“I always said I will not marry and be sent far away. I will go no farther than these paddy fields. But our mother told us we must not run from our fate. What cannot be changed must be borne. The test of life is to endure.”
Through such representation of gender and focus on history and dislocation, Monica Ali has extended the migrant voice in British fiction. In her stunningly accomplished debut novel Brick Lane (2003) which also got adapted in a film four years later, Ali tries to reconstitute the traditional Bangladeshi culture in a London East End setting. She uses her characters to explore the positioning of Bangladeshi women within Britain, as the novel focuses on their social relations inside and outside the home.
This paper aims to explore whether Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane (2003) and Sarah Gavron’s controversial screen adaptation of the same name (2007) can open up avenues to discuss a new, if problematic, inclusion of Bangladeshi women in the transnational world; and also to gauze the similarities and dissimilarities within the two.
Both the novel and the film created a controversy among the Bangladeshi community living in London because they found problems with Monica Ali’s negative portrayal of their community members as being illiterate and backward, which they considered insulting. They claimed that the novel encouraged “pro-racist, anti-social stereotypes”.
Brick Lane is the story of the Bangladeshi Muslim community living in the East End of London and in particular, that of Nazneen, her husband Chanu and Hasina, Nazneen’s good looking sister, who resides in Bangladesh and who was disowned by her family for flouting the traditional arranged marriage system which she did by eloping with her lover and marrying him at the age of sixteen. Hasina’s chaotic day to day life in Dhaka is revealed to us through a series of regular, candid and sometimes terribly despondent letters sent to her sister in London in pidgin English.
Nazneen often reminisces about her happy, innocent and carefree childhood in her little village in the countryside of Bangladesh with her younger sister Hasina, which now contrasts with her despairing life in her dingy flat in a tall block in the Tower Hamlets. After an arranged marriage with Chanu, who is already established in London and who is unattractive and twice her age, Nazneen arrives in London at the age of seventeen. The women moving to London and Tower Hamlets in particular had to adapt coming from a rural peasant society to a hostile urban culture. What Brick Lane does is show this transition and the impact migration has on women’s lives. Monica Ali’s novel shows how, after migration, the position of women in families and in the wider community undergoes a considerable transformation. What Nazneen refuses to do is to see herself and her culture as inferior or alien. Here ethnicity becomes a source of positivity rather than stigmatised identity.
The high rates of poverty characteristic of Bangladeshi households are shown in the novel, coupled with the overwhelming sense of isolation faced by the female characters and their reliance on their male counterparts. Consequently, the overall context of the novel presents a picture of deprivation and hardships for Bangladeshis in Britain. Nazneen who can’t speak English has to adapt to her new life in a foreign country with a husband who, although basically kind-hearted, is disheartened for not being able to fulfil his dreams and carry his plans to completion. He believes himself to be above most of the Bangladeshi community members who are uneducated and lacking a great deal of elegance.
Chanu scorns the attitude of his superiors who fail to recognise his talent and genius. He keeps a high opinion of himself which makes him a conceited, funny character despite his lucidity and his awareness of the conflict between the first and second generation immigrant, which, to his horror, was portrayed by his eldest daughter Shahana and which made him decide to repatriate his entire family to Bangladesh.
The novel is challenging in an overwhelming way the strong element of fate. Nazneen and Hasina are two characters through which Ali explores two images of femininity. Nazneen has been the good daughter who accepted an arranged marriage and her younger rebellious sister Hasina was the bad daughter who takes her fate into her own hands by eloping with the man she loved and was consequently disowned by her father. Nazneen accepted her fate yet Hasina rebelled to create her own. Hasina’s western-style attempt at romantic freedom, contradicts the traditional structures of Bangladeshi society within which she lives and within which her sister is immersed in the Diaspora. Both the sisters face problems settling with their husbands, and ultimately both have relationships with younger men.
