'For me, Brick Lane is a love story first'
When did you read Monica Ali's Brick Lane.. what struck a chord?
I read the novel soon after it came out. Everyone on the London Underground had their heads buried in it. Brick Lane was a bestseller in the U K.
I loved the story of Nazneen, a woman finding her voice and place in the world, against the shifting cultural landscape of London. The portrait of the family it painted was so compassionate. For me, it's a love story first and foremost. The love Nazneen discovers with Karim takes her breath away but it doesn't last. Then, she finds love in her husband Chanu, which is like a grain of sand that rubs and rubs until it produces a pearl.
There's also love she feels for her daughters, her sister and in some ways, for her homeland. Having been in love and happily married, I could empathise with her feelings.
Was Nazneen like any Asian girl you know?
While researching for the film, I went to London East End's Bangladeshi community and met women who had come to England when they were around the same age as Nazneen. They had some experiences in common. Of course, the book is a work of fiction.
How different is your life and world from Nazneen's?
Very different. I am a Londoner and a mother. Being British born, I have never undergone the experience of being displaced and living in a country whose language I didn't speak and whose culture I didn't know.
But I grew up around people who had been through the experiences. I live close to Brick Lane, which is a vibrant locality and has been a sanctuary to successive waves of immigrants for hundreds of years.
It's full of curry houses and shops. There is also a community of famous British artists living with the Asians. I knew a little about Nazneen's world but needed to learn a lot more.
Being a European, it must have been difficult to understand the world of the Asians?
In some ways it was useful being an outsider. There is a precedent for this in filmmaking with Shekhar Kapur making Elizabeth and Ang Lee directing Sense and Sensibility.
Brick Lane maybe set in a particular world but it's a universal story of marriage, love and finding home. I think that my job as a director was to pull out the universal story from the particular.
However, detailing makes a story alive. I couldn't have made this film without inputs from several Bangladeshis who were part of my cast and crew. We also went to many homes and spoke to people who lived there.
You made your first drama for BBC back in 2003. Why did it take you four years to graduate to a feature film?
I had a child and also worked on developing a number of film projects. Suddenly, Brick Lane landed on my desk. I dropped everything else to start work on it.
What was your biggest task as a director?
Much of the novel is about what goes on inside Nazneen's head. It was a challenge to translate that on screen.
The casting too was difficult since we wanted to find actors who fitted the roles precisely. We looked for them all over the world.
What made you see your Nazneen in Tannishtha Chatterjee?
I met Tannishtha in Mumbai on the first day of the auditions in India. She is a Bengali, so she spoke the language and understood the cultural references in the story.
Above all, she is an instinctive and intelligent actress. She was hugely collaborative, coming up with suggestions all the time. She also knew how to convey the character's interior state through her delicate performance.
What about Satish Kaushik?
I flew to Delhi to meet Satish. He had had a suit made specially for the audition and looked perfect for Chanu. I was so relieved to find him. We had been searching for Chanu for eight months.
We were a few weeks away from the shoot when we met. He took us out to his restaurant, Khana Unlimited, after the audition and we celebrated!
Was it easy shooting with a multi-cultural cast and crew?
It was fun. When we shot in India, we had a large local crew. I wasn't used to working with large crews but they were quick.. experts when it came to building sets and making costumes.
You've been showered with compliments and awards for your debut film. Does it scare you?
Cinema is a competitive business. Anything that can mark you out is useful. Brick Lane was nominated for a Bafta this year. I'm sure that will help make audiences more aware of the film.
I'm not sure. I have two projects in development. They are at the scripting stage.
Did you have anyone come up to you after a screening and say it was her story?
Yes.. many women connected with certain elements in the story. After a screening in Spain, an elderly woman came up to me. Her son told me that his mother wanted to kiss me for putting her life on the screen.