There have been many films about the Muslim immigrant experience but few of them are as rich in realism and poignancy as Brick Lane, Monica Ali’s beloved novel that has been turned into a film by British director Sarah Gavron.
Rising Indian superstar Tannishta Chatterjee plays Nazneen, a young woman from Bangladesh forced into an arranged marriage with the older Chanu (Satish Kaushik) when she’s just seventeen. Sixteen years after moving to London’s East End and having two daughters with him, Nazneen decides to break out of the shell imposed by her husband’s ultra-conservative Muslim traditions and seek out her own independence, partially by having an affair with a younger delivery boy. Everything changes after the World Trade Center attacks when everyone around Nazneen starts feeling the tension towards the Muslim community in London.
Certainly, it’s a story that might immediately appeal more to women due to its pro-feminist look at Muslim traditions towards women, and Najneen’s story has a lot of romance amidst the turmoil, but it’s a gorgeous and moving film that can be appreciated by anyone interested in the current situation faced by both Muslim men and women after 9/11.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Gavron and Chatterjee to talk about some of the film’s origins and themes.
ComingSoon.net: I’d like to start by talking about Monica Ali’s book, which I understand you read before being offered the script. What was it about the book that moved you and made you want to make your first dramatic feature?
Sarah Gavron: Well, it’s my first feature for cinema, and yeah, it was very daunting because it was so well-loved so widely in the U.K. and you knew that distilling it–it covers three decades, five hundred pages, how the hell were we going to film that?–but also, as an outsider to the community which was rather daunting. I thought it was irresistible as a project to me in many ways, because it worked on so many different levels and was universal. It’s a compassionate story of a family set in the shifting cultural landscape of London, and then also the notion of these two kinds of love, the love story that works on so many different levels, the love that takes your breath away and then the love that grows slowly. Finally, the journey of Nazneen I think was what drew me, the idea of putting this story on screen of this woman finding her voice and finding her place in the world.
CS: I understand that the book covers a lot more of Nazneen’s sixteen years with Chanu but you decided to make it cover only their last year.
Gavron: Yeah, well we went through it, and it was sort of a long process to get to that point. We had many, many, many drafts, full of tough decisions, but we wanted to capture the spirit of the book. What we realized essentially was that by seeing it through the prism of 2001, we could see Nazneen’s change. I mean that’s really where the drama begins, and then we found this cinematic device of the idealized childhood haunting her waking dreams and showing how she lives in her head for much of the story.
CS: Had you heard about the book before Sarah found you to play Nazneen?
Tannishtha Chatterjee: I knew about the book, but I hadn’t read it. I heard the story because it was talked about in India; it was nominated for a Mann Booker award, so I knew about the book.
CS: I heard you were actually one of the first people they saw to play the role, but you hadn’t read the book at that time?
Chatterjee: No, I was the first person that Sarah met.
Gavron: In India, yeah.
Chatterjee: In India, and no, I didn’t even know when I came to meet Sarah that I was actually being called for “Brick Lane.” I had come down from Paris that very night. I reached Mumbai at 2 am and I was supposed to meet them at 8 am, so I had hardly slept. I just came in jeans and T-Shirt and I came to meet Sarah and Chris (Collins, film’s producer), and they gave me the synopsis, and they said, “Okay it’s ‘Brick Lane,’ and I was like, “Monica Ali’s ‘Brick Lane’? I’m so not looking like the character right now.” (laughs) I read and then the next day Sarah called me and she said, “You know, we really liked what you read, so we would like you to come back and read for us again,” and this time I prepared. I tied my hair, I wore a saari, and I looked different. (laughs)
Gavron: We didn’t have to use our imagination.
Chatterjee: I looked more like Nazneen, and so Sarah still kept insisting, “You look too young for the part,” and I was like, “No, no, no, I can play a mother of three kids.” I actually pointed out Sarah to a lot of Bangladeshi women who were in their early thirties. Their skin was like flawless, they didn’t have any gray hair. She met my mother actually who is fifty plus and her skin is so good still, so then she was convinced. (laughs)
Gavron: We met with lots of women. It was really the fact that Tannishtha, apart from being Bengali and understanding the culture and having some connection there, she also just was really instinctive and intelligent as well. This is a part where you have to want to watch the character, and you have to see these tiny emotional shifts expressed through body language and facial expressions. Tannishtha had this grasp that was really fantastic.
