Poignancy can have limits: BRICK LANE review

Is that salmonella outbreak still affecting tomatoes? Got a few that might be unsafe to eat? Well, pick ‘em up and prepare to hurl them at me, cuz I thought Brick Lane was a dud. 1186156.jpg

But first, let me explain:
The movie is, of course, based on the critically acclaimed novel by Monica Ali. She of the Granta 20 under 40, Booker shortlist, and ravishing looks. No, I’m not jellus (ok, maybe a little bit), but for one reason or another, I never got around to reading the book.

Despite filmmakers ardent wishes, fans of any much-loved book want a movie to be a faithful adaptation. I praised The Namesake movie because it vividly brought the book to life, and willingly overlooked the disjointedness and odd pacing of the film.

Therefore, in the spirit of thoroughness, I picked up Ali’s book and spent the past few days hoping to crawl beneath the skin of the characters, to let their emotions wash over me, to exult in their triumphs and sob at their failures. I’m about halfway through and so far will admit that the movie does reflect the book: in both cases I struggled in vain to keep my eyes open. Well, I did manage to stay awake through the film, but the woman next to me succumbed quite rapidly to the charms of a deep, grunting, wheezing slumber.

Yes, the movie is poignant and lyrical and subtle. But just as the tension ratchets up in anticipation of a climax, the plot meanders, the intensity dissipates, and the viewer/reader slumps back into the seat.

Much like in sex, this can be very frustrating.



For anyone unfamiliar with the story, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) grows up in a poor rural Bangladeshi family with her spirited younger sister. Soon after her mother dies, she is married to educated but much older Chanu (Satish Kaushik) and sent to London’s East End to be proper Muslim wife in the council estates off Brick Lane.

The movie dumps the entire first half of the book (including the suspicions around her mother’s death) and jumps to Nazneen’s circumscribed life in England with two assertive British-born daughters (son’s death glossed over) and a fat, foolish husband. Chanu’s the sort of colonialised naif who thinks that knowledge of Thackeray will blast him into the upper echelons of British society…or at least get him that promotion he knows he deserves. He mocks other more traditional Bangladeshis (“peasants”) in the neighborhood, while still making sure his wife is housebound and subservient enough to cut his corns for him at night.

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Pretty soon he quits his job (promotion never comes so he sets his intellectual phasers on get-rich-quick schemes) and Nazneen takes in sewing to supplement the family savings. Karim (Christopher Simpson) is the middleman between seamstresses and wholesaler, and his frequent delivery and pick-up visits soon lead to more. The scenes between the two are tastefully discreet, yet surprisingly steamy. Chatterjee and Simpson have great chemistry together and deliver a sari unwrapping that felt a bit like an adult christmas morning.

Spoilers!

But this isn’t to be either. 9/11 happens on teevee, Karim discovers his militant side, Chanu feels his cuckold’s horns and decides to take the family back to Bangladesh, the daughters rebel, Nazneen ends the affair (refuses to divorce Chanu and marry Karim) but also refuses to return to Bangladesh with her husband and the film ends with mother and daughters making snow angels outiside.

Whew, sounds rather intriguing, doesn’t it? Too bad each plot line trails into nothingness. Karim grows a beard, attends meetings, does some railing on about organizing, but the story arc peters out. Chanu smells the infidelity at home and for a minute grows actually menacing (really fine acting by Satish Kaushik) but the threats are veiled, he runs out of steam, and Chanu is once again a fat sad sack, albeit a more sympathetic one. The oldest daughter runs away at night and Nazneen races after her in sari and chappals, darting across traffic, past seedy neighborhoods, down into the Tube station…where the kid gives up and they go home. WTF? The chase lasted for like, five minutes! And nothing happened!

It’s very ungrateful brownilocks of me to say this, but damn, there is such a thing as too much tastefulness. Someone shoot someone already!! All this poignancy and lyrical beauty…but at what cost when everything is at such a remove? Who are these people? The marvelous actors do their best: despite her fine-boned beauty Tannishtha Chatterjee ‘s character is so restrained, she’s flat and hard to relate to; Christopher Simpson gets to growl and prowl charismatically, but he’s just a plot device; Satish Kaushik sinks into the flabby folds of his character and ekes out every bit of comedy and pathos from his lines, but ends up upstaging the main character, Nazneen, in the process.

