A white man decides to make a film about three Bangladeshi Muslim women in Brick Lane, tracking their dilemmas about arranged marriage. Sounds like a recipe for the most disastrously racist, orientalist, cringe-fest? It might have been, if it were a film produced by certain documentary networks. But that’s not Simon Chambers’ utterly charming, rambunctious essay about his neighbours and the constant dramatic changes in their intimate lives and volatile hearts.
The three sisters in this vérité documentary are people who would generally be called “strong women”. But this, thankfully, does not manifest in some clichéd stoic battle with the odds. Instead their personality clashes are a mixture of foul-mouthed acrimony and untidy love. There is constant emotional turbulence and an action-packed narrative of marriage, divorce, consent given, withdrawn and given again, family pressure and clever manipulation on all sides, tears and words followed by hugs and kisses—or as the filmmaker says: every time I visit them, something has changed! And in every way isn’t this exactly the drama of romantic decision-making as we know it? It’s just expressed through a more flamboyant set of people.
The different decisions the girls make for themselves don’t just touch on the many uncertainties of romantic passion when it comes up against the seeming finality of matrimonial commitment. They also mirror the difficulty of reconciling one’s own experience of contemporary life and morality with the traditional desires of parents whom you love and find so difficult to disregard. The degree of difference between each of the siblings’ responses will strike a familiar chord with anyone who watches. The oldest has clearly done all the right things, as many older children feel they must do, and like many older siblings is bossy, constantly trying to get her younger sisters to fit the mould, actively arranging marriages. At the end of the film, she also offers to arrange the director’s marriage to a nice Bangladeshi girl; the middle sister Shahanara is a highly volatile, strong-willed person who dumps her husband—about whom she was ambivalent to start with—to be with another guy. Now she seems poised to leave him too. She always seems poised to leave, which some might identify with. The youngest sister, as if in reaction to this and to being the baby of the family, is a devout Muslim. She agrees to the match set up for her, but throughout her wedding is filled with memories of a boy from her village whom she was in love with.
To be sure we can see how all this emotion is rooted in cultural reality—in the pressure to get married, in family respectability being tied to the girls’ respectability, to the idea of arranged marriage. But by shrugging off the straitjacket of identity politics, this becomes perhaps the best film one could make on arranged marriage and the search for love, because through it you realise that it’s not about two types of marriage but about two types of people: those who will always look for love and those who find it where they can—and marriage, arranged or not, seethes always with a doubt and desire that it may or may not be able to contain.