Director: Sarah Gavron
Actors: Satish Kaushik, Tannistha Chatterjee
The fine portly figure of Satish Kaushik can instantly lend itself to both pain and humour. Indian audiences often recognise Kaushik as an endearing comedian, and probably recall him most as Calendar from Mr India (1987). Those who’ve seen him perform the frustrated everyman Salesman Ramlal on stage (the Indian version of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman) will know the sheer range to his pathos.
Kaushik, here, plays a sort of a tragic figure: a Bangladeshi Muslim migrant into a popular, poor South Asian neighbourhood, Brick Lane – often called Banglatown -- in London’s East End. He lives there with his wife, and two daughters.
Bangladeshis, to most in the West, or at least in the UK, might make for the culinary class of the Indian sub-continent. They’re largely known to service the Indian restaurant economy. Kaushik’s Mr Ahmed is however inclined towards more literary tastes. His spoken English may be far from perfect. He can still quote from memory Chaucer and the Bronte sisters, is interested in Hume and the birth of modern philosophy, loves equally Thackeray and Proust… This, I suppose, may not make him excitably employable in his chosen country.
And there are the “uneducated types”, Mr Ahmed says, who believe if a woman works, it means the man of the house can't put food on the table. Mrs Ahmed (Tannishtha Chatterjee) works from home – stitches on a Singer machine. She is certainly a gorgeous wife for a man that obviously unattractive. She falls, eventually, for a younger man of Bangladeshi origin.
That gent (Christopher Simpson) has his own theory on South Asian women. They’re two kinds of them, he says: the “westernised type, goin’ out, havin’ a laugh, wearin’ short skirts… And the religious kinds, the wife-material, ‘cause all they do, is argue.” What about me, she asks him. “You’re the real thing,” he says, “The village girl.” This may true to the point of some of Mrs Ahmed’s attitudes; she seems initially quite resigned to her adopted fate. Test of life is to endure, her mother had taught her.
Her husband still pines to return home after 16 years. At young age, he’d imagined a homecoming of a “big man”. Defeated and old now, he says, “As long as you have family, you’re as strong as any man alive.” The rest of his family, brimming still with hopes, certainly doesn’t share that sentiment.
The subject is definitely strong and poignant. If it doesn’t move you as much, give you Goosebumps, jet out a tear stream, it’s because the screenwriters appear completely overwhelmed by their source: Monica Ali’s Diaspora novel of the same name. Their faithfulness to the book entirely budges them from the sharp focus to match a film.
The movie tackles, besides, issues that range at once from assimilation, alienation and the thing called the imagined homeland; to a woman's muted voice against situations like these; a generational divide that marks out families of first-generation migrants; to inevitably, the post 9/11 persecution, segregation and fanaticism among Islamic communities in the West and world over. All at one fell swoop, to use a typically British phrase.
What could’ve just remained the film is that internalised conflict of old age, migration, and the said ambitions of youth: a much simpler story. Too much depth or width, I suppose, is the privilege of literature alone. Films need to connect at a baser level. If I were you though, I’d connect to do this at its television premiere for sure. It’s going to play on UTV World Movies soon. Look out for it. Big screen seems a bit much to ask for.