Here’s the catch: with immigrant stories, you want distinctly memorable characters who must also convey certain archetypal roles in the immigrant experience. Each of the trio above falls into one or the other side of this equation, but not both. The sidestory about Nazneen’s sister Hasina is relegated to a few voice-overs and repeated flashbacks of little girls in fields. The sadness and cruelty of Hasina’s story remains trapped on the page.

Oddly, the most striking aspect of the film turned out the be the cinematographer’s use of light. Colored beams stream through translucent curtains, reflect off mirrors, fracture and capture the twinkling sequins on the cheaply alluring clothes lying on Nazneen’s sewing table. Penned inside the apartment, Nazneen’s face is bathed in blues and greens, submerged and claustrophobic. As she asserts herself, we see her outdoors more frequently, widows are finally thrown open and she is awash in sunny yellows and clear wintry light.

Am I being too harsh? Probably. If you’re in NYC, SAJA is screening Brick Lane tonight at 7pm. The movie opens wide tomorrow, so go see it and come back with that tomato if you disagree. I’ll take all comers :)

Related posts: 1, 2, 3.

29 thoughts on “Poignancy can have limits: BRICK LANE review

  1. Same reaction to the book?

    I am just finishing it up and I love it. I suppose I can see your point that the various plot lines do dissipate into non-explosive outcomes (which can be boring in a movie, I suppose)…but in the book, it plays out wonderfully. The characters are beautifully fleshed out, and there is so much to appreciate about the arc of this story as framed through Nazmeen’s eyes.

  2. Bit of a digression here, but I felt that Gogol was definitely the central character of The Namesake (the book), while the movie tended to focus primarily on Ashoke and Ashima. So, while I found both enjoyable, to me at least the movie was not a faithful adaptation of the book.

    Spoilers!

    I am not overly fond of either version of Brick Lane. Frankly, I found Chanu’s acquiescence to leaving his family in London and going back to Bangladesh by himself oddly jarring, given how his personality had been portrayed till then.

    I did, however, appreciate the attempt at a Bengali English accent in the movie. I also enjoyed the verisimilitude of using the Sylheti dialect of Bengali, but that just made it all the more jarring to hear Hasina’s “voice” in the letters speaking in Standard Bengali.

    There was, however, one part of the movie that I found oddly moving — Chanu’s little speech at Karim’s meeting, emphasizing the importance of Bengali cultural identity over religious identity. Nazneen’s reaction to that, feeling for perhaps the first time a sense of pride in her husband, was deftly and subtly portrayed.

  3. There were some parts that were great to look at but after seeing Tannishtha Chatterjee in Shadows of Time her performance or the director’s inability to bring a better performance out of her was disappointing.

    The speech that Chanu has at the neighborhood meeting was moving but left me wishing that the whole movie had equally emotional parts. It was nice to see some balancing portrayals of Chanu when the director could have portrayed him in a completely and unrealistically only negative tone.

    Maybe it was the director’s intention to convey the boring, secluded, stunted growth of Nazneen’s life in East London by constantly stopping a story line form reaching its climax.
    It would have been nice to see Hasina in Bangladesh as she was voicing her letters to Nazneen.

    Its seems like the director could have used a lot of the down time in the film to tell a more detailed and elaborate story.

  4. Thank goodness! I thought I was going insane, or worse yet, lacking intellectual ability whenever I came across any good reviews for the movie or book. I thought the book had potential in the beginning but by the middle, it was completely downhill. And the movie was even more disappointing.

    I did, however, appreciate the attempt at a Bengali English accent in the movie. I also enjoyed the verisimilitude of using the Sylheti dialect of Bengali, but that just made it all the more jarring to hear Hasina’s “voice” in the letters speaking in Standard Bengali.

    I appreciated that part as well, but felt they could’ve done a better job showing the distinct syhleti culture in London

  5. You know, there should be a support group for people like us who did not understand all the hoopla about “Brick Lane.”

