Chesler Chronicles

The Hero Wears Hijab. A Film Review.

There is a certain kind of film that casts a spell over its viewers: You enter its reality as if the film is your own private dream and its’ languorous, dream-like effect lingers long after you’ve left the theatre. Brick Lane is such a film.

Yes, I know, the film has been out for awhile. Call me old-fashioned but I think that some things are worth thinking and writing about forever, not just as breaking news and potential fish wrap.

I wanted to see how well the film portrayed immigrant Muslim life in London. Would it focus only on British-Caucasian racism or only on Muslim charges of “Islamophobia?” The film shows us both realities–but since it is a work of art, not merely another television-like piece of entertainment, it shows us much more, but very quietly, softly. The film is told from it’s heroine’s point of view.

When she is seventeen, a young, shy, quiet, modest, and uneducated Bangladeshi girl, Nazneen Ahmed, is sent off to London to marry a man, Chanu, whom she has never met, who is old enough to be her father, and who looks about three times her size. She has lost her mother to suicide and her father has now separated her forever from her sister, who is also her best and only friend, and with whom she corresponds, almost daily.

The film’s first magic trick is to show us how, over time, an arranged marriage (in this particular case, or in the case of those who accept this custom), can both “work” and even lead to love.

Nazneen’s husband, (played by Satish Kaushik), is an educated man, pompous, decent, hard-working–a domestic tyrant but not a physically abusive one. He does not have a prayer of succeeding in England. He is never promoted. His pride forces him to quit his civil servant’s position; unwisely, he borrows money from a scavenger, a bottom-feeder–a Muslim woman, a usurer, who enriches herself at the expense of other Muslim immigrants. Chanu, who reads Hume and Proust, finally gets a job as a bus driver.

Nazneen lives in profound but uncomplaining isolation. When her husband quits his job, she decides to work for money sewing clothing at home. Chanu does not approve of this but he does not stop her. Nazneen–who thinks of the Bangladesh of her childhood when she is having marital sex–has extraordinary chemistry with Karim, the young British-born Muslim man who brings her the garments to sew. Karim, (played by Christopher Simpson), views Nazneen as “the real thing,” a simple village girl. The chemistry between them is extraordinary and they are inevitably drawn to each other. Our shy girl enjoys a brief and unexpected adulterous affair.

“Oh-oh,” my companion and I thought: It’s a Bangladeshi Anna Karenina. How wrong we were. What happens is nothing short of amazing.

Nazneen refuses to divorce her husband to marry her beautiful lover, who has become an angry Muslim anti-Western activist. And, when her husband, who cannot bring himself to condemn England, finally decides to return to Bangladesh after 9/11–Nazneen decides to stay in London without him! And she does so at precisely the moment it becomes clear to her that she really loves her husband.

Then Chanu matches her. Playing against type, he lovingly blesses her decision to remain in London together with their two westernized daughters.

And yes, our hero wears hijab. For those who know my work, let me assure you that this film has not led me to approve of forced veiling (or even of veiling), but that is not the issue in this film and the hero is indeed a hero and she does wear hijab.

This film is a powerful female coming-of-age story and a fine feminist drama. We care about these people, they are “real.” They are with me still and might remain with me for a long time.

Kudos to director Sarah Gavron, to her peerless cast, and to Monica Ali, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based.

I urge you to see Brick Lane or to rent the DVD. It stands head and shoulders above all the violent and cynical Hollywood re-runs that dominate our screens this summer.