Every year, the very best that the British film industry has to offer lands on these shores (with the exception of "Bean"). In recent years, North Americans have been privy to a number of outstanding productions from the United Kingdom, such as 1997's "The Full Monty", or "Waking Ned Devine", "Still Crazy", and "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels", all from 1998. "East Is East" is the latest British import, a terrific little drama-comedy based on the popular stage play of the same name (the original playwright, Abdul Khan-Din, also wrote the screenplay). Since its release last year, "East Is East" has become a film festival favorite (including packed houses at the recent Toronto International Film Festival), a strong performer at the British box office, and earned itself six nominations in the UK equivalent of the Oscars, the BAFTA.
The year is 1971, and the story revolves around the George Khan (Om Puri of "My Son the Fanatic"), a Pakistani immigrant who came to England in 1937 and settled in Salford, Manchester. Proudly Pakistani, he runs his household like a dictatorship, determined to have his seven children brought up in the ways of 'the old country', which includes arranged marriages and forced excursions to the local mosque. There is no negotiating with George, and you'll never win any arguments with him-- it's either his way or the highway. Case in point-- at the film's opening scene, when eldest son Nazir (Ian Aspinall) rejects a marriage that had been meticulously arranged, George considers that Nazir is 'dead' to him.
Unfortunately, despite all his rhetoric about living 'the Pakistani way', George is a hypocrite. His current wife of twenty-five years, Ella (Linda Bassett of "Oscar and Lucinda"), is English, whom he married after leaving his first wife, a Pakistani, behind in the old country. And even more indicative of how much he has become assimilated into British culture, George and Ella run a fish 'n chip shop. And though George complains about how racist his British neighbors are, he himself is a bigot, not only against the English, but also those of Indian descent, as a result of an ongoing war between Pakistan and India.
Of course, George's children see through their father's 'do as I say, not as I do' facade. Though one of the sons, Maneer (Emil Marwa), is a devout Muslim, his six siblings are anything but. When they are not in George's oppressive presence, they consider themselves British, and take part in very 'British' past-times, such as taking part in Catholic events or indulging in pork sausages and bacon. The two oldest sons, Tariq (Jimi Mistry of the popular "Eastenders" television series) and Abdul (Raji James), are dating English girls. Saleem (Chris Bisson) goes to university, but instead of studying engineering, which George believes he is doing, he is an art major. Meenah (Archie Panjabi), the only daughter, prefers playing soccer to wearing saris. Finally, there's Sajid (Jordan Routledge), the youngest of the bunch, who is constantly picked on both by George and his older siblings.
Trouble starts brewing when George, at the behest of the leader of the local mosque, enters an arranged marriage agreement with another family, providing their two homely daughters with two husbands-- Tariq and Abdul. Stung by what happened with Nazir, George tries to keep the wedding plans under wraps, but unfortunately, events conspire against him, and all hell breaks loose when the cat is let out of the bag...
You don't have to be Pakistani, an immigrant, or even the son or daughter of an immigrant to appreciate the emotional sincerity of "East Is East". The conflicts dramatized in "East Is East" are universal, as they bring into play the gaps between generations and cultural identities. The children, who have spent all their lives in a British society, want to have nothing to do with their heritage, and want to become even more 'British' such that they can better 'fit in' and not be subject to schoolyard taunts. On the other hand, George's insecurities and cultural upbringing manifest themselves in the form of pathological pride, blinding him to his own hypocrisy and the torment he inflicts on his family. As a result, George finds himself at odds with the world around him on more than one occasion, and his perceived loss of control only makes him more entrenched in his beliefs.
If you have seen the trailer for "East Is East", you might get the impression that it is an airy and light comedy. For the most part, this is true. The film has a tongue-in-cheek way of going about its business, including a number of phallic references, a mocking tribute to the films of 'Bollywood', and some general inanity that would probably feel at home in a Farrelly brothers' movie ("There's Something About Mary"). However, there are parts, particularly near the end of the second act, where "East Is East" ventures into very dark territory. For example, there is a scene where George becomes enraged by the disrespect shown to the Pakistani heritage by his family, and he vents his anger by beating Ella and one of his sons. A distinct chill fell over the entire audience in the theater at this point, since it was completely out of character with everything else that had happened up to that point. I briefly wondered how the film could recover from such an ugly, but necessary, blow. Fortunately, director Damien O'Donnell and scribe Khan-Din were able to pull it off, with some well-timed and much-needed comic relief in the next scene.
Another point that audiences may have issue with is the film's apparent lack of closure. However, given the complex issues and interpersonal dynamics going on in the story, a pat 'Hollywood' ending would have been completely out of character. Instead, Khan-Din acknowledges that cross-cultural and cross-generation conflicts are not amenable to quick fixes or easy answers, since they often cannot be resolved, even in a lifetime.
Performance-wise, there are many accolades to go around. Puri delivers what is probably the most compelling performance in the film. On the one hand, he is likable in an 'Archie Bunker' sort of way, but on the other hand he is also an abusive monster-- Puri straddles a very fine line in playing George. And though his character becomes more despicable as the story unfolds, Puri brings a subtlety to his performance that conveys the tragic flaws of his character-- insecurity, pride, and arrogance. Bassett, who also appeared in the stage play, adeptly handles the range required by her character, a woman who is torn between the welfare of her children and the ire of her husband. The rest of the cast is also superb, including Mistry's portrayal of a womanizing Tariq, and Panjabi's spunky portrayal of the scene-stealing Meenah.
"East Is East" fleshes out the often-complex conflicts that arise between parents and their children, without resorting to the heavy-handed moralizing often seen in 'movies of the week'. And though it paints an unflattering portrayal of family life (which may hit too close to home for some), the witty script still allows you to laugh about it. Entertaining, thought provoking, and insightful, "East Is East" is one of those films that demand a coffee-shop discussion afterwards-- definitely not to be seen alone.