- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

Tannishtha Chatterjee really made herself at home on the set of “Brick Lane.”

“When I got tired of standing, I would just lie down on the bed,” she says, laughing. You might think she kept herself in the movie’s apartment to get closer to her character. Based on the best-selling novel by Monica Ali, “Brick Lane” tells the story of a Bengali woman who moves to London in an arranged marriage and, though dissatisfied and homesick, almost never leaves her home. The truth is a bit more prosaic.

“Throughout the filming, I had a broken foot,” the Indian actress reports. “When I arrived in London, I was in a wheelchair.”

That wasn’t even the most difficult part of making the film.

“Brick Lane” was nominated for a number of honors in England, including best actress and best director at the British Independent Film Awards. A few there, however, tried to keep the film from being made. Brick Lane is a street at the heart of London’s bustling Bangladeshi community.

“People welcomed us,” says director Sarah Gavron. “Women opened their doors for Tannishtha to go in and research. We had a substantial portion of our crew and cast from that area.”

When they prepared to film on Brick Lane after three weeks of filming, however, they were surprised to find that some were waiting to whisk the welcome mat out from under them.

“There was a threat that if we did shoot on the street itself, people might be hurt,” Miss Gavron says. The crew postponed their work in the area until the end of the shoot, when media coverage had died down.

Watching the film, you might wonder why some were so upset. It’s not a political film, but rather focuses on a woman’s emotional awakening after she has an affair with a younger man.

“What was apparent very quickly is it was this tiny, tiny group, a vocal group, of men citing things that weren’t in the book or film,” Miss Gavron says. “What was political about it, from inside the Bangladeshi Muslim point of view, was it was told from the point of view of a marginalized voice. And showing that voice as complex and nuanced is deeply political in Islam.”

The film’s troubles didn’t end there. Each year in Britain, one film is chosen for the Royal Film Performance screening. In 2006, it was “Casino Royale.” In 2007, it was “Brick Lane.” A few weeks before the event, it was canceled because, according to officials, “the date no longer fits in the royal diary” of Prince Charles.

That was just the second time in six decades that a screening was canceled, and both women are certain it was because of the small but vociferous group of protesters.

“We were shocked because oftentimes in the developing world, we look up to [the] developed world as far as freedom of press and freedom of expression goes,” Miss Chatterjee says.

The two women speak during a recent stop in the District. Miss Chatterjee looks nothing like the traditional Bengali housewife she plays, and Miss Gavron could be an actress herself. (She sits at a table, and this reporter doesn’t even realize she’s pregnant until she stands up afterward.)

Their very different careers are put into relief, however, when they’re asked their ages. The actress declines to give hers, but the director readily volunteers she’s 38.

The actress is fairly experienced, but it’s the director’s first feature film. They share a love of American cinema, though, along with European art-house films.

“I watched in my teens a lot of Hollywood films and didn’t at all think about being a director. It seemed like they were depicting another world,” Miss Gavron says. “It was only when I was in my late teens I started to watch the films of Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Terence Davies, who were British filmmakers depicting the world just on our doorstep. It had a huge impact on me.”

The “next wave of inspiration” came when female directors including Jane Campion and Mira Nair began to emerge. Finally, at film school, Miss Gavron boned up on European auteurs including Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Miss Chatterjee, on the other hand, grew up watching the latter sort of directors. She’s a big fan of Robert Bresson’s, for example. She’s no snob, though. The Indian actress says she likes the way some American blockbusters manage to incorporate big issues into the action.

“‘Batman Begins’; I love that film,” she says. “Hollywood has sometimes a very interesting political turn.”

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