Blocked Lane


by Rohin
18th July, 2006 at 7:14 pm    

Hey Picklers, I’m back in town. I hesitated posting up anything about the kerfuffle surrounding the shooting of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane until now, as I wanted to offer a slightly different slant to what has been reported in the media so far.

Sunny has already thoroughly addressed the issue over at AiM and I advise you to have a read if this story is new to you. I have just watched an entirely Asian panel on the BBC News (including the newsreader, but this is the BBC – they’re ALL Asian) discuss the book and the plans to begin filming.

Obviously any threats of violence or actual violence are inexcusable – but do the protestors have a valid reason to be unhappy? It seems like a familiar theme here PP, an Asian author is attacked for their ‘unrealistic’ portrayal of community X because they are not from community X. True to form, Bangladeshi residents in and around Brick Lane are unhappy with how they are depicted in a work of fiction. Monica Ali is mixed race, middle class and not from Brick Lane – hence this book must be rubbish.
Yet in this regard, it does not seem to be as religiously motivated as the wild protests against Behzti. Perhaps the community genuinely feel as though they have been slurred. Unfortunately, I must confess I have not read the book. This is overwhelmingly because I was told by all and sundry that it was complete toss. Perhaps these Bangladeshi traders are actually defenders of good filmmaking and don’t want a bad film to be made..?

Irrespective, just as I catch myself siding with those protesting, I research what exactly Ali suggested in her book. That aspects of the community are backward, sexist and fundamentalist. I think it would be only a fool to suggest that the entire Tower Hamlets Bangladeshi community is free of all three of these traits. Many of us here have lived/worked in the East End and I know Brick Lane intimately. I love it, it’s one of my favourite parts of London. But I know all too well of the seedier side of life there and also the backwards attitudes which find homes in all South Asian communities in Britain.

Ali’s book may suggest that these negative characteristics are more prevalent than they are. For the decent folk of Brick Lane that is a shame, but nothing more. They are conscious that the wider British community do not know them well and they don’t want any negative publicity, this is surely understandable. But they are confusing fiction with fact. Monica Ali is under no obligation to depict reality – that pressure is normally applied by the buying public. But as the book was a best-seller, why would she admit an error to her ways?

Ultimately, the onus falls to those who complain about how their community is depicted. Whilst it is easier said than done, the only way to get what you want on screen is to put it there. On a somewhat-related note, something I frequently feel annoyed about is how London is portrayed on screen. I’ll try to update this post with some examples (I’m heading out now) but few or no films have captured the way I and many of my contemporaries see London. I haven’t seen Woody Allen’s latest two London flicks, but I would be interested to as he has a knack of making New York look like the coolest city around. Nevertheless, neither Matchpoint nor Scoop are about my London. If Mr Allen, or any other director, decides to make a film about how Londoner is full of mean-spirited, grumpy, thieving bastards, foul weather and rubbish food, would I make my protest heard? Of course. Would I threaten to blockade the intended sets – or worse? Never. Freedom of speech is paramount.

Oh! Whilst we’re talking about Brick Lane, some free publicity for friend and co-organiser of the Chili Film Festival, being held as part of the Brick Lane Festival.


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  1. Leon — on 18th July, 2006 at 7:17 pm  

    Hah hah brilliant just got off the phone with my other (and better) half about this! Won’t detail the very heated conversation because I’m trying to get her to write something about it…;)

  2. farhan — on 18th July, 2006 at 7:39 pm  

    freedom of expression is paramount?? hmm no.. its a good thing but there has nvr been total freedom of expression nor will there ever be, aslong as common sense prevails. i hope the bengalis stop this shoot from happening, what certain liberals or conservatives in other communities believe is irrelevant. this may be a clash of culture, so let the stronger culture prevail..whther by words or deeds.

  3. gurpreet — on 18th July, 2006 at 7:49 pm  

    Brick Lane – it’s all so boring!

    People seem to be fighting the wrong battle about the screen adaptation of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. I agree it shouldn’t be made into a film not because it disgraces or undermines a specific community but because it was an utterly boring story with no screen value in my opinion. At best it was a soap opera story line about adultery padded up with some racial conflict and Islamic radicals for good measure.

