East Is East
East Is East

U.K., 1999. Unrated. 96 minutes.

Cast: Om Puri, Linda Bassett, Jordan Routledge, Archie Panjabi, Emil Marwa, Jimi Mistry, Chris Bisson, Emma Rydal, Raji James, Ian Aspinall, Lesley Nicol, Gary Damer
Writers: Ayub Khan-Din, based on his eponymous play
Cinematographer: Brian Tufano
Music: Deborah Mollison
Producer: Leslee Udwin
Director: Damien O'Donnell


Grade: B Review by Glenn Sheridan

I f Sammy and Rosie Get Laid took the arthouse high road in dealing with the prickly problems of Anglo-Indian culture clash, East is East takes the less scenic, lowbrow route, resulting in a film experience more satisfying than interesting.

The film takes place in 1971 Salford, near Manchester, where strict Muslim George Khan (Om Puri), runs a fish-and-chips shop, worries about the India-Pakistan war, rules his household with an iron hand, and makes life a minefield of misery for his English wife Ella (Linda Bassett), his daughter, and his six sons. Sammy and Rosie were lovers who could always turn their backs and walk away if the pressure of their differences became too much, whereas the people in East Is East can only see leaving as a kind of defection. George's children see him as a despot, screaming orders on the proper mode of dress, the evils of the foreskin that is somehow still attached to his youngest son's "tickle-tackle," and the necessity for arranged marriages–George both jokes and threatens East Is EastElla with the possibility of bringing the first Mrs. Khan over as a replacement on numerous occasions. An arranged marriage, it seems, is good enough for George's children, but they shouldn't ask too many questions about how he came to marry the woman he loved.

The dynamic of how the family works is captured in the irreverent opening scene: a Catholic parade is making its way through the rainy terraced streets, the Khan children are proudly carrying banners and crucifixes and throwing confetti when their mother warns them that their father has returned from the mosque and is watching the parade. Ella whisks them down a back street before joining her smiling, unsuspecting husband, and the end run concludes with the children resuming the fun at the front of the parade. It is a funny and memorable opening, and a good indicator of the degree of levity to come.

Adapted by Ayub Khan-Din from his autobiographical stage play and ably directed by first timer Damien O'Donnell, East is East efficiently weaves the themes of clashing traditions, juvenile rebellion, sibling rivalry, false pride, and outright racism into a good balance of drama and comedy. The performances of Puri as George, Bassett as the long-suffering yet doggedly cheery mother and wife, and especially Archie Panjabi as the tomboy daughter Meenah are all very strong. One warning though, since it is set in the grim working class North of England before the indoor plumbing craze swept the nation, the film has enough pee jokes and swearing to fill an entire Roddy Doyle trilogy–oh, and there's a randy Great Dane, so if that sort of thing just doesn't turn your crank, you may wish to ignore the film festival propaganda.

Made, like so many British feature exports, with the help of FilmFour (who also made Hilary and Jackie and Secrets & Lies), the presence of a television budget weighs heavily on the production. Despite the jump from stage to screen, there is not enough movement or visual experimentation to shake the sense that you are watching a play. sneaking out to discosEven a day trip to the nearby town of Bradford (or Bradistan as the graffiti-doctored sign proclaims) does not offer much change of mood, despite the fact that cinematographer Tufano also worked on both Quadrophenia and the kinetic Trainspotting.

These limitations are less noticeable if one concentrates on the story of the children and how they deal with being two things at once–dutiful and unruly, English and Pakistani–allowing for a better appreciation of the storyline. It's a delight watching them drone their way apathetically through Urdu classes or blasphemously chomp on bacon and pork sausages while one of them keeps lookout for their father. Not enough development is given to any one particular child, so it is wisest to take them as one unmanageable entity, as George does, since he never tires of saying "all of bloody family makes bloody fool of me." Ultimately though, it is Ella's point of view that matters. She is both referee and go-between, and she can see the good in her husband and every ounce of potential in her kids. It is her stubbornness which holds the family and the film together.

Where the film falls short is in its treatment of racial prejudice. No one likes preachy films, but in East Is East prejudice is a hanging thread, because it doesn't come down on one side or the other. East Is East makes an obvious target of the cartoonish racist neighbour who, like the right wing politician he idolizes, wants all immigrants to be repatriated. On the other hand, we have the most visibly dissatisfied son, Tariq, reacting to the news of his impending arranged marriage by screaming, "I'm not marrying a f*cking Paki." Tariq deals with his father's obdurate traditionalism and the surrounding prejudice by taking a dyed-blonde girlfriend and sneaking out to discos as his alter ego, Tony. But if Tariq is old enough to marry whomever and whenever he pleases, he is certainly old enough to be taken to task for his bigoted outbursts (instead of being merely told to calm down). It is as if the filmmakers are satisfied with depicting the perpetrators of racist attitudes as being "only human" and forgivable once you put yourself in their shoes. Perhaps the jokes-a-plenty approach is meant to gloss over this little problem for most people. However, it's only a minor flaw in the grand scheme of things.
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(In an interesting twist of fate, East Is East recently beat out both Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy and Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland to win the Alexander Korda award for Outstanding British Film at this years BAFTA (the British Academy Awards). Ayub Khan Din's father, on whom George Khan is based, actually worked several days on one of Korda's early British efforts as an extra, and experienced racism from others on set until Korda went out of his way to sit with the man during his lunch breaks.)

The obligatory upbeat pop music score is fairly average, but in one scene, when we see Tariq hopping on a bus–with a gaggle of hangers on clamouring behind like lost ducklings–to see his eldest brother Nazir (the first to flee their father's tyranny, from the altar, no less), we hear McGuinness Flint's "When I'm Dead and Gone." The song is a nice tip of the hat to Robert Johnson "going down to the crossroads," since it is a song about Johnson. This is as mood-fitting a musical moment as anything in Rushmore. The sporadic presence of Indian music is also quite entertaining, especially with Meenah's impromptu choreography.

Based on audience reaction, East is East was hailed in Britain as "this year's Full Monty," which is deceiving, since this film has more depth to its darker corners, thanks mainly to Om Puri's amazingly fluid portrayal of George's brutish contradictions. One is never really sure where the bellowing will end and the bruising might begin. Dark corners and contradictions, now isn't that what we want at the movies anyway?

Review © May 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Pyramid Films. All rights reserved.

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