LONDON (Reuters) - The makers of a new movie set in London’s Bangladeshi community that infuriated community leaders and sparked heated debate about freedom of speech said the protests were unjustified and exaggerated by the media.
“Brick Lane”, based on a novel by Monica Ali, appears in cinemas on November 16, ending what the author called a “far from easy ride” on the journey from page to screen.
Cast and crew were forced to abandon shooting in Brick Lane after a small number of Bangladeshis living in the area complained, saying the book made them look simple and ignorant.
Concerned about a violent backlash, and acting on the advice of police, the film’s backers moved to another area, although “Brick Lane” did return to the street in East London later on.
“It did make me angry, because we live in India and we always hail England as a country which allows freedom of expression,” Tannishtha Chatterjee, the Indian actress who plays central character Nazneen, told Reuters in a recent interview.
Nazneen enters an arranged marriage and leaves her native Bangladesh for London and a new life with Chanu. After the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, tensions between Muslim immigrant families and locals grow.
“This is a country which stood by someone like Salman Rushdie when there was a fatwa against him,” Chatterjee said, referring to a 1989 death warrant from Iran’s supreme religious leader after “The Satanic Verses” was deemed blasphemous.
“You have a right to protest (against) an expression, but we have a right to express that, so where is this right? That’s what made me angry.”
News of the protests and subsequent relocation were pounced on by commentators who condoned or condemned the protesters’ actions, including Rushdie himself, who labelled author Germaine Greer’s defence of the them as “disgraceful”.
Ali accused the media of exaggerating the level of opposition among Bangladeshis and the level of threat posed, pointing out that opposition quickly petered out.
But her main concern was what she called “a marketplace of outrage”, where no one dared argue with an offended minority, however small, meaning rational argument and debate was stifled.
“If offence is felt, the artist has no recourse,” she said in a recent essay.
She added that the government had “shamefully” remained silent after both the “Brick Lane” incident and in 2004, when a play featuring sexual abuse within a Sikh temple was scrapped after a violent protest by Sikhs in Birmingham.
“Brick Lane” director Sarah Gavron pointed out that cooperation among Bangladeshis in the Brick Lane area far outweighed the number of protesters.
“Obviously as a creative person I absolutely believe in freedom of expression,” she told Reuters. “Debate is all well and good, but ... an implicitly violent agenda isn’t acceptable.
“We didn’t back down, we just re-scheduled and came back and filmed later when those protests had died down.”
Early reaction to “Brick Lane” has been mixed. While it won plaudits at a French film festival, some critics have accused Gavron of watering down the novel.
“You feel the book’s guts have been lost, partly for budgetary reasons, partly out of an anxiety not to offend Britain’s Bangladeshi community,” the Telegraph newspaper wrote.