    I don’t see what damage it can do to the Bangladeshi/Muslim community, it’s more likely to expose the book as complete crap. And honestly, having Mahmoud Roug, chairman of the Brick Lane Business Association, speaking on the BBC news didn’t help the case in any way; saying things like:

    “Monica Ali does not belong to the community. She has written a book that is just guesswork.”

    “Guesswork” what is that all about?! Do they not understand what FICTION means?! I think they are doing more damage to themselves than anyone else. Asians no one shows us up better than our own!

  4. Tanvir — on 18th July, 2006 at 7:55 pm  

    If you are looking at it from a neutral and very simple way, an author needs shocking issues to gain the readers emotions and interest. Rohin you are absolutely right when you are talking about confusing fact with fiction.

    She isn’t the first to make a film about negative issues concerning the Bangladeshi community. There has been a much more ‘authentic’ film called (I think) ‘Londoni Furi’ which is basicly about a young girl taken to Bangladesh, and her father tries to sell her marriage to the highest bidder with the view of the groom getting a visa! You should watch it its really good. The off member of the Sylheti community was obviously annoyed by what they saw as an attack on their community.

    There were reviews of Brick Lane in the Bangladesh press when it was launched, and I didnt come across anyone who was particularly bothered by Brick Lane, instead taking the view that, any publicity is good publicity!

    Bangladeshis have enough people writing about their country / nation taking social issues and spicing them up to next levels for political purposes, who is really bothered by Monia Ali’s book? If anything its widening awareness of the existance of the Bangladeshi communtiy in England, and anyone who wants to hold a protest has just got too much time on their hands.

    btw where are you starting your F1 Rohin?

  5. Kismet Hardy — on 18th July, 2006 at 8:02 pm  

    I can relate to this because I’m

    a) a Bangladeshi with links to the bangla massive of the east end of London

    b) Like Monica Ali, I’m a shit writer

    Regarding point a) The bangladeshis (exclusively of sylheti dissent, and for those of you who don’t know, the rest of bangladesh don’t like sylhetis much) and, by and large, they are a backward bunch. They beat their wives, tie their sons to the restaurant trade, teach their daughters it’s a sin to bleed and right to marry villge donkeys and shit like that. Hell, most of them are my uncles. I’ll buy that for a taka.

    Regarding point b) if it weren’t for the hoo-ha surrounding Prick Lane, Monica ali wouldn’t have got commissioned to write her even pisser poorer follow up Alentejo Blue, a mungo-pretentious collection of shit stories, about, bizarrely, a bunch of Portugese village women. My simple review: shit.

    Lesson learned: I must now write something scandalous, not so risque that I get a fatwa on my arse, but just controversial enough for loads of people who can’t read to cry havoc and let slip the wads of cash

    Most importantly, I don’t have to worry if it’s shit

  6. Katy Newton — on 18th July, 2006 at 8:07 pm  

    Monica Ali is vastly overrated if you ask me. I really struggled to finish Brick Lane because I found it so contrived and false. As I no longer remember more than the very vaguest outlines of the plot, I can honestly say that it did not change my view of Brick Lane or of any of the communities in or around it whatsoever.

  7. Bobby — on 18th July, 2006 at 8:08 pm  

    It’s a turkey shoot.

    Marginalised and misunderstood group get barely articulate spokesman on TV to express an illiberal opinion, and the whole world laughs at them.
    Completly pointless too, because as the quotes in AIM describe, the complainers have no real support and in fact people are enthusiastic about the film in the area.

  8. Bobby — on 18th July, 2006 at 8:23 pm  

    You know what? I read Brick Lane and thought it was total shit too. I did not understand why it got all the glowing reviews. I thought, I must be on a different planet to these people. And everyone else also seems to think it’s a rubbish novel.

    But it sold one million copies. Why? Is it because shit sells? And people like Catherine Cookson with a bit of exotic multiultural spice?

    Weird.