CS: You knew that you wanted her, but then you went out and continued auditioning for her role.
Gavron: Yeah, just so that we left no stone unturned in seeing everybody. As a director, you just have to find what you want as you go through, and you realize what you want. That’s the long-standing process.
CS: Was Satish someone you worked with before?
Chatterjee: No, this was the first time.
CS: Did you find him much later in the casting process?
Gavron: Yeah, there’s a story behind it, shall I tell you the story? Finding Satish was really a nightmare because he’s so particularly described in the novel and he is a really complex character. He’s got to deliver these big speeches. He’s also got to be a certain physical type, and we wanted to deliver that to the screen because people have fallen in love with this character in the novel and connected to it, as with Nazneen. We went on this worldwide search and we just couldn’t find him. I think it’s partly because we met wonderful actors, either they weren’t the right age, or they physically weren’t right. We were about to cast someone else about three weeks before we shot, but he wasn’t right. He was a great actor, but he wasn’t right for the role, and very, very late on, one of our casting directors mentioned Satish. He hadn’t been on the radar because he’s a Bollywood director and he was very busy. I mean he has got acting history, and I googled him and I thought, “Oh, God, it’s almost too late,” but I thought he looked perfect. I rang up Tannishtha who we’d obviously built the cast around, and she said that she’d seen him play Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” That’s the kind of canvas that he comes from, as you do these mad things in filmmaking, we flew over to Delhi, and Satish was waiting for us. He took us out to this restaurant that he opened called “Food Unlimited,” which makes a lot of sense (laughs) and he had this suit made for the audition, and he did this turn as Chanu that felt like he’d been born to be that character.
CS: What was it like working with him on set. Obviously, it’s you and your two girls and he’s the only guy on set, so how hard was it for him to adjust to that?
Chatterjee: Satish and I come from the same drama school which is the only theater school in India. He’s a lot senior, but we had this instant connection because of the same institute background, and he’s a very committed actor. We rehearsed together and it was great working with the daughters. In fact, in the last scene with Shahana, she just had to get that right when she says, “Mother, all these years I’ve never seen you speak up. Tell him now.” In the beginning, she wasn’t really getting it, and so Satish and I, we were really cruel to her, we said, “It’s your scene. You have to do it” because it was also Nazneen’s need. If she’s not right at that point then my whole journey towards the end just goes flat, so I needed her to be really right at that point. Satish and I really worked together, and Sarah was getting frustrated with her and we were all like, “Come on,” and finally, I think she was really so good.
Gavron: Yeah because she was cast from the community and never acted before.
CS: Her two girls, they both were non-actors before making this?
Gavron: Yeah, and it sort of reflects the process in a way. We took this lateral approach that whatever was needed… and those young girls, there’s no tradition of acting in the Bangladeshi community, so you couldn’t find them in stage calls or in other films, so we went to the youth clubs and to the schools and found them there.
CS: The two main characters are interesting because Chanu is kind of the bad guy and comic relief in some ways, but you also really feel for him at a certain point, so can you talk a bit about how you saw his character?
Gavron: In a way to answer that question is sort of what drew me to the novel because we’ve had so many extreme depictions of radical Islam and the wife-beating South-Asian husband and all those extremes. Really, at its heart, it’s a human story. It approaches the political, but from the interior. It’s very personal, and I thought what really made it original and what I wanted to hold onto in that distillation was Nazneen’s point of view, seeing the world through her eyes. Through her eyes, we see this character of Chanu who essentially while he doesn’t change, our perspective of him and her perspective changes. Realizing that he’s not what you expect, every time he sort of defies her expectations, and he’s not those things and that’s what I liked about him. He’s funny, he’s didactic, he’s pompous, but he has brilliant moments, but he’s sort of wise, and finally he has the generosity to allow her to be who she needs to be.
CS: We’ve seen a lot of movies and books about women’s journeys, but rarely with this other side of it. How did you approach getting acclimated to the Bangladeshi community in England, which is obviously a different world?
