East is East (UK, 1999) *** 1/2
Directed by Damien O'Donnell. Screenplay by Ayub Khan-Din based on his play. Produced by Leslee Udwin. Photography, Brian Tufano. Editing, Michael Parker. Production design, Tom Conroy. Music, Deborah Mollison. Cast: Om Puri (George Khan), Linda Bassett (Ella Khan), Jordan Routledge, Archie Panjabi, Emil Marwa, Chris Bisson, Jimi Mistry, Raji James, Ian Aspinall (their 7 children), Lesley Nicol (Auntie Annie), Emma Rydal (Stella Moorhouse), Ruth Jones (Peggy), et al. A Miramax release. 96 minutes. R (language)
Indian (not Pakistani) Om Puri is one of the sub-continent's greatest actors as well as a major player in international cinema and TV.. He must have one the best-known pockmarked faces in the world, along with actor Robert Davi (the drug lord in the James Bond film "License to Kill"), and Manuel Ortega (Panama's former lord). In 1998 Puri attracted more world attention in "My Son, the Fanatic" in which he plays a Pakistani cab-driver, in England for 25 years and most assimilated --too much by Pakistani standards --while his only child reverts to Moslem fundamentalism.
Those roles are reversed in "East is East." Puri plays George Khan, who, in 1937 emigrated from Pakistan to Manchester, married Englishwoman (Caucasian) Ella, had seven children with her. We meet the tribe in the early 1970s living in Salford, a working class suburb of Manchester. Ma, Pa and some of the kids run their fish and chips place. Husband and wife are a loving --and sexually active --couple, in spite of George being bullheaded and mercurially autocratic, as well as often charming, especially to Ella. The children (six sons and one dancing daughter) have grown up in a spirit of total assimilation. They may be "brown kids" to racists, but they feel like most other English youths of their social class.
When it comes to religion, all but one pious son go through the motions of pleasing and obeying Dad. Ella acts just like a Muslim mother (but she is no convert), mediates between kids and Dad, uses wiles and strategies to keep the peace and is lovable totally but not soupily.
The children are so westernized that when Dad's away they consume gluttonously ham and sausages. When Dad's head is turned, one son flirts (or more?) with a neighbor's blonde daughter and most of the siblings do "unacceptable" things.
Matters, however, really come to a head when the senior son is about to wed a Pakistani belle in an arranged marriage. At the start of the ceremony, the young groom, in a switch from Hollywood movies about brides fleeing the altar, runs away, and off.
We are left wondering a bit about the earlier years of the Khan family when George gets to center stage as a newborn Muslim. Pakistanis and Brits seem to co-exist quite well. although racism does lurk in the background. And reverse racism too. But there's no Paki-bashing by hooligans, no egregious discrimination. Perhaps because those are Enoch Powell years when the racist. politician wages war on immigration, perhaps too because of a mid-life crisis, George reacts with increased traditionalism of which the most acute symptom is his strong desire is arranged marriage for sons 2 and 3.
Thereby hang the most comical events of the film, in fact transitions from benevolent irony to farce and to near-screwball comedy. I will give no details, not even clues as to the developments.
"East is East" is a grand little movie, funny yet also pathetic, amusing but also touching on very serious matters regarding immigration, the many faces and degrees of assimilation or non-assimilation, mixed-marriages, the old and the new, and much else of crucial importance to the brown or white or black or whatever inhabitants of the British Isles.
The source play was a major hit in England, and so was the movie. The British Film Academy gave it several nominations, the "Evening Standard" and the London Film Critics voted it as Best British Film of the Year. It was Dublin-born Director Damien O'Donnell's first feature and the play (1996) as well as the film-script, both firsts by actor-turned-writer Ayub Khan were highly honored in the UK and the Continent.
The acting is impeccable, all the more so since many of the players are also newcomers. The Khan children, by the way, are all but one of mixed parentage and all felt in familiar territory. Not so director O'Donnell, an Irishman who steeped himself in the cultures of Pakistanis in the UK as well as of England in the 1970s -- with wonderful success.
The movie is knowledgeably and intelligently built, with credibility and authenticity, a number of un-telegraphed surprises (from a strange circumcision to a barber's chair) and a heartfelt feeling for all involved, including the dictatorial George, whose likable sides survive his imperiousness.
My single caveat comes from the sometimes hard to catch in full some bits of dialogue spoken in (there must be a term for it but I don't know it) working-class English. But I had no problem with some of the Arabic formulas and courtesies.