East is East
English Title: East is East
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: Film4, BBC, Assassin/Channel 4
Director: Damien O'Donnell
Producer(s): Leslee Udwin
Screenplay: Ayub Khan-Din
Cinematographer: Brian Tufano
Editor: Michael Parker
Runtime: 96 minutes
It is 1971 and George Khan, a Pakistani immigrant, runs a chip shop in Salford with his English wife Ella and their seven children. When his eldest son refuses to go through with an arranged marriage and runs away, George demands that his family lives by strict Pakistani traditions. With the exception of the slightly pious Maneer, the children are more interested in embracing British culture than their Pakistani roots. When they discover that George has arranged for two of them to be married, tensions come to a head. George tries to assert his role as the head of the household whilst Ella and the children resist.
East is East is an adaptation of Ayub Kahn-Din’s hit play of the same name, which focuses upon identity, multiculturalism and British-Asian experience during the 1970s. The film followed on from earlier British Asian works including The Buddha of Suburbia (BBC, 1993) and Bhaji on the Beach (Gurinda Chadha, 1992), but it is also a product of the 'Cool Britannia' New Labour era when films such as Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996), The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997) and Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1996) showed that British cinema and stories about Britain could be both political and popular. There is a certain irony that Damien O’Donnell and Ayub Kahn-Din’s adaptation was released just as the notion of ‘Cool Britannia’ was slowly fading from British culture. Despite the fact that the party was starting to finish, the film is still suffused with an air of celebration in its portrayal of multicultural Britain.
Certainly, much of the racism of 1970s’ Britain is presented as a mere annoyance and the preserve of buffoons and fools, as Enoch Powell – and those who support him – become figures of ridicule. Any threat they could prove is downplayed and diffused by farce (such as a football through one of their windows) and there seems to be an element of comic revenge at play here. What better way to defuse your victimizers than to make fun of them and their ignorance? Indeed, there is only one moment, when a sign from Bradford has been altered to read ‘Bradistan’, when the more insidious side to British society is alluded to.
The biggest threat comes from within the family, with George heavy-handedly imposing his Pakistan values on his mixed-race children. But deep down there are notions of masculinity and empowerment at play: Ella (Linda Basset) is a confident and outspoken woman who is prepared to stand up to her husband, whilst their children seem almost mocking in their ways of defiance (such as gorging on forbidden pork sausages and bacon whilst George is out of the house). Like My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia, East is East also has a vaguely queer agenda, with Nazem, George's eldest son, running away from the arranged marriage as much because of his sexuality as his cultural identity. George’s aggressive desire to force his family to comply is presented as a scared man attempting to reassert control as much as proudly attempting to maintain religious and traditional values.
With the emotional conflict at the heart of the film, it relies on strong acting to pull it all together, and Puri, Mistry and Basset are wonderfully believable in their parts. Alongside the intense familial drama, O’Donnell creates scenes of sharp northern wit and broad comedy, such as a cheesy 1970s’ disco, a sweet Bollywood dance sequence, a 'little and large' duo of lusty white girls, a lewd art project and a large dog humping everyone (echoing a similar scene in The Buddha of Suburbia).
Despite its sometimes uneven nature, East Is East remains an endearingly popular and celebratory example of British cinema. It even led to a (less successful) sequel, West Is West (Andy De Emmony, 2010), in which George makes one last attempt to 'sort out' Sajid, his youngest son, and the Khan family, by returning to Pakistan.
Author of this review: Laurence Boyce
Peer reviewer: Laurence Boyce