    They could have just filmed two hours of Monica Ali sitting in a chair, and I’d have been much happier.

  6. I also enjoyed the verisimilitude of using the Sylheti dialect of Bengali, but that just made it all the more jarring to hear Hasina’s “voice” in the letters speaking in Standard Bengali.

    Seems like they just went with the language of the letters, Bengali, rather than a translation, in the movie. In the book, neither one of the sisters spoke English (or, if they did, very little early on in the book), so presumably, they wrote to each other in Bangla. Yes, they grew up in a rural area, but even if there were colloquialisms or slang thrown in, I don’t imagine that their grammatical speech in Bangla was as bad as the grammar used in the English translation. Yet, with the pidgin English, it gave the impression that they spoke Bangla that was terribly gramatically incorrect. I felt it was rather insulting, and after about the third such letter, I just stopped reading.

    Bottom line – I probably wouldn’t be throwing tomatoes at you, cicatrix!

  7. Er, that’s as opposed to the book, since I only read the book and haven’t seen the movie (and don’t intend to…thanks, Cicatrix)

    Okay, I’m not making any sense anymore.

  8. It’s so nice to find others that also did not enjoy the book-I actually did not even finish it! I’m not sure there was much of a plot and the characters were not developed-not a movie I am going to run out and see for sure.

  9. Yay — a support group. I was underwhelmed by “Brick Lane (the book) too. Some interesting characters (Chanu, Karim) that did little and went nowhere, and a total cypher (Nazneen) at the centre of it all.

    Making Hasina’s story the focus of the novel would have been much more interesting But it wouldn’t have been short-listed for the Booker.

  10. I thought I was one of the few who didn’t enjoy the book – glad to know I have company!

    I found it hard to even sympathize with any of the characters. You are a young girl marrying an older man for money, what do you expect in life? And then to go on and have an affair – that’s not right.

  11. word. she only got the prize because of the subject matter, which she unfortunately did not explore well enough. reminds me of the Goodness Gracious Me skit where a white dude poses as a burqa-clad desi woman so that he could get the acclaim awarded to other desis with terrible books.

    wasn’t there controversy about Monica Ali being a sellout, and was raised far removed from the ghettos of Brick Lane?

    i met a girl on the metro who loved brick lane but hated kite runner. i was confused.

  12. wasn’t there controversy about Monica Ali being a sellout

    Don’t be stupid.

  13. What’s so confusing about liking brick lane and hating kite runner? I felt the same way. One had superior writing, and the other was…shrug (at best).

    hmm, I am surprised the underwhelmed reaction of the book. (I havent’ seen the movie, I am sure it’s bad, but I am still curious).

    Also in response to this comment.

    You are a young girl marrying an older man for money, what do you expect in life? And then to go on and have an affair – that’s not right.

    Eye roll.

    Firstly, she did not marry for money. Her father said, “here he is, marry him.” and she HAD to. She had no choice by any stretch of the imagination. And the marriage itself, she had to be grateful he wasn’t beating her. Didn’t matter at all that he was selfish, a hypocritic and often embarrassing.

  14. Re 6:

    Seems like they just went with the language of the letters, Bengali, rather than a translation, in the movie. In the book, neither one of the sisters spoke English (or, if they did, very little early on in the book), so presumably, they wrote to each other in Bangla. Yes, they grew up in a rural area, but even if there were colloquialisms or slang thrown in, I don’t imagine that their grammatical speech in Bangla was as bad as the grammar used in the English translation. Yet, with the pidgin English, it gave the impression that they spoke Bangla that was terribly gramatically incorrect. I felt it was rather insulting, and after about the third such letter, I just stopped reading.

    ak, I didn’t really have issue with the use of a Sylheti dialect (dialects tend to have their own perfectly consistent grammar). What caused, well, a slight sense of dissonance was the use of a Sylheti(esque) Bangla dialect by Nazneen, contrasted with the standard Bangla dialect used for Hasina’s “voice” in the letters. That just felt inconsistent.

  15. Re 13:

    hmm, I am surprised the underwhelmed reaction of the book. (I havent’ seen the movie, I am sure it’s bad, but I am still curious).

