Cinema Reviews
You are in:  Home > Nouveau: Popular Culture > Movie Reviews   •  Archives   •  send page to a friend

East is East
A movie review

east is east

East is East

east is east

By C. Antonio Romero

SAN FRANCISCO, 11 July 2000 - Cinematic alchemy - there's no other word to capture the achievement of East is East, in which writer Ayub Khan-Din turns the pain of his immigrant upbringing into comic and dramatic gold.

In 1971 working-class Salford, England, disintegration is the watchword of the day - a humiliated Pakistan is torn in half by civil war, and George Khan (Om Puri) brings about the slow-motion explosion of his own family. Having left India in 1936, Khan has taken an English wife (Ella, played by Linda Basset) and produced six sons and a daughter. His days are divided between the fish-and-chip shop which supports them all and the mosque which anchors his life as a Muslim. A dream of Pakistan serves as consolation for the frustrations of his English life (while in the background, the real Pakistan - a country created only in 1949, and which Khan may well have never visited - lies humiliated by the breakaway of Bangladesh, ongoing internal corruption, and military defeats in Kashmir).

Khan tries to bully his children into a Muslim upbringing, going so far as to arrange marriages for his sons. Ella, meanwhile, is torn between her obligations to her husband and her own desire for the children's happiness; often running interference for them, she encourages them to pursue their own dreams of integration into 1970's English life. As the film opens, the resulting strains are tearing the family apart - one son flees his own wedding and vanishes, an increasingly desparate Khan resorts to physical violence to keep the others in line, and the children all live in various states of rebellion.

In lesser hands, this would be the stuff of an exotic-flavored movie-of-the-week; but Khan-Din, amazingly, avoids both sentimentality and sensationalism to construct from this (autobiographical) material a story that blends legitimate pathos with laughs that literally knocked at least one audience member from his seat. The humor, while low and often raunchy, is far smarter than most Hollywood slapstick. Without sinking into ethnic or English in-jokes, the material turns heavily on the collisions between English and Pakistani culture. The children engage in one forbidden (i.e. English) behavior after another, parading with their neighbors in observance of a Christian religious holiday, or wolfing down bacon and pork sausages while Dad's at the mosque. Whatever the source of the humor, the craft of the writing is undeniable. (No doubt this material was honed extensively when East is East was first incarnated as a play.).

If the humor were all, the film would come across as an odd mixture of inappropriately cruel slapstick and Khan's brutality. The film achieves much more than this, though, capturing the complex emotions in the relationships among the Khans. Between Khan-Din's fundamental sympathy for his father-figure and Om Puri's performance, Khan miraculously remains a sympathetic figure even as his intransigence takes its physical and emotional toll on his family. (One senses the autobiographical roots of the film at work here - how similar were Khan-Din's own family dynamics? his own immigrant upbringing?) And both Puri and Basset make the whole range of their relationship believable - they ring true both in their most intense clashes (as Khan corners his wife and beats her bloody) and in tender moments they share even after tenderness would seem impossible. The film thus surpasses both comedy and straight-ahead drama, reaching an emotional complexity truer than either to life as lived.

Many of the performances are standouts - besides Puri and Basset, Jimi Mistry warrants attention as rebellious 70's-swinger son Tariq, as do Raji James as his too-straight-laced younger brother Abdul and Jourdan Routledge as quick-witted youngest son Sajid, whose second skin is an ever-filthier parka he appears to have filched from South Park's Kenny. (One possible complaint is that the sheer number of sons in the Khan family makes it hard to keep them straight.) The supporting cast of English and Pakistani figures - Tariq's English girlfriend, her unpleasingly plump sidekick, the buck-toothed brides-to-be for the arranged marriages of Tariq and Abdul - are mostly written and played for laughs, and come across as a bit thin, but in a film this good this is a small complaint.

Genuinely smart, hilarious, and touching, East is East is one of the must-see films of this year.

If you value our reviews, please tell a friend or join our mailing list!

[ email to editors | Back to Nouveau | Back to Culturekiosque ]

Copyright © 1996 - 2000 Culturekiosque Publications Ltd
All Rights Reserved