Director Sarah Gavron tells Kaleem Aftab why the controversy surrounding her adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane misses the point
The Brick Lane depicted in Monica Ali’s prize-winning 2003 novel and adapted for the big screen by Sarah Gavron is pretty much gone. While the street remains the spiritual home of the huge Bengali community in London it’s now been overrun by wine bars and coffee shops. Even the curry houses will offer you a decaf vanilla latte instead of a good old-fashioned Indian beer. The Sunday market has become the hotspot for hipsters to buy and sell their wares. But, for one day, the clock rewound a few years when the film crew for Brick Lane came to shoot and a group of predominantly Asian protestors, upset with the depiction of what they saw as ‘simple and uneducated’ Bangladeshis in the novel, arrived on the scene with placards denouncing the production and disrupted filming.
The film crew placidly stopped for the day to avoid confrontation, but from that moment on Brick Lane the movie would forever be tainted with the word ‘controversial’. Then Prince Charles tried to save the day with the announcement that Brick Lane had been chosen for this year’s Royal Performance. But the controversy refused to go away and the news that the Royal Gala was inexplicably cancelled seemed somehow inevitable.
Gavron, a former student of film at Edinburgh College of Art, took on the challenge of directing Brick Lane, in which an unhappy Bangladeshi woman finds comfort in work and love in the midst of anti-Muslim sentiments in post 9/11 London. Gavron has a cold when we meet in a swanky London hotel, and, over a cup of herbal tea, the filmmaker insists that the media overplayed the community backlash.
She says, ‘During the filming what was interesting was that we had so much support from people who were members of the Bengali community. But there was this minority who were talking about scenes that actually weren’t in the film or the book. That speculation wasn’t very helpful and their voices got heard because they had an implicitly violent agenda.’ As for the cancellation of the Royal Gala, Gavron admits to having been disappointed.
Brick Lane is about Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a Bangladeshi mother-of-two who comes to realise that she doesn’t have to meekly follow all the whims of the man she was arranged to marry. She has an affair with local community activist Karim (Christopher Simpson). It isn’t the affair but the fact that her husband Chana is portrayed as being so backward that annoyed the protestors. To her credit Gavron has made this figure far more sympathetic (and, as a result, human) than he is in the novel. Now it’s the director’s turn to protest as she argues that wasn’t her intention.
‘What we aimed to do was capture the essence of the book and create complex characters,’ she says. ‘I thought Chana in the book was a really beautifully described character. He was not the awful stereotype of this extreme wife-beater. He is this complex compassionate man and I think that is what I wanted to bring onto the screen. Perhaps he has become more compassionate because, in the process of bringing things to the screen, things become more accentuated.’
As it turns out, the initial reaction to early screenings among the Bengali community has been largely positive, yet one critic, from The Daily Telegraph, complained that the movie has made the characters toothless. It seems the director is damned when she does and damned when she doesn’t.
Gavron, whose background is in documentary filmmaking, first read the novel on the tube in London and was asked soon after if she’d be interested in adapting it for film. She immediately agreed. ‘I have to be passionate about anything I embark upon,’ she explains. ‘It takes such a lot out of you and it is such a long journey. It took three years of my life. There was a lot in the book that affected me: the portrait of the family, the love story, the political context, and the centre that drew me in was the journey of Nazneen, her finding her voice and her place in the world and putting that on screen.’ Her passion shows on screen and this is one of those rare occasions where the movie is better than the book.
General release from Fri 16 Nov.