  9. nydesi — on 18th July, 2006 at 8:35 pm  

    I want just one Asian, South Asian whatever book with normal characters i.e. no “na ghar ka na ghat ka” BS drivel…

    I read the book, and the whole thing just sounded a bit overdone and artificial to me. Brick Lane sounds like hell on earth, no is happy there, its full of depressed housewives, junkies and fundamentalists. And the kids growing up there hate being bengali as well.

    If you think I’m exaggerating, read the book yourself.

    It was similar to the way parts of the “Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri were OTT as well.

    Having said all that though, that would probably make for a much more interesting movie than a realistic portrayal of life there. I’d rather see the former than the latter.

  10. Bobby — on 18th July, 2006 at 8:52 pm  

    Good publicity for the film (and book) though….how much would a publisher have to pay to get their work discussed on BBC News and in all the papers? Then people will read/watch it and see that it’s dull as ditchwater.

  11. Ravi Naik — on 18th July, 2006 at 10:00 pm  

    We should have the opportunity to evaluate any form of art for ourselves – be it literary, musical or any other form, rather than letting you censor it because you found it offensive or boring.

    It’s those that want to curb freedom of speech that makes you look bad, not a piece of fiction. And Brick Lane and Alentejo Blues are next on my list to see what the fuck is all the fuss about. I am sure thousands of people who have not read it either will want to do the same.

  12. DR1001 — on 18th July, 2006 at 10:09 pm  

    I can’t imagine why the community is protesting on this book being made into a film
    …there are far racier plotlines on the soaps or ‘Natoks’ on Channel S and ATN these days tackling illicit affairs , mixed marriages (English wife to bengali guy) sibling betrayals etc.

  13. Bobby — on 18th July, 2006 at 10:16 pm  

    The ‘community’ are not protesting. A handful of individuals are not the ‘community’ no matter how much they say they are.

  14. Sunny — on 19th July, 2006 at 2:54 am  

    Heh, this is funny. You could almost see it as a publicity stunt, if it wasn’t for the fact that some of the same guys were quite pissed off when the book came out. There was a minor “controversy” then too.
    http://www.asiansinmedia.org/news/article.php/publishing/222

    But every Bengali I spoke to today about this, and admittedly they were all young-ish British born, was in favour of the film going ahead.

    And apparently the script has been adapted quite a lot to be on film, so it maybe worth watching. Either way, I love Brick Lane (the place) too.

  15. SajiniW — on 19th July, 2006 at 9:48 am  

    Gurpreet & Kismet have said all I’ve wanted to say – people need to realise ethnic minority writers aren’t here to ‘represent’.

    I personally hated the book – it wasn’t original, funny or inspiring in any way.

  16. sonia — on 19th July, 2006 at 10:42 am  

    So silly

    Why should a work of fiction even be expected to be realistic, never mind ‘representative’. People are so small minded. Does this mean if you’re an ‘atypical’ person you can never write a book? Someone over at my livejournal book community was commenting on Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake – they said oh the Indians in this book all went to Ivy Leagues so it doesn’t sound like it’s typical to me – rather unrealistic.

    ! Sigh. The way I take all this is that simply people don’t really know how to deal with literature.

    Re: Monica Ali’s book – some friends who happen to be Sylheti were displeased with the book and they said they could tell she wasn’t Sylheti and they thought she was having ‘digs’ at Sylhetis in the book. I read it myself and that completely escaped me – of course, not being from Sylhet myself, perhaps i wasn’t ‘sensitive’ to this.

  17. sonia — on 19th July, 2006 at 10:45 am  

    all this fuss about ‘community’ – if people will insist on making a hoo ha based on a bunch of characters in a book- that is really telling. That individuals should see themselves as some abstract whole and not individuals with character traits. HOw sensible would it be if the whole of Britain stood up to make a fuss about how ‘they’ weren’t happy because of the numerous novels with some dodgy characters in it who happen to be British. Goodness.