Though Nazneen carried out small rebellious acts at the beginning of her marriage, her aspiration for liberty started with her attraction to the handsome, young political enthusiast, Karim, which evolved into a physical and financial independence and the discovery of her freedom of choice in a patriarchal community. Nazneen is plain “not beautiful, but not so ugly either” and in contrast her sister Hasina is “beautiful and feisty”. (Ali 17). Hasina defines herself in contrast to the activities around her and Nazneen defines herself against the talkativeness of her husband. Through these transnational links, Nazneen and Hasina become embodiments of womanhood in two different but connected locations.
Monica Ali endeavours to explore the impact of migration for those within the Bangladeshi Diaspora. Ali seems to suggest that within the context of Diaspora women are more Bangladeshi than the Bangladeshis in Bangladesh. We learn how those in Britain replicate the social practices and norms of Bangladesh so that the culture also migrates to Britain with the people: “through the open window, drifted wafts of music and snatches of curry…main meals were cooked at all times of the day and night”. (Ali 189).
Yet in contrast, those who remain in Bangladesh are adapting to the changes occurring in society. Hasina acts as if she is the person who has shifted geographically to another country. She appears more modern in her thinking in contrast to her sister, who appears more traditional. The two women placed within the two different localities also enable Ali to show how social practices and social relations change in the two locations. Within the context of Britain, Nazneen witnesses changes in the images of Bangladeshi femininity among her friends, who become more westernised.
The seventeen-year old, once subdued and obedient wife, matures into a forthright independent woman. She discovers her own force and will power, something she was unaware of. She decides that she will no more be controlled by fate, she will take her own decisions, like not following her husband by going back to their homeland. She will remain in London, she will work and look after herself and her two daughters.
She takes this decision because her daughters are way too comfortable in London, and they don’t want to go back ‘home’ to Bangladesh. London is ‘home’ for them, and that’s when Nazneen realized that she was seventeen when she came here and now she’s thirty-four, so she has lived half of her life here. This is home, and this is where her daughters want to be. This is where she found her independence and her voice in her own ways. She wears her sari. She has not started wearing trousers or cut her hair short. In her very own way, she has found a voice and she is comfortable with that here. Nazneen thus starts to believe in herself and realizes that she is capable of taking charge of her own destiny.
The Bangladesh Nazneen refers to is different to other Bangladesh Hasina writes about in her letters. The contrasts between Tower hamlets and Bangladesh are shown, for example by the fact that Nazneen comes from an idyllic, warm, green environment quite unlike the England of dead grass, broken paving stones and net curtains. Hasina’s letters dispel the myth that Bangladesh is still rural. Rather it is now urban and violent. A more dangerous Bangladesh with corrupt politicians dominates the letters.
Hasina describes to her sister how the garment girls have become branded as sexually immoral due to their working in close proximity to men. The patriarchal world of Bangladesh mirrors the patriarchy practiced within Britain, but is stronger. For example, Hasina, left without the protection of a husband, is raped, then forced to become a prostitute to survive and her friend (Monju) is murdered by her husband drenching her in acid. While Hasina works within a factory as a machinist, her sister, in the liberated environment of the West, also resorts to working as a machinist, but in purdah within the environs of home.
For Nazneen, Britain is loaded with negativity, and it fails to accumulate the warmth and security she experienced in Bangladesh. Nazneen treats her loneliness through anti-depressants which baffles her sister: “I do not know what kind of pill can cure disease of sadness”. (Ali 143). Nazneen is disappointed with Britain and recollects Bangladesh with fondness, a nostalgia that provides the framework within which the story is located.
Monica Ali uses the cluttered room where Nazneen lives as a metaphor for her protagonists’ state of mind. It becomes even more cluttered over the course of the novel. When Bangladesh is presented it is done so with space; however, the restrictiveness of England is stressed through the feelings of claustrophobia. Nazneen’s perception of Britain for much of the novel is not only contained within the environment of her flat, but also when she gazes out of her window. Her London is restricted to her locality: outside her window she sees “dead grass and broken paving stones” (Ali 12), “cycle racks which no one was foolhardy enough to use”, and round the corner is a playground that has shrunk to one decrepit roundabout. Nazneen evokes an image of Britain which is dark and grey and congested “a roaring metal army tearing up the road” (Ali 33).
