bangladeshis as crew. Even the Bangladesh part of the film was shot in West Bengal, India.

The responsibility of the musical score was on Joselin Pook of Eyes Wide Shut and Gangs of New York fame. She has successfully created her scores, but she used very few Bangladeshi or Indian musical tracks. But Pook's soundtrack was really mystic and created the environment of the internal complexity and crisis of the struggling characters.

Sarah Gavron and her cinematographer Robbie Rayan have extensively used close-ups to create their own film language. Especially, some big close-ups of Nazneen's face have been used to describe her internal crisis, transformation and dilemma. Tannishtha Chaterjee was very successful in expressing that complexity. Nazneen's dark brown look could easily represent a Bangali housewife. Her expressions of an introvert and fearful outsider on the streets of Brick Lane perfectly suit the character. Her hesitant involvement in the intimate scenes with Karim reflects reality. Her transformation was not revolutionary, rather gradual and natural. Her hesitance and softness were carried out to the end of the film; hence, her change does not shock us. She regrets the proposal of marriage by Karim and Chanu's insistence to go back in such a soft but firm tone that both of them could not circumvent the position of their 'own' girl. Satish was also successful in portraying his character and in the true sense, it was his show. Nazneen may be the main character of the film, but the narrative was carried by Chanu, who keeps the events live. Albeit his self-contradictory character and ugly look, his style and wise roles do not make him a villain of the text. Except for his figure, we do not hesitate to applaud Satish (Bangladeshi men are not usually so fat). Christopher Simpson also performed well as Karim.

The cinematography was stunning in capturing the bright and colourful nature of Bangladesh. The London part was gloomy. The opposite weather of the opposite worlds can be felt by the which convey Nazneen's reminiscence of her adolescence. Also, the indoor scenes of movement were shot with a hand held camera, especially when Chanu runs to beat his elder daughter, Shahana. Rayan created tension and drama in those scenes. In the novel, the Bangladesh part was stretched with much detailed description. For adaptation's sake, Sarah had to cut it very short with slices of scenes with smooth cuts which was a right choice by the editor.

Paroma's transformation was aesthetic and psychosexual; internationally acclaimed photographer Rahul inspired her in exploring her dormant art sense. Rahul appreciated her skill of playing the sitar. But in Brick Lane, the transformation of Nazneen was economic and psychosexual; the catalyst Karim was no talent but an ordinary small businessman. Hence Nazneen represents thousands of immigrant housewives or hundreds of thousands women back in Bangladesh and makes the film realistic and believable.

The writer is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka. He is currently pursuing his PhD research in the area of Cinema Studies.

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