Chatterjee: I met a lot of women in and around Brick Lane and I spent time with them. They cooked lunch for me, and they told stories about their lives. These women I met were all in their late thirties or mid-forties. At the time when I met them, they were very confident women all doing things on their own, but they told me stories which were quite similar to Nazneen. A lot of women had come to England when they were very young–sixteen, seventeen years old–and transported from Bangladesh to this alien land in an arranged marriage situation. They’d never met their husbands before they got married, they didn’t speak the language, they didn’t go outside their apartment for years because they were so scared. There was one woman who told me that she was so scared of anyone Caucasian or any other race that she would just sit in the flat while her husband wasn’t there. There was no communication between her and the rest of the world. There was a local vegetable seller who would come to drop vegetables, and she was so scared of him that he would drop the vegetables outside her doorstep, and she would just drop the money from her window, and much after he left, she would quietly pick up the vegetables. But now, the same vegetable seller, after twenty years, comes inside her flat, has a cup of tea, chats with her, and that’s the kind of journey these women go through, so I spent time with them to understand their stories.
CS: So eventually, those women do get into society and can change the traditions?
Gavron: It’s shifting yeah.
Chatterjee: What is there in the film and the book and what is there also in most of their lives is it changes in a very nuanced and subtle way. A lot of these women still wear saaris and cover their head, practice their Namaz, eat the same food they used to. In some ways, they’re still a girl from a village, but in many ways they’re not. It’s finding an independent voice in your own way. It’s not by reading books on feminism or becoming westernized, no, it’s really to find your own voice and having your own choices. It’s like Nazneen does. She decides to wear her saari, practice her Namaz, eat her food, and bring up her daughters the way the daughters want to live, those freedom of choices.
CS: Perfect segue, because I thought it was interesting how she didn’t carry over the traditions imposed on her to her own daughters.
Gavron: She lets them kind of grow in the way they want to. It’s all about the freedom that she wants and they want, to have the choices she didn’t have.
CS: I don’t know very much about Monica Ali’s book but was any of it autobiographical?
Gavron: Monica Ali is half Bangladeshi and half British, and she spent some of her childhood growing up in Bangladesh, so she knows those cultures quite well. She researched it, but it’s very much a fiction. She’d be the first to say that it’s not a representation of that community really; it’s one story.
CS: The screenplay was already written when you came onboard, but did you have any kind of contact with her at all?
Gavron: No, it was interesting because at the beginning I was sort of reaching out to her and sending her copies of the script and inviting her to casting and to see the set. She resisted it all and she confessed later on that she read this John Fowles quote about how having your book turned into a film is like seeing oxen turned into bullion cubes (laughs) and it filled her with trepidation. It was only when we were in the rough-cut stage of the film, I insisted that she see a cut of it before it was lost and we still had time to change it. She came and I was biting my nails down in Soho as she was watching it, and in the end, she said that she really felt that we captured the essence of the book and that she also had this unnerving experience watching the characters walk off the page, and she loved the casting. From that point, on she became incredibly supportive which was great. She came to Toronto, she came to the BAFTAs, and she knows the issues around it, so she’s going to come to New York.
CS: Did you have a chance meet her, and did you have any conversations about Nazneen?
Chatterjee: Yeah, I met her for the first time in Toronto which was our first international premiere and I was a bit nervous. Here is this book, she’d written the character and I played it and I don’t know how she feels about it. When I met her, she said the same thing to me that, “I wrote these characters and now they’re coming alive from the pages of my book and it’s quite interesting to see that.” She was very, very positive and she felt that the essence of the spirit of the novel was captured.
CS: I’ve talked to a number of novelists and screenwriters and there is both sides, the novelists who want to be involved and those who want nothing to do with a movie, so it must be very strange to adapt a beloved book like this one.
Gavron: It is, yeah.
Chatterjee: She’s been very supportive.
Gavron: Yeah, she’s been fantastic, she’s done a lot of press for that.
CS: Has the movie been shown in India or Bangladesh yet?
Chatterjee: It was shown in two festivals in India, and in fact, in July it is going to a third festival which is the biggest film festival in India.
CS: How was the movie and the book received there? Was it met with a lot of resistance from the Muslim community?
Chatterjee: No, no it was really embraced well. It was quite a success in the festivals. People loved the film and there were very good reviews of the film. No, not at all, no resistance; people actually like the book and the film.
Gavron: Because at the time we were filming, we got a lot of support from the community and we worked very closely. I couldn’t have made it without working closely with the people who came on board as cast and crew and really filled in the world. We did have this small protest that happened when we were filming, this tiny, vocal group of men who protested on the very specific grounds based on rumors and speculations of scenes that weren’t even in the film or the book. Ironically, when they saw the film–not that we changed anything because we didn’t, we stuck to our guns–but I think the community as a whole who were supportive was in the majority, saw that there was a human story in it. Ironically, it just won an award at the Bangladeshi Film Festival in London.