The poverty in Tower Hamlets is also emphasised if not exaggerated by Nazneen as she ventures out of the home, and “stepped over an empty cigarette carton, a brick and a syringe” (Ali 380). Although Nazneen’s husband Chanu has a degree from Dhaka University, they live in a grotty tower block in Tower Hamlets, where the paint flakes off the “eczema-ridden walls”. Poverty, socio-economic deprivation, dominates the social fabric of Ali’s Bangladeshi society in Tower Hamlets. This deprivation is also evoked through Nazneen smelling “the overflowing communal bins” (Ali 13).
All the more, the Bangladesh that is reflected in British society angers Chanu, Nazneen’s husband, as it perpetuates a derogatory image of Bangladesh through education. He despairs over what his children are taught about Bangladesh: “all she knows is about flood and famine. Whole bloody country is just a bloody basket case to her” (Ali 151). Even the image that Shahana has of Bangladesh is old and traditional. As she tells her sister, “just wait until you’re in Bangladesh…you’ll be married off in no time…your husband will keep you locked up in a little smelly room and make you weave carpets all day long” (Ali 329). “In Bangladesh you’ll have to brush your teeth with a twig. They don’t have toothbrushes”(Ali 331).
Brick Lane is a contemporary, and humane story, the characters are shown with all their complexities and are described realistically and in detail whether it’s Mrs Islam, the hypochondriac, evil and manipulative usurer, or Razia the friendly and strong will-powered neighbour, or Shahana, the refractory, provocative and westernised teenage-daughter, or the sweet second daughter, little Bibi who is even tempered, quiet and hard working. It is a post-colonial novel written with a great deal of compassion and optimistic hope.
Sarah Gavron’s film that was screened in 2007 is closely related to the book in terms of important aspects like casting, themes and plot. A long shot shows the central protagonist Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) disappearing behind one of the many front doors dotting the monolithic façade of a public housing block in East Central London. This concludes a seven-minute prologue in which director Sarah Gavron condenses the first hundred pages and more of Monica Ali’s 2003 source novel. Digitally colorized shots of 1970s and 1980s Bangladesh indicate the extent to which Nazneen has idealized her memories of growing up in that time and place, her close relationship with younger sister Hasina (Zafreen) an especial source of reverie. A rural Bangladeshi childhood remembered as idyll ends, however, with the suicide of the girls’ mother.
Consequently, their father arranges marriage between Nazneen, now a teenager, and the significantly older Chanu (Satish Kaushik), an immigrant living in London and a man she has never met. Some fifteen years later, thirty-something Nazneen is shown walking through and around Brick Lane, one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in the United Kingdom. Ghosting through a multicultural urban milieu radically different from that she was born into, she speaks to no one, slips ever further from the following camera, and disappears finally behind the front door of a flat as cramped and constricting as her monotonous existence—dutiful wife, mother, and nothing more.
She is shown as raising two daughters: “Shahana” and “Bibi.” Bibi (Lana Rahman) is still young, sweet, and compliant, but Shahana (Naeema Begum) is a teenager with raging hormones and a sharp tongue.
Nazneen and Chanu’s ossified marriage is changed irrevocably when the former buys a sewing machine. She does so through necessity as much as choice, driven by the need to financially support her family, husband, and daughters Shahana and Bibi , after Chanu resigns his job, disillusioned by his persistent failure to win promotion. Yet a purchase which seems initially to confirm Nazneen’s domestic incarceration yet further—not working from home but home as work—brings her into contact with British-born Karim (Christopher Simpson), the young man who delivers garments to her flat for finishing. She begins an affair with him, and the emotional and physical self-confidence this engenders allows Nazneen to assert, eventually, her presence and identity within the immediate family unit.