    Sonia,

    I don’t necessarily think that Monica Ali is a terrible writer. She doesn’t, for instance, seem to pander to Western readers in Brick Lane the way that say, Khaled Hosseini or Bharati Mukherjee does. That said, Brick Lane (the book), despite deft touches here and there, left me largely unmoved. I don’t necessarily think that it’s an issue of plot lines “dissipat[ing] into non-explosive outcomes,” largely because I like numerous stories by other authors where the plots do precisely that — it was more an issue of me simply not caring about the characters sufficiently.


    Digressing again: do other readers enjoy Ginu Kamini? Given how gingerly most desi writers handle sexuality, it was a hoot to read her short stories.

  16. do other readers enjoy Ginu Kamini? Given how gingerly most desi writers handle sexuality, it was a hoot to read her short stories.

    I haven’t personally had a chance to read her stories yet but I am sure I am missing something. Because, a long time ago (when blogs weren’t around), on an excellent South Asian lit listserv called SASIALIT, Ginu KamAni was considered a darling–especially by women who fell into age categories that people on this site will flippantly and casually label the ‘auntie-jie’ generation.

    For the record (because I am vain), I am neither here nor there.

  17. ak, I didn’t really have issue with the use of a Sylheti dialect (dialects tend to have their own perfectly consistent grammar). What caused, well, a slight sense of dissonance was the use of a Sylheti(esque) Bangla dialect by Nazneen, contrasted with the standard Bangla dialect used for Hasina’s “voice” in the letters. That just felt inconsistent.

    then you surely would have hated this element of the book, where they botch up the translation. i guess in a movie, it works a little better, because english subtitles seem less tedious/onerous than a block of text in the original language followed by a block of text translating. still, you would think that since they switched over to bangla in the movie, they should have used the dialect – it wouldn’t matter to those who had to read the subtitles anyway, but clearly it would (and should) matter to bangla speakers able to spot this dissonance.

    Digressing again: do other readers enjoy Ginu Kamini? Given how gingerly most desi writers handle sexuality, it was a hoot to read her short stories.

    check out the guardian bad sex awards – every so often, they turn up a desi novelist.

  18. Just got back from seeing it in Lincoln Square. It was better than I thought it would be (couldn’t get through the book), but perhaps I went in with low expectations after having read this review. ;)

    My two favorite scenes from the film were when Channu makes his speech at the Community Meeting, and when the older daughter (who I absolutely ADORED) pleaded with her mother to say she wanted to stay. But you’re right – the “chase” scene was a bit much.

  19. 18 · tamasha said

    My two favorite scenes from the film were when Channu makes his speech at the Community Meeting, and when the older daughter (who I absolutely ADORED) pleaded with her mother to say she wanted to stay.

    Yeah, I really liked that Community Meeting scene too. But didn’t it leave you even more confused about the character and the direction of the movie? We see Chanu’s thoughtful side, but then the whole thing sort of trails off, doesn’t it?

    Is a newfound respect for him the reason why Nazneen rejects Karim? If that’s the case the movie certainly doesn’t make it for us. Nazneen refuses to return to Bangladesh with Chanu anyway, so the scene exists just to point out that Chanu has another side to him. Yay for character complexity but this didn’t add up to anything. The movie jammed post 9/11 militancy (Karim) up against the book-worm’s thoughtfulness (Chanu) and then let this interesting development dissipate like a fart near an open window.

    Gah…it had so many great elements, and the acting was exceptionally fine, but the whole thing was too frustrating. I’m not saying it wasn’t worth seeing, just that I’m holding it to a higher standard. This wasn’t THE LOVE GURU :)

    Did it throw you off that the oldest daughter was taller and bigger than the mom? I can see how they should contrast – traditional Bangladeshi mother and brash anglicized daughter – but sometimes it felt like the two were in different movies. Kept having to remind myself that one was supposed to be a barely pubescent girl and the other was a mother in her mid-thirties.

  20. Yay for character complexity but this didn’t add up to anything.

    That is a hilarious sentence, and I agree.

