A towering performance from Om Puri anchors this finely wrought adaptation of Ayub Khan Din's celebrated stage play, about a mixed race family wrestling with their cultural identity in 1971 Salford.
Puri plays chip shop owner George Khan, a proud Pakistani married to an English woman who is attempting to bring up his seven recalcitrant children as good Muslims. An overbearing patriarch, known as 'Ghengis' by his kids, he is devastated when his eldest son, Nazir (Ian Aspinall), flees from an arranged marriage.
Disowning him, Khan redoubles his efforts to maintain Pakistani traditions but, needless to say, his remaining offspring - with the exception of Maneer (Emil Marwa), a dedicated scholar of the Koran - are no keener than Nazir to adopt their father's values. As an arranged marriage looms large, for the first time, the family openly opposes him and George's frustrations finally erupt.
Puri is superb as the beleaguered George, conveying perfectly the contradictions of a man who wants the best for his children, but whose stubbornness and faith in his cultural identity blind him to exactly what that is. Bassett is similarly effective as his wife Ella, a Salford woman born and bred, who is torn between her love for her husband and her desire to see her children happy. Casting of the anarchic Khan clan is also perfect - the constant mix of bickering and affection are right on the money; you could almost believe they were a real family.
The film skilfully avoids most Asian-Britain cliches and by confining proceedings to the Khan family, it gives the exploration of culture-collision issues a tight focus. That said, you're never in any doubt about its theatrical origins, and whether it might have been more comfortable on the small screen is open to debate. Some quite brutal scenes of domestic violence don't sit well with the comic, often farcical, overtones and certain scenes lack momentum. But for the most part, it's a funny, astute and quietly moving piece of work.
Great ensemble acting all-round ensure that the sense of time and place are never lost, even if some of the details aren't always date-perfect.
Since media, most notably television and film, has become more widespread, it has become one of the most important ways to get ideas and happenings across to people. It is used to show the world, what is happening in it, what has happened in it, and what is going to happen in it. It is quite easy to simply roll out a documentary showing this and that, but to show some issues which have serious meaning in a comedy is especially difficult, but that is what Damien O’Donnell set out to do with East is East.
The film tells the story of the Khan family, consisting of George, a first generation immigrant to Britain from Pakistan, Ella, his Roman Catholic wife, and their seven mixed race children, Nazir, Abdul, Tariq, Saleem, Maneer, Meenah and Sajid, who are all trying to battle their way into acceptance in the increasingly racist society of the early 1970’s, shown by the rise of the Conservative Party and National Front and the British National Party, and brought up by Ella after Sajid’s circumcision when she says to the, notably Asian doctor “they’re a lot quicker to point the finger when they see they’re a bit foreign”.
We learn about George’s hypocritical insistence to force his children to become “proper” Pakistanis, and respect their religion, of course, he has not been too traditional himself by marrying a non-Islamic woman, in a non-arranged marriage. In the second scene, Nazir is getting ready for an arranged marriage, set up by his father. He does not know the girl, but how she looks doesn’t matter, and he flees from the ceremony, later for us to find out he’s gay, and also trying to remove his Pakistani background, calling himself “Nigel”.
Tariq is constantly trying to get away from the traditions and life of Pakistanis. His battle is not with acceptance; he manages to get away with being white, his fairer skin and assumed name of “Tony” do that for him, but with his father, trying to make George understand that times have changed – “Dad, I’m not Pakistani. I was born here. I speak English, not Urdu”- and Pakistanis can not stay in themselves any longer, while not listening to his father’s advice. The two never get on, a constant struggle of egos and stubbornness, probably a family trait.
Saleem is the supposedly special one out of the children, as he is in college, although not studying engineering as he says, but art, as shown by the supposedly grossly obscene sculpture shown towards the end of the film. George does not recognise the breaking of traditions shown by Meenah and Abdul, both of whom go through the film with little to no condemnation, but Sajid causes concern when it emerges that he has not been circumcised. Maneer is the supposed “good” boy, who appears to be weak and bendable, following his father because he is scared.
The latter four may not get into too much trouble, but that certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t part of the arguments between the family and George, which revolve around the traditions of Islam, and all that brings with it. The concept of arranged marriages seems to be one of the largest causes of conflicts. The children believe they have a right to choice, with the spokesperson Tariq the largest supporter of this, shown with his girlfriend Stella and his cavorting in a club. The conflict is portrayed by O’Donnell excellently, not giving any conclusions, but allowing the viewer into the minds of both sides.
Living in a western society such as ours, with the upbringing and ideals that we hold in our heads, of ‘equality’ and ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’, we automatically think that arranged marriages are a bad idea, but the portrayal of George – played superbly by Om Puri – gives the viewer a very sympathetic view of George. The scene in which he is speaking to Tariq, just after the beating of Maneer and Ella, the viewer finds themselves nodding with his every word, agreeing with ideas. You understand what his ideas are, his background, what his whole life is about, his desperation is compelling, convincing and gripping.
