Islamophobia Onscreen: ‘Brick Lane’ (Sarah Gavron, 2008)

For those of you who don’t live in the UK or need a little help with the geography of London, Brick Lane is a street in the East End of London, a street famous for its multicultural residents and diversity. It’s traditionally an area home to many people from the Bangladeshi-Sylheti community. Sarah Gavron’s 2008 film Brick Lane (based on the book of the same name by Monica Ali) caused quite a bit of controversy in the area, many residents in the area felt that the representations of extremism among the community was unfair and offensive.

I watched Brick Lane for the first time this week and whilst there are some issues with its representation of the Bangladeshi community of East London, I was also struck by how relevant the film still is today almost 8 years after it was released.

The premise is not unique. Nazeen (Tanisha Chatterjee) leaves her home in Bangladesh at the age of 17 after her mother’s suicide and travels to London in order to be married to a man 20 years her senior. It’s formulaic and from the outset you feel pretty confident you know where this story is going. However, Brick Lane takes a modern and political twist on the traditional ‘going-home’ story. Nazeen and her sister have not seen each other for 17 years but they keep in touch through the form of letters. These letters are the only thing that keeps Nazeen going most days. She has two daughters, Shahana and Bibi, and whilst her husband Chanu is not aggressive or violent – they clearly do not have a happy marriage. After meeting some other women who live nearby, Nazeen joins them in sewing from home to make money and meets Karim who delivers the fabric. They slowly fall in love whilst Nazeen’s home life with her husband and daughters becomes more fraught and fractured. Chanu keeps his promise to Nazeen about the family moving back to Bangladesh (what Nazeen has always wanted) but now she has some financial independence and Karim, what does going home mean anymore?

The relationship between Nazeen and her two daughters, in particular the eldest daughter Shahana, is probably one of the most interesting dynamics throughout the film. Shahana and Bibi remind Nazeen of her own childhood with her sister, which is of course where her homesickness stems from. Shahana is entering that age between childhood and adulthood and is consequently becoming far more aware of the power dynamic between her parents. She is also acutely aware of just how unhappy her mother is. Her feisty attitude toward her father is reminiscent to Nazeen of her younger sister back in Bangladesh. During a climactic scene in the film, Nazeen chases Shahana through the East End (catching her up at what I believe was Liverpool Street station, and if I’m right I will be impressed with my geographical knowledge). As they run through the streets, we see flashbacks to Nazeen with her sister. It’s a nice touch and a powerful statement on the relationships between sisters, mothers and daughters.

Nazeen and Shahan also represents the difference in empowerment and independence between generations. After the death of Nazeen’s mother, she is scared to be sent to the UK but at the same time, she understands that this is the best life possible for her in the circumstances. Shahana, on the other hand, has grown up in London and seen how her father dominates the household. Her mother is quiet and subservient most of the time and Shahana rebels against this idea of what women should be. Karim touches on this subject when he tells Nazeen he likes her because she is ‘a girl from the village’ – meaning she isn’t too religious or too Westernised. Whilst Nazeen plays this role for most of the film, she steps into her own role at the end and proves that she is her own person. This is partly influenced by Shahana, and partly because she knows she must make a better life for both her daughters.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Brick Lane however, is just how relevant it is today. As Karim and Nazeen get closer, Karim asks her to join him at a local meeting of Muslims who live in ‘Banglatown’ as it is known by many of those who live there. Karim and the other members are concerned about the level of discrimination and abuse that Muslims living in the area face and the meetings are designed to provide support and solidarity. The first meeting that Nazeen goes to helps her to connect with other’s in the community. Nazeen has very few interactions with people outside her own family (one acquaintance, Karim and a debt collector) and so the meetings bring a sense of belonging into Nazeen’s life. Karim and the other men talk about the discrimination they all face on the estate, and how they need to all support one another to battle prejudice.

Shortly after this, the film depicts the reactions of those in the UK (particularly on the estate) to the 9/11 bombings. The news plays out on the television which is so central to Nazeen and Chanu’s life, and Chanu comments that things are now going to change for all of them. Before now, we have watched the way people have looked at Nazeen when she is out in public, obviously reacting to her traditional Bangladeshi dress. After 9/11 however, Nazeen watches from the window as a young Muslim male is verbally attacked on the estate. In Western countries (predominantly the UK and US) attacks against Muslims rise dramatically following terrorist incidents. Recently, in the wake of the Paris bombings – racially motivated attacks against Muslims tripled. Gavron comments on this prejudice through the eyes of Nazeen who (like the vast majority of Muslims) have about as much to do with terrorism as your average white Christian has with the KKK. Using Nazeen’s experiences and showing the later split of the community group on how to respond to the increased racism, Gavron attempts to show exactly why Islamophobia is so poisonous. Arguably, the film resorts to stereotypical imagery of extremism (Karim becomes ‘radicalised‘ following the 9/11 bombings) but there is a very valid point being made underneath all of this. Isn’t the demonization of the Muslim community as a whole only going to lead to more (young people particularly) becoming radicalised? Brick Lane, whilst by no means acting as the final say on the issue, attempts to show just how dangerous and harmful Islamophobia is.

When watching Brick Lane this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded that this is still very much happening today. At it’s heart, Brick Lane is about growing up and realising where home really is. On the way, it discusses the controversial topics of racism and extremism with sensitivity. Not only is Nazeen a well rounded character whom we can identify with, she also lets us see into a world that many of us never will  and experience just how damaging discrimination can be.

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