    It didn’t even phase me that Shahana was bigger than Nazneen. It’s probably all that British food. ;) The director said that the actress is actually from the East End.

  21. cicatrix, u are so not the only one who wanted to like brick lane (the book) but found it kind of boring and disappointing…

    and then wondered i u were being a bit jealous of monica ali…

    but then really stopped and thought, ‘this book is so av! It’s vanilla, it’s lukewarm, it’s the Radiohead b sides that no one wants to buy but everyone will cos it’s meant to be good.’

    definitely had the same reaction to the novel (and i fear the movie will be the same!) i feel like this lady whose blog i read who had done a short story writing workshop with jhumpa lahiri before she got her first book published, and who felt lahiri’s stories wouldn’t have much too them without the ‘exotic’ element to them. then, lahiri got the pulitzer, and she got….bitter.

  22. I recently saw this film at the Seattle Int film fest. I thought the actors were just superb. I too hadn’t read the book, but what I can gather from the movie is that the story is about this internal transformation, rather the coming of age of a ‘simple, woman from the village’ (as Karim describes)of an individual who can make some tough decisions on her own. The actress Tannishtha rendered this part superbly. But yes, the story does pander to the stereotypical image of Asians as percieved by the West.

  23. I don’t necessarily think that Monica Ali is a terrible writer. She doesn’t, for instance, seem to pander to Western readers in Brick Lane the way that say, Khaled Hosseini or Bharati Mukherjee does.

    I won’t argue Khaled Hosseini. But Bharati Mukherjee’s main sin for many people seems to be that she isn’t pandering to the brown audience any longer. I think she (and quite a few of the rest of us) have moved on from “identity issues” as the main focus of South Asian writing. Her work has definitely moved off in other directions, but I’d hardly call it “pandering to Western readers,” since most of her later books don’t sell nearly as well as her earlier ones did. She’s just writing what she wants to write, that’s all. She’s even said as much to me personally.

    I thought Brick Lane was terrible mainly because it didn’t bring anything new to the table at all. Others may feel differently, of course. But for me, there was no payoff for paying attention. So after a while I stopped.

  24. I saw the film a few months ago and i really liked it in comparison to the book.

    The actor playing Karim had a very anglicized sylheti accent and i was curious and found out he’s not Asain but in fact an Irish guy. he did look authentic but i wondered why there wasn’t a local actor selected for this character like the daughter. I imagine the fact Nazneen had a sylheti dialect could be due to the fact she’s meant to have lived in Brick lane for years and it’s likely she’s picked up the accent as many people actually do pick up the slang when interacting with that communit even if they speak proper Bengali.

    I do agree however the chase scene was a little bit over the top but it was a touching moment when she finds her daughter.

  25. You know, there should be a support group for people like us who did not understand all the hoopla about “Brick Lane.”

    Sign me up. Like a moth to a flame I went to watch this worthy waste of movie stock to see if it was any more worthy or maybe even better than the novel, and in as much as looking at pictures can sometimes be diverting, it at least had movement and shadows to pass the time.

  26. The actor playing Karim had a very anglicized sylheti accent and i was curious and found out he’s not Asain but in fact an Irish guy. he did look authentic but i wondered why there wasn’t a local actor selected for this character like the daughter.

    Well, the guy is a Londoner so his Sylheti accent is meant to be anglo-accented.

    That’s Christopher Simpson, who is of mixed African and Irish background. He’s in loads of British desi films and TV, including playing the Bengali twins in the Channel 4 version of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Parminder Nagra’s boyfriend in a boring ‘British-Indian’ adaptation of King Lear set in modern day London, so boring I forget the name of it.

  27. Her work has definitely moved off in other directions, but I’d hardly call it “pandering to Western readers,” since most of her later books don’t sell nearly as well as her earlier ones did. She’s just writing what she wants to write, that’s all. She’s even said as much to me personally.

    Next time you see her please compliment her on one of the most unintentionally funny books I’ve ever read, the one caled Jasmine. The scene in which the terrorist who kills her family in India turns up in New York selling hot dogs five years later after she’s survived shipwreck, rape etc etc etc to become an American housewife had me hooting out loud. Pandering is the least of her comedy tricks.