  18. sonia — on 19th July, 2006 at 10:49 am  

    I do think it’s unfair of the ‘Community’ to speak as if they own ‘it’ and that Monica Ali doesn’t ‘belong’ and can’t write about it. Such bollocks. I can imagine if i should write a book with some Bengali characters in it I might well receive the same response. ‘You don’t belong to the Community..” That is such ‘group’-ism – the broader set of isms that racism fits into – in my opinion – shocking that people should think its okay to say stuff like that, and complain about exclusion in the same breath.

  19. sonia — on 19th July, 2006 at 10:52 am  

    The other thing that it smacks of is that if you’re mixed race you’re somehow not able to ‘fit in’ if that’s what you wanted to do. Not exactly very inclusive is it – pretty negative…shades of sneering at ‘half-castes’. in the light of what we’ve been discussing in terms of ‘honour killings’ and parents interfering in who their daughters marry, i think this kind of iron-walled Community speak very dodgy.

  20. Sunny — on 19th July, 2006 at 11:19 pm  

    I know Sonia, the whole idea behind this protest is silly.

  21. Samad — on 21st July, 2006 at 5:58 am  

    As a Sylheti, I was offended by the passages in the book implying I am illiterate and think I live in a villiage in Sylhet, even though I’ve been born and bought up in the UK.

    I don’t think many Non – Bangladeshis understand the underlying hatred of Sylheti Bangalis amongst Dhakaiyas and other Non-Sylheti Bangalis. There have been instances of racist film making in Bangladesh eg. the ‘Londoni Konya’ play which ended with successful court action against the director Taukir Ahmed. This nutter tried to imply that forced marriage was only an issue amongst us Sylhetis.

  22. El Cid — on 21st July, 2006 at 6:59 am  

    Ah forgeddabout it!
    I ain’t read it either, so can’t properly comment.
    But like ‘em or not The Kumars, Bend it Like Beckham, Goodness Gracious Me, East is East, Buddha of Suburbia, etc, Brick Lane is progress of sorts for British Asian culture, or in this case British Bangladeshi culture.
    American Blacks didn’t like Blaxploitation movies at the time, but they love em in hindsight.
    As for the general London analogy, Rohin’s right — all we have at the mo is mockney parodies like Lock, Stock & 2 Smoking Barrels, urban nihilist stuff like Kidulthood, or (shudder) Notting Hill.

  23. El Cid — on 21st July, 2006 at 7:01 am  

    Bring back the pea soup fog

  24. gaz — on 22nd July, 2006 at 10:24 am  

    Brick Lane is IMHO way overated for food. I would describe it as curry for pissed people. Far better food to be had in Southall, Wembley and Tooting.

  25. saurav — on 23rd July, 2006 at 4:12 am  

    Ultimately, the onus falls to those who complain about how their community is depicted. Whilst it is easier said than done, the only way to get what you want on screen is to put it there.

    I’m largely on the same page with you but I think this paragraph makes clear a missing element in your post–there’s an economics and a politics to who gets to depict certain things and who doesn’t and, as a consequence, how they’re depicted. Obviously there’s a balance between many different people’s needs that has to play out in getting a story about Brick Lane from the world (and the author’s head) to people’s bookshelves or theater screens. However, the skewed portrayal of complete absence of particular people or groups of people (or views) is a function of the system that leads from subject to depiction as well as with the individual author and I don’t think it’s wise to ignore this altogether even if it’s just a piece of the puzzle.

    I know this both from some experiences in things I’ve written and the process that one needs to go to get things published in the media as well as on the basis of analysis. Not all views or people are given equal access and there is not necessarily always rhyme or reason to what does and does not get judged worthy of publication.

  26. Desi Italiana — on 23rd July, 2006 at 8:53 am  

    “there’s an economics and a politics to who gets to depict certain things and who doesn’t and, as a consequence, how they’re depicted”

    “Not all views or people are given equal access”

    Saurav makes an excellent point. I’m suprised that people take issue with the writers and place the “burden of representation” onto them when it’s actually the gatekeepers– the publishers– who are the ones that publish these works.