But this is instantly contradicted by Tariq’s replies, which are equally persuasive. It mustn’t be forgotten that this is, after all, a comedy, and it is good to see a lot of comedy used to portray the characters, and the issues, especially used with the ideas of race relations and the racism, prejudice, discrimination and religious conflicts that arise from this. For example, Meenah, Tariq, and Abdul are feasting on banned pork, when George suddenly appears with Sajid after his circumcision – which was just as hilarious – and they have to scramble around to get rid of the smell.
As is Mr. Moorhouse, down the road, the grumbling racist, extremely well written by Ayub Khan-Din, who is always endeavouring to drum up support for his idol, Enoch Powell (Conservative MP who was infamous for the “rivers of blood speech”), and failing with the either lethargic or tolerant attitudes of the public, such as when he is “persuading” passers-by to sign the petition for repatriation – “let’s sign the petition on repatriation” – but only for people to give him a dirty look and carry on with their business.
His supposedly serious character is ridiculed by O’Donnell, who portrays him as a whinging old windbag, caught up in the propaganda of the Conservative Party – assisted, as ever, by the right wing press – at the time, trying to whip up hatred against the influx of asylum seekers and immigrants, much as the right-wing press do nowadays. But white to Pakistani is not the only example of racist language.
The mixed race children, especially Sajid, maybe because he has heard it at school, use what we would call racist language, most notably the word “Paki”. George is also hideously racist, firstly towards white people, for they will never accept the mixed race children as English, however much they want to be and secondly towards Indians, blaming them for the troubles in Pakistan, when really it is Britain’s fault. Chris Bisson (Saleem) says “It’s not an Asian film.
It’s a film about a family… ” a point reiterated by Damien O’Donnell when he says “It’s not a film about Pakistanis for Pakistanis. It’s about families for families”. And this is a point most definitely shown in the film, despite the Asian costumes, and despite it revolving around Asian traditions, East is East is a film about how the family come together, how they all fit in, not just in the white community, but in the Asian community, and most importantly how they fit in with each other.
The family simply don not fit in with the white community, despite their efforts, and that includes Ella; they are isolated, not intentionally but even in the first scene, running along with the Christian symbols, it is obvious they are out of place, and the only person who tries to accept them is Earnest with his attempts at Arabic. Tariq, and later Abdul, attempt to fit in, sneaking into a club past a racist bouncer with British names and their paler skin, and Nazir becomes “Mr. Nigel” after he leaves the family, also attempting to fit in with the British. It is almost as if to fit in with the English, you have to be English.
The direction and production of the film also contribute to the understanding of the want the children have for a “normal” life and “normal” acceptance. The fact that more often than not, there is a popular tune from the time playing in the soundtrack, or there are cult items, such as a Space Hopper bouncing along. These are a symbol of what the children strive for, what they want, and what they can not get, shown by the Space Hopper always bouncing away from them. And regardless of all of George’s attempts, the family also doesn’t fit in with the Asian community, but that is because they do not want to.
Sajid’s lack of a circumcision, Tariq’s polygamous activities, Nazir’s seemingly sudden turn to homosexuality – something which is not looked upon kindly, to say the least – and Ella just generally not being a Muslim all lead to the family struggling to find friends in the Asian community, although George puts this down to the lack of Pakistani neighbours; “Maybe I should have take family to Bradford long time ago. More Pakistani there, see? No this problem. ” Because they are isolated from two exclusive communities that depend on being exclusively that community, they are left in their own, something they also do not want.
The children are often shown in a group, with the others, they argue and bicker amongst themselves, are together against their father, but are also some scenes which show how very alone and isolated the children are. Firstly, the shot where you can see through Meenah’s eyes, between her legs at Earnest. Just the fact that you’re seeing as her, and there’s the frame of her legs, the loneliness, that despite other people being around, they’re not the same as you, you’re trapped on your own inside your own head.
And secondly, another very, if not more isolated shot is from the inside of Sajid’s parker. Looking out again, at Earnest, he’s not one of “you”, and you’re trapped inside your own head, inside your own hood. Throughout the film I think Sajid’s hood is a good metaphor of this. Sajid wants to be trapped inside himself, because he has no one else to be with. The idea of his hood being ripped off is very symbolic in that it shows that he has to open up, he has to become part of a community, part of a world.
Saying that though, the family act very much like a normal family, or like a normal family of the time – there are arguments, teasings, secrets, lies and fights – but at the same time it’s a very stereotypically religious family, with a dominant male figure, who tries to bring up the children to good standards and with a good tradition behind them, a mother who stands by her husband whatever, children that are disobedient but somehow are obedient. A good child, a bad child, an estranged child, a shy child; the film is so stereotyped, yet so original and so beautiful.
East is East is a classic coming-of-age tale, with a archetypal set of characters, who are totally original and unique, and a storyline to match, which meets every issue of the earl 1970’s head on and manages to tackle it in some way or another while keeping the incredible hilarious humour, and which thoroughly deserved its BAFTA. It can change opinions from one extreme to the other, can move an audience to tears or to rolling on the floor with laughter. But isn’t that just another example of propaganda in the media, exploiting people to think what the media wants them to think?
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