Yet the seemingly clear-cut contrast between Karim and Chanu and the divergent futures they seem to promise Nazneen become more complicated as Brick Lane progresses. Karim comes to seem less attractive than at first, Chanu more so. The former’s marked physical and cultural differences from the latter (young, fit, second-generation, British-Bangladeshi vs. old, fat, first-generation, Bangladeshi-British) cannot disguise the fact that he is equally inclined to idealize Nazneen as archetype not individual. It’s Chanu who valorizes her as a living example of the ‘girl from the village’ in the early pages of Ali’s novel. Crucially, however, there’s no interpretative violence in transferring those words to Karim’s mouth in Gavron’s film.
Meanwhile, Chanu is shown to possess significant redeeming qualities obscured by his complacent, corpulent exterior. He loves his family deeply and is horrified equally by the rise of Western anti-Muslim and Muslim anti-Western sentiment in the wake of 9/11. Chanu is able to view this process with far more humanistic caution and historical context than Karim can or will. Ultimately, Nazneen ends her affair with Karim, while Chanu agrees to return to Bangladesh on his own. Liberated, albeit not in the sense that Brick Lane seems initially to promise, Nazneen stays behind in London with her two daughters.
Wider context—the effect of 9/11 on Western Muslims, the changing role and self-image of immigrant communities within contemporary British society, the ongoing, intergenerational debates about tradition, gender and religious identity within those groups—are all glimpsed fleetingly from Nazneen’s perspective. The main effect, though, is to impress upon viewers just how cloistered her vantage point is. Ultimately, Brick Lane temporarily imprisons the world-view of all who watch it behind bars made from net curtain. This is so even while the film ostensibly supports Nazneen’s quiet attempts to break free from something approaching a state of psychological house arrest.
Brick Lane is a real place, and it’s been the centre of the British garment district ever since Huguenot refugees brought their looms from France in the early 18th century, followed by waves of poor Irishmen and Ashkenazi Jews. Brick Lane was however, filmed in the financial district that is synonymous with the book’s real location. The novel as compared to the film sets up the location more exotically like a mini version of Bangladesh, with the smells of spicy food, colourful fashions and emphasis on religion. For the film, one was expected to picture a colourful setting that transported the reader to another world. Though Brick Lane in the film does create its own world, it lacks the lustre brought out in the novel, and definitely was not reflecting any part of South Asia.
The scenes in Bangladesh gave more of a contrast to London life, unlike the book, where Nazneen seems to still be tied to her homeland. The book documents her memories as if she had not left the village. For example, Nazneen does not leave the house, allowing her to limit her exposure to English culture. The film demonstrates a sharper contrast of her surroundings mostly through the addition of Nazneen leaving the flat to do the shopping. The shopping allows her more freedom and; thus, more information is acquired about England.
The film effectively provided the atmosphere of Chanu and Nazneen’s flat. In the novel, Bangladesh provided richer local descriptions compared to London, because Nazneen did not dwell on the details of her flat. She only mentions some decorations. The film gives the opportunity to see the living arrangement in London from the complex she lives in with Chanu. The film emphasizes the close quarters and the weather to portray a cold representation of London, differing a lot from the vibrant frolicking in the lush and long Bangladeshi grass of the two sisters. Even at the end of the film, Nazneen is shown making snow angels with her daughters, as if she has conquered the cold.
The casting was terrific. Chanu, Shahana and Bibi gave compelling performances that mirrored the characters in the book. Chanu especially is exactly the way one visualizes him on the basis of the novel. To understand Nazneen one had to make sure to read the novel because then one would know the thoughts in her head that she did not always say. Tannishtha Chatterjee, the actress who starred as Nazneen, faced a challenge in this role, because so much of the character was about not saying anything. Silence also played a big role in the film, which sometimes contributed to the action and other times made the movie too slow.
