The wrath of Khan
Despite the title East Is East, the big message of this flavorful domestic memoir is really that West is West. In the tug-of-war between East and West for a soul, East, the film suggests, may hold out for a while through a combination of nostalgia, pride, national resentment, and simple cultural vertigo, but in the long run, the comforts and liberties of the West will win out. This tough, sympathetic comedy by first-time director Damien O'Donnell doesn't regard this as a bad thing, either.
Based on an autobiographical 1996 play by the actor Ayub Khan-Din (of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), East Is East is set in the north of England in the 1970s. The central character is George Khan (Om Puri), a Pakistani immigrant who, with his wife Ella (Linda Bassett), a redheaded Englishwoman, runs a suburban fish-and-chip shop. Despite all this, George regards himself not as an Englishman but as a proudly traditional Pakistani, and he's adamant that his seven kids be raised in his tradition.
The kids, needless to say, have other ideas. With the exception of the meek Maneer (Emil Marwa), who tries for Muslim piety, the others regard themselves as English. As the story begins, the oldest son, Nazir (Ian Aspinall), leaves his arranged bride at the altar and flees to London, which causes George to take his picture off the wall, declare him dead, and turn his attention to controlling every aspect of the other kids' lives.
Tariq (Jimi Mistry), or "Tony" when he's at the disco, is a heartthrob who's carrying on with the pretty girl across the street (Emma Riydal); she adores him despite (or because of) her immigrant-hating father's tendency to display in his window campaign posters for the notorious "Rivers of Blood" nationalist Enoch Powell. Less wild is Abdul (Raji James), but, despite his father's wishes, neither he nor Tariq is about to marry a "fookin' Paki," and especially not the homely daughters of a respectable Pakistani gent from the next town, whom George has in mind for them.
Saleem (Chris Bisson) is the college boy, but while he leads George to believe he's an engineering student, he's actually studying art, with Ella slipping him money on the side for supplies. George and Ella's only daughter, Meenah (Archie Panjabi), is spirited and smart and miserable in her Sari.
The youngest Khan, Sajid (Jordan Routledge), is a mystery. To the mortification of his parents and siblings, he's withdrawn and sulky, hiding behind the hood of an ugly blue parka cinched up around his face. His "tunnel vision" becomes a metaphor for the film's viewpoint: He is the surrogate for author Khan-Din. But the poor kid doesn't get overlooked, much as he would like: George realizes that Sajid is due for circumcision, and his "tickle-tackle," in his father's phrase, is marked for removal.
Despite the outcome on this matter, George's spiteful, demanding, explosive behavior doesn't take him very far with his family. The Khan children's rebellions, like Nazir's unwillingness to marry or Saleem's secret art-student scam, tend to be silent coups -- often with Ella's quiet alliance -- so George is almost touchingly astounded when he realizes that he's not going to have his way. Yet the film doesn't soft-soap the character; this frustrated, unsuccessful petty tyrant can easily be pushed to ugly violence.
There is some meandering, episodic raggedness to the plotting, but Khan-Din's dialogue has a fine, naturalistic flow, and the young, debuting director O'Donnell, who's neither English nor Pakistani but Irish, skillfully keeps the material from showing too clearly its theatrical origins. The ensemble acting gives the film its comic snap. The siblings seem so much like real brothers and sisters that if we were told that they were a family of Anglo-Pakistani actors, we'd believe it. And Bassett's weary, genuinely loving Ella is a joy.
But it's Om Puri, one of the truly great actors of world film, who dominates East Is East and gives it its dignity. Like the director, Puri, who recently played a Pakistani immigrant in My Son the Fanatic, is neither English nor Pakistani. He's Indian, and given the current state of relations between India and its neighbor to the northwest, he may have had some gleeful, nationalist fun playing this short-fused Pakistani bully. He makes the handsome, intense, pock-faced George Khan a whole character, though, and ultimately a likable one. The performance is harsh and sad, unsentimental and deeply funny. The same goes for the movie.
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