Brick Lane rises up against filming of Ali's novel

Arifa Akbar
Saturday 22 July 2006 00:00

The dust jacket describes a "deeply moving story" of a Bangladeshi woman sent to east London for an arranged marriage who falls for another man. The novel received such acclaim that a film version is planned.

But to many of the residents on Brick Lane, where the story of Nazneen's marriage and subsequent infidelity is based, the novel offers such a negative portrayal of the community that they have mobilised protest groups against a film being made.

The first flashpoint over the making of Brick Lane came this week, when residents and traders gathered to prevent filming after hearing that a crew were to begin their work along the Brick Lane area. Some residents have warned of blockades to stop the film from being made.

Mahmoud Rauf, of the Brick Lane Business Association, said peaceful protests could take place in the street, which forms the heart of "Banglatown".

"Yes, you create a work of fiction, but you do not create fiction which offends a whole community," he said. "There were protests when the book was published in 2003 and the film will stir up the same negative feelings towards the community on the screen." Mr Rauf added that locals were not offended by its religious content but its "negative portrayal" of the people of Brick Lane. "Religion does not come into this," he said. "She [the author of Brick Lane Monica Ali] has undermined a whole community. Infidelity happens in every society, that does not mean that the whole of that society should be portrayed in such a negative way. It will have some bad effect on the community if the film is made. We have campaigned to develop 'Banglatown' and we are very proud of it."

A community meeting held over two days advised film-makers not to go ahead. Muhammad Haque, campaign co-ordinator at Campaign Against the Defamation of the Community in the East End of London, said: "We need the East End of London to be accurately and ethically portrayed, not being subjected to distortion, misrepresentation and stereotyping. We have spent an awful long time in creating as semblance of a tolerant society here."

Viewpoints on the bustling street ranged from anger to indifference, and most admitted to not having read the novel.

Ali, 26, who was born in Brick Lane, said: "It's gibberish to say it is racist. It's a story dealing with adultery. This is happening to some of our girls, especially the ones who come from back home and don't like their husbands and can't go out." Burhan Ahmad, editor of Asian Times, based in Whitechapel, said the protest appeared to be strong among the business community who feared an unfavourable effect as a result of the film. He said people were insulted by the book because it could become, though its title, the "definitive" story of Brick Lane. "Over the years, British Bengalis have established their businesses in Brick Lane and any film or book is always going to have an effect on the way the area is looked at," he said. "'Banglatown' was incepted a few years ago after a lot of hard work from the local community. It is a focal point of the Bengali community in Britain and along comes a book which is the definitive book of Brick Lane because of its title."

A statement from Tower Hamlets Council said it was "not any local authority's role to censor artistic expression or freedom of speech", adding: "It's a pity that the situation can't seem to be resolved amicably between the company and the protest group - as we're keen to maintain the borough's reputation as a film-friendly area."

A spokeswoman for Ruby Productions said filming would continue, although there was uncertainty about whether it would take place on Brick Lane.

A statement read: "Throughout the production process of Brick Lane, we have maintained constant contact with members of the local community, some of whom are involved in the film as both consultants and crew. When there is a finished product to watch, we will be happy to open a dialogue with anybody who has concerns regarding the film."

Filming was due to be completed by the end of the year.

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