    I’ve heard stories about manuscripts being turned down by Desi writers because they didn’t discuss certain elements: “immigrant stories”, the trials and tribulations of being a minority, etc. Rejected writers are chided for not having written packaged representations that are unoriginal, lack novelty, not sensationalist and orientalist. Publishers claim that this is what readers want, but here’s the thing: the publishers, by putting this kind of stuff out, create and shape the market’s demands. Readers will quickly get bored if they read a book by a Desi writer that doesn’t address certain things like curries, mango pickles, monkeys and cows, and God(s) because as far as their imagination goes, this is what Desi Land is like. Portrayals by the mass media, literary world and entertainment industry tell them so.

    I read Ali’s book and thought it was crap, to put it mildly. It trotted out the same worn out formula of most Desi Lit both in the UK and in the US:

    1. Oppressed, subservient Desi women trapped in an unhappy arranged marriage and at the mercy of a chauvenist, sexist, narrow minded retarded husband

    2. Children in the midst of a “culture clash” or having identity crises due to “straddling two cultures”

    3. Elaborate and detailed descriptions of preparing curries that are then set boiling on the stove, Desis eating everything with pickles, sauces, etc

    4. Restaurants and/or Desi food make an appearance in one way or another

    5. Religion and spiritualism (India is a spiritual motherland, blah blah blah) as the backdrop for everything: whether it’s Hindu sadhus and gods, Muslim fundamentalists, racist Syrian Christians; or utilizing religious mythology (usually Hinduism, but Rushdie did it with Islam in Satanic Verses) as a framework and incorporating present events.

    6. Cute, quaint, indigenous ways: from Ayurveda whereby Ayurvedic treatment recipes are explained for the reader (the universal and miraculous remedy of tumeric for every ailment, peppered coconut oil, bathing babies in ghee, using neem branches to brush teeth), oiling hair, to envious and malicious women practicing jadu (black magic) and so on.

    7. Culture clash/warfare between the immigrant and the White Man.

    8. The village

    9. East vs. West in its permutations

    10. Animals, flowers, and scenery always have to make cameo appearances

    Most writers have used all of the above to a varying extent: Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Vikram Chandra, Pankaj Mishra, and now Monica Ali. This is not to say that 1-10 don’t exist in real life, or that these issues are non-existent. For some writers it really may be this way. But as Saurav points out, a certain KIND of writer is given the possibility and access to have their voices heard. Monica Ali is mid class, and her book carries that tone: a middle class voyeur looking into this other world.

    So the fact that those people who are protesting the “representation” of Brick Lane is a bit baffling. Maybe for Ali, Brick Lane is really like this. Furthermore, Ali is by no means beholden to the “burden of representation”; she’s not the “representative” of anything or anybody, and no writer should be. And lastly, Ali, like the others, were selected by the higher ups– not the other way around. And there will always be writers of this strand.

    I also don’t like people who claim to be the “representatives” and speaking on behalf of the “community”.

    Sorry, long post.

  27. Desi Italiana — on 24th July, 2006 at 1:07 am  

    Other writers that come to mind who do 1-10 above to some degree:

    -Kiran Desai
    -Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
    -Jhumpa Lahiri
    -Hanif Kureishi

    And don’t get me started on Bharati Mukherjee.

  28. Leon — on 27th July, 2006 at 10:52 am  

    Brick Lane protests force film company to beat retreat

    The production company behind the film adaptation of Monica Ali’s book Brick Lane last night abandoned plans to film on location in the heartland of London’s Bangladeshi community after a campaign from businessmen and traders opposed to the film.

    Following talks with Ruby Films production company, a spokesman for Film Four, which is co-financing the film version of Ali’s Booker-shortlisted novel, said: “As we would with any film, we have taken advice from police and have decided to film the remaining Brick Lane scenes at other locations.”

    Producers are understood to have been concerned for the safety of cast and crew after the Guardian revealed a small group of activists was threatening street blockades if the company filmed on location.

    But the lead convener of the Campaign Against Monica Ali’s Film Brick Lane, officially launched yesterday, vowed to continue with the protest irrespective of where the movie is filmed. Abdus Salique threatened to burn Ali’s book at a rally on Sunday which is expected to be attended by hundreds of protesters.

