Brick Lane

Issue section: 

Director: Sarah Gavron; Release date: 16 November

Brick Lane is the story of a woman who comes from a village in Bangladesh to live in Bangla town. It describes the mundane world that Nazneen lives in, where very little happens. The film focuses on her relationship with her husband, her young lover and her children. The film looks at the ordinary: the nothingness and the loneliness of living in London.

The strength of Monica Ali's book, and now the film, lies in her ability to highlight the isolation that Nazneen feels as a machinist working from home. She watches life around her through net curtains. The film also shows something of the experience of migrant Bengali women that is not often seen by the outside world. Nazneen's sexuality is explored, as is her work. It tries to show the connection that Nazneen has to Bangladesh through letters from her sister.

Her sister's life is contrasted with Nazneen's mundane existence. We hear of her sister falling in love, divorcing her husband, and living as a prostitute. The hardship that Nazneen's sister experiences highlights the effect of poverty on women's lives while at the same showing her resilience.

Chanu, Nazneen's husband, feels he could achieve more in life, aspiring to be more like his doctor friend, but he never got the success or promotion he felt he deserved. The film shows this frustration very well, contrasting it with the way his daughters are more relaxed and comfortable with their life in London.

Nazneen falls in love with Karim, who deliverers the garments for her to sew. He is a young man brought up in London, angry at the racism he encounters. The film depicts the anti-war campaigning that Karim leads in the area.

Where the film fails is in taking out some of the areas of the book that were more politically sensitive. For example, although Chanu says he wants to migrate back to Dhaka, we are not told directly whether the characters are Sylheti or Bengali. In an area like Brick Lane the fact that they are not Sylheti would very much distinguish them due to the language of the other Bengali residents.

The book has been criticised for looking down at Sylhetis for two reasons. In one chapter Chanu talks about the Sylhetis in a derogatory way, and in another a member of the other main Sylheti family is a drug user. Both of these parts of the story have been taken out of the film.

In my view it would have been better to have dealt with these issues, instead of evading them, to further highlight that although the character of Chanu may look down at Sylheti people this is not the aim of the production.

The other thing the book has been criticised for is that it is not representative, as Monica Ali is mixed race and not from a Sylheti background. My feeling is that her background is not the problem, but the problems arise when we see one book or character as representing a whole community.

The Bengali community in east London is diverse, and the novel no more represents Bengalis in Brick Lane than EastEnders represents people in east London. This, however, does not take away from the slice of life shown in the book.