Sarah Gavron's BRICK LANE (2007) Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson

this is brick lane

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A young Bangladeshi woman, Nazneem, arrives in 1980s London, leaving behind her beloved sister and home, for an arranged marriage and a new life. Trapped within the four walls of her flat, and in a loveless marriage with the middle aged Chanu, she fears her soul is quietly dying. Her sister Hasina, meanwhile, continues to live a carefree life back in Bangladesh, stumbling from one adventure to the next. Nazneen struggles to accept her lifestyle, and keeps her head down in spite of life's blows, but she soon discovers that life cannot be avoided - and is forced to confront it the day that the hotheaded young Karim comes knocking at her door.

A T Hurley writes: The dazzling Bollywood superstar Tannishtha Chatterjee shines in the British film Brick Lane, based on the best-selling novel by Monica Ali. The film is true to the delicately nuanced novel, which tells the story of a young Bangladeshi girl's being married off to a young man living in England--sight unseen. The heroine, Nazneen, as played by Chatterjee, is humble and obedient, and if mildly unhappy in her new life, she's loath to be vocal about it. In a voiceover, Nazneen, recalling her mother's death, says, "I remembered her saying, 'If Allah wanted us to ask questions, he would have made us men.'" And yet: Nazneen finds that the free-thinking society surrounding her penetrates the traditions she holds dear, and slowly realizes she's awakening to her own ideas, her own choices, her own sensuality, long tamped down by her loveless marriage. Chatterjee is utterly believable as Nazneen, a young lady of deep moral conviction who nevertheless is slowly, surely shaped by the forces in society. The film echoes strains from other recent, delicate British immigrant tales, most notably "Bhaji on the Beach" and "Bend It Like Beckham," with a stellar central character who dares to allow herself to open her soul, just a bit.

According to avoraciousreader, Sarah Gavron's film about a rural Bangladeshi woman in London alternates between moments of hard-nosed emotional and social clarity and gushy "Bridges of Madison County" romance. Fortunately, the former win out and make it worth while squirming through the latter.

In an introductory sequence set in Bangladesh, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee as an adult) is living an idyllic life, playing in the fields with her beloved sister and other children, though there are hints that the lot of a woman is not a happy one, her fate is to endure. Her mother dies (it's never clear where her father or other relatives are), and she is married off to an older Bangladeshi man in London, a great though frightening opportunity; the sister remains in Bangladesh. Throughout the film we are regaled with voice-overs, of the correspondence between the sisters and I think comment by Nazneen.

Fast forward nearly 20 years. Nazneen is acclimated to her life in London, though keeping to herself, living with her husband Chanu (multifacetedly played by Satish Kaushik) and two daughters (and the memory of her "beautiful boy" tragically dead at an early age) in a seedy block of flats. Chanu has become immensely fat, and is controlling as a matter of male birthright. He is also in a bad position, having lost one job and the expected new one not come through. Their long-planned visit home is put on hold as he desperately looks for work. Nazneen -- somehow magically coming out of her shell after all this time -- is befriended by a neighbor, and through her (and with the loan of an old sewing machine) takes on piecework sewing to help make ends meet. Chanu is deeply insulted and angry, but eventually finds a job as a driver. The older daughter, fifteen at a guess, is being an awful teen, alternately hateful and apologetic (the younger daughter is still well behaved). Nazneen's sister gets married ... or something ... back home, though to a man who is cause for worry.

[SPOILER ALERT -- Though I won't give away the ending completely, if you haven't read the book and want to approach the film without too much foreknowledge, best quit here or skip to the last paragraphs.]

The materials for Nazneen to sew are brought by a handsome young man, Karim [Christopher Simpson]. Nazneen, of course, is still trim and beautiful in her mid-30's, and Karim flirts with her until the inevitable happens -- bells ring,birds twitter, vaseline smears the lens, Nazneen runs through her childhood fields of dreams, and has a goofy grin ... well, you get the picture. It rather bludgeons you in the face, but still her transformative joy is obvious. Karim gets her to come to a local Muslim society.

And then 9/11 happens. Though we never really see any violence, the Muslim community is afraid and suffers even more prejudice. Karim becomes more clearly militant and starts wearing ethnic dress, the group renames itself Muslim Tigers (or some such), and in a key scene Chanu comes to a meeting also, and gives a thoughtful speech emphasizing the variety of Muslims in London -- he is not one with the jihadists, the Muslims from different countries have different agendas.

Things in general go bad -- for the romance, the family, and the situation of the Muslim community -- and Chanu plans for them to move permanently back to Bangladesh. The older daughter, at least, desperately wants to stay in the only home she has ever known, and pleads with her mother to make known her desire to stay (Nazneen has never stood up for herself to Chanu, only endured as a Bangladeshi woman should). Nazneen hears that her sister is no longer with her husband, and Chanu forces her to read between the lines of her cherished letters to see that she has been living by the kindness of, if not strangers at least not family.

How will, or should, things resolve? Will Nazneen divorce Chanu and marry Karim, as he pleads with her to do? Or go back to her beloved homeland and sister? Or something else?

[SPOILERS OFF]

The acting is generally quite good, both the principal characters and smaller parts. But Satish Kaushik as Chanu is the standout. At times the fool, with his eternal optimistic schemes after depressing failure, with his fondness for European culture and collection of European philosophy and literature, he is at the same time self-aware, articulate and philosophical. In a heart-string-tugging scene with the older daughter he asks "Do you think I want to be this way?"

On the plus side, the characters deal with real life, and hard decisions, in realistic ways. There are no easy answers to their predicaments -- emotional, cultural, financial, political -- but they muddle their way through and in the end pick themselves up and start anew, with considerable wisdom. In spite of the gushy, stereotypical, interludes, the emotional interactions are really quite nicely realized and not at all mushy. The scenes in which Nazneen resolves things with Karim and Chanu are both tender and hard at the same time.

But I really have to downgrade this film from 5* to 4* for its overly sentimental layer of visual and audial fluff. The lush music and lusher flashback and introspection overlays may appeal to Bollywood sensibilities, but they set this reviewer's teeth on edge. Shortening and drastically toning down these segments would make this a much better film, and even leave a little time for clarifying the plotline.

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