    He said the rally would be peaceful, adding that he was trying to deter fringe elements – “who could become violent” – from attending. But he added: “[If] she has the right to freedom of speech, we have the right to burn books. We will do it to show our anger. We don’t like Monica Ali. We are protecting our community’s dignity and respect.”

    Looks like someone down there liked the limelight and sees an opportunity is becoming a “community leader”…

  29. Leon — on 27th July, 2006 at 10:54 am  

    No idea what’s happened above (my browser just froze while trying to post)…but here’s the link: http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,,1831046,00.html?gusrc=rss

  30. Don — on 27th July, 2006 at 11:05 am  

    ‘[If] she has the right to freedom of speech, we have the right to burn books’

    Clear enough.

  31. AsifB — on 27th July, 2006 at 11:35 am  

    Shame on Ruby films and Film Four for not at least waiting till after Sunday to see how the planned protest pans out.

    David Cohen gave Mr. Salique quite a cuddly write up in last night’s Evening Standard, which hardly sugested masses of violence down the Lane – a lot of talking ‘big’ perhaps – but not really substantiated by the daily evidence we have of Brick Lane the place attracting all manner of Londoners and tourists -with plenty of conservative local (Syhleti) British Bangladeshis co-exisiting with Hoxton Twat types, with rather less tension than other parts of the Smoke.

    Given that a lot of locals have got jobs on the film – and stand to benefit from the production crew’s spending – I’m sure sitting out the alleged mass protest would have been smarter all round. There’s nothing Bengalis like more than arguing amongst themseleves, so I’m sure Ruby could have found a sympathetic Councillor or two eventutally – BanglaTV and Channel S also have loads of talkshow slots to fill, which would easily have fanned away all threats of violence after giving the one potentially pertinent issue a fair hearing – namely the idea that the c.10% of British Bangladeshis who don’t come from Syhlet, have a patronising attitude to Syhletis – this is largely true (and also happens the other way round) but is almost entirely class based. As the East End Syhelti community becomes better off, middle class Dhakaites will start to relate to Syheltis the same as the English realte to the Irish (with condescencion and snobbery turning to envy as the generations pass)

  32. milin — on 7th August, 2006 at 5:48 pm  

    Damn good thing this white woman wanabe was stopped in her tyracks. What does she know bout peoples lives in the East End? Her imagination and artistic license is a bit much for a nonsylheti lass who has led a privileged lifestyle away from the people she writes about.

  33. Bengali — on 13th August, 2006 at 12:16 pm  

    The English working classes managed to stop the middle classes from writing about their own communities as if they still lived like pigs in an uncivilised world , so it’s about time Bangladeshi working classes (yes, that’s what we are if we live in a council flat wharever else your ego tells you) stopped the middle class Bangladeshi literati to do the same. STOP now. Write about your own boring dribbling lives for entertainment , please!

    What’s the big deal about the protests? It’s called a democratic right. Monica Ali is offensive because she writes dribble about poor people – pure and simple, not because she is writing about a community removed from her own experience. Zadie Smith wrote about poor Bangladeshis as well but frankly Ms Zadie is far too talented to offend by appealing to the lowest common denomitor – posh people’s inability to understand ordinary people. Yes, that’s why posh Bangladeshi people don’t object to Monica Ali, as they too, see the lives of their poorer compatriots in the same light. Freedom of expression, give me a break – it seems freeom of expression these days is invoked everytime we want to bash a minority group – as if the war in terror isn’t enough, already.

    Young, Bangladeshi and Female, and Living Safe and Sound in Brick Lane without any need for liberation from the men from our community.

  34. Don — on 13th August, 2006 at 12:34 pm  

    ‘The English working classes managed to stop the middle classes from writing about their own communities as if they still lived like pigs in an uncivilised world …’

    How? When? References?

  35. Bengali — on 17th August, 2006 at 6:38 pm  

    Damn, I forgot about Eastenders – or is that now written by middle class asians about the mostly white working classes?

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