The novel captivates the reader by the sensory details, mystical connections to Bangladesh, and curiosities about English culture. The film uses silence to provoke the audience’s response to the vivid scenes in Bangladesh while also building up to the climax. Though the climax is not surprising to the reader or film goer, the novel was more effective in showing Nazneen’s struggle and confrontation with disaster. The novel created tensions leading up to Nazneen’s inability to react. The film on the other hand, relied too much on silence for plot points to emerge. The reader tends to miss Nazneen’s rebellion since it’s all done in silence.
Overall, rebellion and freedom are downplayed in the film probably to emphasize the idea of fate. Hasina, Nazneen’s sister is the source of scandal in the novel and could have been more present in the film. She acts almost as a ghostly figure, sometimes only mentioned through voice, when Nazneen pictures her whispering in her ear. The film also glamorizes her experience in Bangladesh, as if she has the freedom to fall in love. The letters in the novel describe the opposite with violence to women and hard work conditions. In the film, Hasina’s true situation is exposed by Chanu, who hears from his cousin that she has become a prostitute. However, then Nazneen falls ill, and the audience is left in confusing hallucinations, wondering if Chanu was trying to be mean to his wife or was actually speaking the truth.
This inconsistency between reality and fantasy is evident in both the book and the film. Chanu glorifies Bangladesh in both the mediums. Nazneen reflects on her memories from her childhood in Bangladesh, but is grounded in the reality of London. For example, she cannot depend on Chanu to be responsible, when he cannot hold down a job and continues to insist that they will return to Dhaka. She does not point out his failures, the same way she does not point out Karim’s, but acknowledges her realistic priorities. Some include the disaster that Shahana would encounter in Bangladesh, and another would be breaking up with Karim and needing to be on her own. The American trailer of the film also illustrates this dichotomy, advertising the movie as more dramatic and scandalous. Perhaps the closeness of the text to the film adaptation is another way to enhance the themes of the original story.
Much of Brick Lane takes place within Nazneen’s cluttered, unremarkable home, but this is rendered a fascinating, richly expressive setting through accomplished, considered use of technique by director Sarah Gavron and her key colleagues. Carefully calibrated expressionistic exaggerations of colour abound to communicate Nazneen’s largely unspoken inner life. Green sequins on a girl’s top reflect on her face to show her initial entrancement with Karim; sunlight filtered through gauzy red curtains turns the dingy prison of her marital bedroom into a boudoir when he occupies it with her. Likewise, Gavron’s movement of camera and attention to framing are evocative and subtle in equal measure.
If, as noted at the outset, one of the first shots in Brick Lane can be seen to sum up both the film’s project and a range of possible responses to it, something similar can be said of the movie’s final image. With Chanu back in Bangladesh, it is now winter in London. Nazneen and her daughters play joyfully in the snow-covered square at the front of their apartment block, inhabitants of a climate, and by extension a culture, diametrically opposed to the monsoon conditions the teenaged Nazneen and Hasina frolic in at the film’s early moments. A bird’s-eye aerial shot of mother and daughters lying on the ground, waving their arms and legs, cuts to a medium shot of Nazneen on her own.
The reader might get the impression here that Nazneen’s unassuming victory is also Brick Lane’s. She extricates herself from the oppressive expectations placed upon her by virtue of the body and respective cultures she was born and migrated into. So too the film respectfully declines the received agenda of responsibilities imposed upon it in light of its British Asian subject matter and cultural provenance. Brick Lane is not a film finely crafted and beautifully performed in order to mask or compensate for its evasion of inarguable ethno-political duties. Rather, its sensuous pleasures and humane insights expand the range of what the political might be, and rethink the relative scale on which it might be expected to loom, within an important tradition of contemporary British film.
Thus, both the mediums, reciprocating each other, have successfully rendered the portrayal of Bangladeshi women in the transnational world with a subtlety and expertise that is seldom to be seen.
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