A Walk Through Banglatown
Smitha Radhakrishnan contemplates the controversy surrounding Brick Lane's representation of the Bangladeshi community in London.
Published: Friday, June 13, 2008
Connecting Personal Issues to the Big Picture
Smitha Radhakrishnan has been publishing her podcast Desi Dilemmas from Podbazaar since November of 2005. On August 2007, she joined Asia Pacific Arts. Desi Dilemmas weaves together narratives, opinion, and research with Indians on three continents, to place common issues facing desis in a larger social and economic context.
Questions? Comments? Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I always get excited when a new movie comes out about the immigrant experience, especially if it's a South Asian immigrant experience. I read all the books, too, so when watching a film adaptation of a novel, there is usually a lot for me to think about: Does the movie do justice to the book? Are the characters how I imagined them? Did the movie move and surprise me, even though I know what is going to happen, because I've read the book? And, the more specific questions: Was it too cliché? Too exoticized? And most importantly: How is the culture clash (which seems to inevitably lie at the heart of such films) portrayed?
So, I was full of anticipation when I went to see the new adaptation of Monica Ali's acclaimed novel, Brick Lane. The film was released last fall in the UK, and I had been eagerly awaiting its arrival in the US.
Monica Ali's book was shortlisted for the Booker prize and became something of an international sensation. I was, of course, skeptical when I picked it up: a story of a young rural girl in Bangladesh, whisked away by an arranged marriage to a man twice her age living in London. She lives her life in utter deference for years, until she has an unexpected affair with a young British man. And she presumably finds her liberation somewhere along the way. I almost didn't buy the book, for all the clichés and stereotypes it seemed to be based on. But I bought it anyway because of all the acclaim, and I did find it to be very different than I had imagined. It took me a while to get into it, but I found it moving and thoughtful. And more than that, it taught me something, or so I thought, about the worlds of Bangladeshi immigrants in London that I knew little about. But since the book was so much about the inner world of Nazneen, the main character, I wondered, could a movie pull off the layers of the book?
I was not disappointed. The film is lushly visual, rendering even the most mundane settings new and interesting. The characters were almost just as I had imagined them, and the actors played their parts subtly and skillfully. The film transported me into the world of working class Bangladeshi immigrants in a way that even the book did not, and I experienced the contrasts between Nazneen's tiny world and the hugeness of the world outside it, with my heart as much as with my mind.
Director Sarah Gavron has done this very very carefully, and it shows. She has made sure we see how the characters develop without belaboring it too much; she helps us identify with the characters -- sometimes, as is the case with Nazneen's husband, in very surprising ways. And although the visuals border on exoticization at moments, you get the feeling that even this has been carefully adjudicated, making sure nothing ever goes over the top, never venturing into Bollywood land. In a very critical review of the film I read, by a London writer, Gavron's rendering was called "polite." I think that's harsh, perhaps even unfair, but I can see how someone might see it that way.
The major issue with the film is perhaps the most inevitable one: in its attempt to both capture the nuances and complexities of the book on one hand and to keep the film short and sexy on the other hand, it ends up gesturing at many themes without developing them. Many of the details of the political context were passed over in the movie, and some key characters, like the thug sons who accompanied the old lady collecting on loans, were deleted altogether.
The deletion of these details, though, was not an accident, not simply the artistic difficulty of squeezing a book into a film. The film and the book were surrounded by controversy in London, mostly led by Bangladeshis from the real Brick Lane, which has also been dubbed Banglatown. When the book came out, the Bangladeshis in London, especially those from the Sylhet region, didn't recognize themselves in the story. Already a marginalized and underrepresented community, they felt they were portrayed as ignorant, unsophisticated, and irreligious. There was even a public book burning in 2006, but not much came of it. When the movie came out last year, though, the controversy bubbled up again. The film was to premiere at a Royal Gala at which Prince Charles would be in attendance, but was cancelled at the last minute for no given reason, premiering instead at the London Film Festival -- no Prince.
The political backstory raises the question: Was the film itself cleaned up and cleaned out a bit on purpose? Designed to portray the book, but just not quite so loudly?
I don't know whether or not the book is or is not a fair portrayal of Bangla immigrants in London. A South Asian friend of mine who grew up in London says that it is not -- that it could in no way be conceived as a credible representation of an extremely marginalized community.
Bestselling books and widely distributed films like Brick Lane, in portraying a world that few are familiar with, are saddled with the same tremendous responsibilities of representation that all artists who write about marginalized groups have to deal with. And I can understand how these issues are never far from the artistry itself.
As much as I enjoyed this book and this film, I had a very different reaction to another similar film, largely because of this issue of representation. Many of you have probably seen East is East, the 1999 comedy portraying a Pakistani-British family, also in London's East end. Most people I know loved the film -- they thought it was zany, funny, and averted cliché. But I was uncomfortable throughout the whole film. I saw the movie in Phoenix -- a matinee with a few middle-aged white women as the only audience in the theater with my friend and I. They weren't laughing. They made expressions of disgust and amazement instead, and they sucked in their breath and chattered disapprovingly in the one scene where the father slaps his wife. I couldn't help but take their reactions a bit personally, couldn't help but feel that the film shouldn't have portrayed that family that way.
Of course it was a fun film, of course the filmmakers should have the artistic license to make a film about whatever they want, and of course we should be able to laugh and cry with the characters, whatever their ethnicity. I understood that intellectually, but I still did not enjoy that film. I couldn't appreciate the art for, if we have to call it that, art's sake.
Brick Lane avoids many of those problems by rendering it as a "human story," to quote the director's interpretation. We mostly feel for Nazneen. There are a range of characters in the story, none of which are stereotyped. And even the pompous bumbling husband is shown to be wise and thoughtful in the end. The empowering and dark sides of militant Islam are pointed out (more so in the book), and the pitfalls and possibilities of multicultural Britain are exposed. And all this with some classic themes -- love, family, marriage, finding oneself.
But it's worth remembering that for some, this seemingly carefully cropped and crafted portrayal is far more political than it appears to the rest of us.