CS: There was a famous story about when Deepa Mehta made “Water” where her sets were burned down in protest.
Gavron: Yeah, we did have a bit of that. I mean we had our own version of that in a way, which was sort of blown up.
Chatterjee: Yeah, not as dramatic, but the Royal Family Command Performance being pulled out.
Gavron: Oh, yes. Each year the Royal Family chooses one film as the film they’re going to open and have a gala screening in a tent. It’s just one screening, a big performance in Leicester Square. The year before they had chosen “Casino Royale,” and this year, they rang us up and said they had chosen “Brick Lane.” Then what happened is they sold tickets and they organized all the security checks and everything, and then a couple of weeks before it was due to screen, suddenly they caught up with this protest group and they pulled out. As Hanif Kareshi said, “It was the kind of act that must made all of us, let alone in the Bangladeshi community, wonder what being British is all about.” But that wasn’t a majority view.
Chatterjee: That was in England; it’s funny that in Bangladesh and in India there were no protests.
CS: Much of this movie takes place in an apartment, but how much of it were you able to shoot in the Brick Lane portion of London?
Gavron: What’s interesting is we shot entirely in East London and we shot all the exteriors on a real housing estate just a stone’s throw from Brick Lane, but if you go into the interiors, they’re absolutely tiny. Because so much of this film is set in the interior, it’s almost a character in itself, we built it on a stage in East London so that we could float walls and we could create the kind of labyrinthian rooms in the way we wanted. We shot on Brick Lane, but it’s more of a symbolic title because it’s about the quest for home. I don’t know whether you know Brick Lane, but it’s a fascinating area of cultural change and everything, and it’s got a Mosque there, and it’s now called BanglaTown. It’s one street, but it’s become the name for the area, and it’s now got all the British artists like Tracy Emmons is there, and it’s got the best curry houses and a mosque that used to be a synagogue for the Jewish community when they were there, and before that the French community had a church. It’s shifted three times.
CS: I’m sure one question a lot of people have is why Nazneen stays with Chanu as long as she does. I know that you didn’t write the book and maybe it was covered in there, but I was wondering what you thought about it.
Chatterjee: I think a woman who comes to an alien place at the age of seventeen, she has no choice at that point. In the beginning, it’s a forced marriage and her father chooses her to marry and he decides that she should leave. She doesn’t have a job there, she’s seventeen years old, she’s just dependent on him, and then as a matter of habit, it’s a cultural thing that you don’t leave, because you’ve lived with him for so long. It is a big deal to leave, so I think that’s why she doesn’t leave.
Gavron: It’s prompted by the catalyst of Karim and with her children growing up and challenging her.
Chatterjee: Much later in life, when she has her kids and she’s sewing and she’s independent… it’s a slow process. She’s also stepped into the outside world and meeting another man and having a relationship with him. Probably that’s when she gets the courage to be on her own, but before that she’s lived in the protection of her family in Bangladesh and then she’s been transported here and she’s lived under the protection of another man, from the father’s home to the husband’s home, so she’s never lived on her own to be an independent woman.
Gavron: It’s almost like a delayed coming-of-age story, isn’t it?
CS: The movie’s been done since last year, so what have you been working on since and do you look to adapt another book?
Gavron: I’ve done some touring with this around Europe; we went to some festivals in Europe and here we are. It’s very exciting to be opening in the States, but I’m also developing a couple of other projects with Film 4 who developed and financed this. I have a good working relationship with them and they’re also quite female-centric, but we’ll see what happen. We’re waiting for the script to come together and see if there’s a point to take it out to the world.
CS: Was this a good experience and are you looking to do more western films in the future?
Chatterjee: Yeah, this is my third western film. I did a small French film and a German film called “Shadows of Time,” and this is my third, but my first British film. Yes, absolutely I love swapping the styles of acting, because Europe has a different style, India has a different style, and even within Europe, different countries have different styles, so yeah, I’m definitely looking forward I mean, back home I am doing a couple of films; I’ve already finished four films after “Brick Lane.”
CS: I’m amazed by how fast they crank out films over there, all of them seem to have the same actors and directors making two or three movies a year.
Chatterjee: (laughs) I’m due to do another two films, and those two films are not exactly Indian. They are Indian in some ways, but they also have American producers in one film, and British director and British producers in another film.
Brick Lane opens in select cities on Friday, June 20.