Thursday, July 24, 2008

Brick Lane: Building a life

Brick Lane (2007) • View trailer for Brick Lane
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and quite unnecessarily, for fleeting sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.24.08
Buy DVD: Brick Lane

Having seen her mother commit suicide out of despair, 17-year-old Nazneen's father rips the young woman from the only life she knows in her poor Bangladeshi village, and ships her off to an arranged marriage with an older man who resides in a dilapidated block of flats in London's East End.

Challenging such a decision, which removes Nazneen from the sister she adores, is unthinkable; nor can she even raise any questions.
Having finally decided to take his family on a trip to Bangladesh, the laughably
pompous Chanu (Satish Kaushik, far right) only then insists on "seeing the
sights" in the city — London — that has been their home for so many years.
The resulting family picnic is a source of tolerant amusement to Chantu's
wife, Nazneed (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and barely concealed boredom to their
daughters, from left, Bibi (Lana Rahman) and Shahana (Naeema Begum).

"If Allah had wanted us to ask questions," her older self intones, in narrative voice-over, "he would have made us men."

Such mordant, resigned irony cuts to the core of Brick Lane, director Sarah Gavron's sensitive, eye-opening adaptation of Monica Ali's novel, scripted with impressive care by Abi Morgan and Laura Jones. Although this film can do no more than capture a sense of Ali's intimate book, Gavron's sure hand coaxes telling performances from her central characters, and most particularly from Tannishtha Chatterjee, as the adult Nazneen.

The story proper commences 16 years later, as Nazneen has settled into her dull, empty routine as the wife of Chanu (Satish Kaushik), a large, almost comically formal man nearly crippled by a surfeit of wholly misguided pride. He is the unquestioned lord and master of the household, and we take for granted the fact that Nazneen leaves these small rooms — merely one of many identical flats along the lane that gives this film its name — only to shop for food.

She has neither friends nor acquaintances, hobbies nor avocations: nothing to bring the slightest measure of joy into her life.

Nothing of hers.

Even their two bright and rambunctious daughters — 14-year-old Shahana (Naeema Begum) and 10-year-old Bibi (Lana Rahman) — are at best a mixed blessing, because during moments of anger Chanu is more likely to speak of the infant son who died, years earlier. Instead, Chanu grumbles, Allah has "cursed" him with only daughters.

There's a great temptation, during these early scenes, to dismiss Chanu as a brutish, callous, unloving misanthrope ... but that's both too simple and too indicative of our own reflexive Western sensibilities. Brick Lane, as it progresses, is a quiet waiting game that rewards our patience with small miracles: most particularly the fact (to her surprise) that Nazneen does, in her own way, genuinely love her husband ... and the astonishing realization, eventually, that we also pity and sympathize with the man.

Because Chanu is as much a victim of his own cultural heritage as Nazneen.

For years, the only radiance in Nazneen's existence has been the infrequent mail from her sister, Hasina, who remained in Bangladesh. The other girl speaks merrily of falling in love with this man or that, her words a poignant reminder of the homeland Nazneen has hoped, lo these many years, to see again.

Chanu periodically speaks of his own desire to "return home," but we quickly realize that he's a blue-sky dreamer, as incapable of genuinely planning such a journey as he is at holding down a steady job.

Indeed, in the wake of Chanu's most recent exodus — he quits after failing to receive a promotion he believes he deserved — Nazneen finally works up the courage to learn more about a new neighbor, Razia, who does not wear a sari, and whose short hair and brash manner cannot help but intrigue our sheltered protagonist.

Razia earns money by sewing at home, and is kind enough to give Nazneen her old sewing machine ... and, suddenly, Nazneen realizes that she has the power to earn money herself, and thus save enough to finance the long-planned return to Bangladesh.

We wince as Chanu returns home that first evening, and confronts his wife and daughters marveling over the new machine in their home; an explosion seems inevitable. But Chanu then stands revealed as nothing but impotent bluff and bluster; he cannot even confront his wife in the manner of a "proper" husband.

Instead, he quietly sabotages Nazneen's efforts by bringing home a computer (!) that has been purchased with money he borrowed from a usurious neighbor — Lalita Ahmed, as the waspish Mrs. Islam — who spends the rest of the film demanding payments from Nazneen.

You'll never hate Chanu more than during Nazneen's first encounter with this shrewish little loan shark.

But the flower of Nazneen's soul, so long dormant, has begun to blossom. Doing her own work is part of the transformation; the more important change comes with her growing interest in Karim (Christopher Simpson), a young British Bangladeshi man who brings fresh batches of sewing work to the women in these flats.

Karim, in turn, views Nazneen as "real" in a way wholly unlike the flirty birds with whom he has spent his time until now.

Despite the presence of technological trappings such as Chanu's computer, this story's setting seems oddly timeless, these characters playing out roles that might not have changed in hundreds of years. It's therefore a shock when everybody's attention is riveted, one day, to the images of those two planes diving into the twin towers; we're abruptly reminded that an entire world has, in fact, been existing outside the confines of Brick Lane.

With that horrific act on American soil, all the dynamics change, of necessity. The young and idealistic Karim becomes more politicized, as do many in the area, as a means of self-defense. The racism that has dogged these people from the beginning now takes on an element of danger, because Westerners now view all Muslims as potential terrorists.

It's intriguing that so much takes place in a film that feels so isolated. Credit Chatterjee, who delivers such a finely shaded performance as an adult finally allowed — or, perhaps more correctly, who finally allows herself — to perceive and slowly, then with growing excitement, embrace the wider world with the giddy wonder of a child.

This is an empowerment saga, and a very moving one; at the same time, it's a cautionary tale about cultural and gender limitations, and the dangers of making judgments. Chanu, for all his male-centered arrogance, is a pathetic creature; Kaushik portrays this man as progressively less able to control his own destiny, let alone that of his wife and daughters.

He's a man at least a century out of his comfort zone; with his naive belief that people will admire his reliance on "great books," he sounds more like somebody who would have embraced the era of the British Raj.

Nazneen and Chanu's lives chart oddly conflicting paths: The more she learns about herself, and the world around her, the happier she becomes. Conversely, the more Chanu is confronted by his limitations — the degree to which he cannot fit in with modern British society — the more miserable he becomes.

Eventually, as it must, the very nature of "home" takes on divergent meanings for these two people ... and therein lies the true heart of Brick Lane. Change, like love, can begin with undetectable subtlety, until one day we look around and perceive — and embrace — an enormous depth of feeling.

We spend this entire film waiting for Chatterjee's face to light up with a genuine smile. At that point, finally, we're also able to grin.

No comments:

Post a Comment