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AUGUST 1, 2008

East is East (London)

Brick Lane director SARAH GAVRON and actress TANNISHTA CHATTERJEE discuss their tale of the other side

By Mark Jenkins

Bricked In: Tannishta Chatterjee looks warily at the world outside on Brick Lane (Sony Classics)

My review of BRICK LANE appeared on National Public Radio's website. This week, I also reviewed THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR for NPR. Clicking on the titles of those films will take you to

BASED ON MONICA ALI'S NOVEL, a bestseller in Britain, Brick Lane is the tale of a young Muslim woman, Nazneen, who's shipped from Bangla Desh to East London to marry an older man, Chanu. Played by Tannishta Chatterjee, an actress of Bengali Hindu origins, Nazneen lives a circumscribed life for many years. But things change rapidly during 2001, which is the focus of director Sarah Gavron and scripter Laura Jones's adaptation. Gavron and Chatterjee visited Washington in mid-June to promote the film, and the director discussed compressing the novel's narrative.

GAVRON: It took a long time. The book tells a story in the interior prose of Nazneen's character. We needed to translate that cinematically. We focused on 2001. It's where the drama takes place. That's when her characters goes through a transformation. She falls in love with a younger man, which is a catalyst; it opens her eyes to the outside world. And Chanu wants to go home.

We could have done the film in three sections, with a parallel story of two sisters, because in the novel there's a lot of her sister's letters. But we decided that if we focused on this one year, we could see her change and convey a lot of what was in the book, but in a distilled form.

Tannishta, did you know South Asian life in London before taking this role?

CHATTERJEE: I did not. I visited London a couple of times, but they were all tourist visits with family. My view of London before Brick Lane was only Piccadilly Circus and Regents Park. I was quite surprised, because I expected after reading the book that Brick Lane was going to be a very rundown area. But when I visited, on one side you have all the Bangla Deshi restaurants and on the other side you have all these funky artists and young people. You have street names written in Bengali, and you have white artists.

But that's a pretty recent development.

GAVRON: Yeah, the artists are. But it's always been this place where immigrants have settled. I love the fact that the mosque used to be a synagogue, and before that was a church.

A few neighborhood residents protested the film, but how did most people react?

CHATTERJEE: I had to do a lot of research, and they really embraced me. I went to all these cultural events, festivals, curry houses.

Coming from India, and my grandparents's belonging to the other side of Bengal, I had all these stories I had heard from my grandma, and I would tell these people. They were very happy that I had come from the other side of Bengal.

When you say the other side, do you mean what is now Bangla Desh?

CHATTERJEE: Yes, my grandmother, in her younger days, during partition had to come to West Bengal, because we are a Hindu family. But she had this strong connection of growing up there. She would always tell me how the fish on that side of Bengal is better on that side of Bengal. How the nature is more beautiful. It's just the same, actually. [laughs]

What did the protesters really want?

GAVRON: They wanted to have the focus on themselves. It got them noticed. I think probably underlying it was that they didn't like the story of a woman's journey toward independence. They never explicitly said that.

CHATTERJEE: Most people who protested had never read the book. They said it portrayed Bangla Deshi women in a derogatory way. How does it do that? I'm South Asian myself, and I wouldn't be a part of such a project. The reason I really liked the script is because it doesn't cater to those cliches. It doesn't show a devilish man beating his wife, and therefore she goes out. It's just a human story. It doesn't even judge arranged marriage, because by the end of the film, Nazneen actually sees a lot of things that are adorable in Chanu, and falls in love with him.

You shot the childhood scenes in India, not Bangla Desh.

GAVRON: There's no doubt that Bangla Desh is a country that's... complicated. Monica Ali was denied a visa to go there. I did go research in Bangla Desh, and spent a lot of time there. And I made a documentary there about 10 years before. I would have loved to have filmed there, but in India, they're so much more used to international crews. It was just easier for us. And in terms of landscapes, West Bengal is the same as East Bengal.

Did you learn things making documentaries that you used in this film?

GAVRON: Definitely. I went all over Asia and learned about cultures, so I wasn't afraid of that. I knew you could get under the skin of things if you spend enough time and do enough research. Also, we had some people in Brick Lane who weren't actors. I was used to introducing people to film who weren't familiar with it.

What I really enjoy about fiction is that everybody you're working with is professional, and you've all agreed. You can get at truth, and you're not exploiting people who aren't aware of what you're doing. Actors are very cognizant of what they're doing. They've bought into the idea, and everybody can stand back and say, "OK, we went through that experience, but it was fiction." Whereas when you're dealing with real people, you have a whole other responsibility.

In the film, 9/11 is a defining event, but you keep the repercussions of it within the community.

GAVRON: Yeah, we wanted to do a film that doesn't expand out, but just looks through these eyes. So it's glimpsing, as Nazneen perceives it. 9/11 is such a huge event, and it's rather terrifying to put it into a film. People have done it, but we wanted to show it in a different way, to see how it impacts Nazneen and her family, and nothing else.

The scene where Nazneen runs to Liverpool Street Station seems to be a metaphor for her breaking out. Is that something that's treated the same way in the film as in the book?

GAVRON: It's quite different in the book. It's set during a sort of riot scene. She runs out into the street and there's a lot of political unrest. She's still chasing her daughter. Our story was about resolving the mother-daughter relationship at that point. It is very metaphorical. She's never been out on the streets at night, she's chasing the child, and she catches hold of her. She realizes at that moment that she needs to be there for her child, as her mother wasn't. And she comes up against this world she's never seen. It's so close by. It's astounding that five minutes away from Bangla Town is The City [London's financial district], which couldn't be more different.

Tannishta, have you appeared in stereotypical "Bollywood" films?

CHATTERJEE: I did one, actually, and I have to admit that while filming, I had a blast. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

GAVRON: Did you?

CHATTERJEE: All these rain machines, and dancing in the rain. You just come on set, you don't have a script. And you just do whatever you like. But when I saw that film, I was like, "OK. That's the only one I want to do." I work more in independent films, and arthouse films. The kind of roles that are usually offered to me are ones where you need an actress who can deal with complexity and character, and not be a doll looking pretty.

I can do that, but....