East is East
Family comedy-dramas have been a staple of films for a hundred years, so it's hard to value the ones that rise above the crowd as "East is East" does, where the acts and decisions and crises within are resonant enough to hold us spellbound in the audience. This is a film where the life and death of a family's culture is seen as something more than plot points, and where the eyes of a 12-year-old, hiding inside the comforting refuge of the hood of the parka he never takes off, haunt us almost more than we can bear.
The film is "East is East," directed by Damien O'Donnell from the play of the same name by Ayub Khan-Din, and starring the Pakistani actor Om Puri as the father who came from Pakistan to England in the late 1930s, married an Englishwoman (Linda Bassett), settled in Manchester, opened a little fish-and-chips place that she does most of the work for, and had seven children with her. We meet them in 1971, at a time when their children are breaking away from the Muslim rigidity he insists on imposing on them, and when the strains of intermarriage in a racist society are exacerbated by the changing mores of the culture.
Puri is George Khan, fighting desperately to show himself and his fellow Pakistani immigrants that he and his family are all good Muslims, that his children will always obey him, that his English wife will somehow act like a Muslim bride, that the world he grew up in will never change. But his fight is hopeless, and as he senses his loss of control he moves in the film from a comic figure deserving our sentimental indulgence to a brutal tyrant who cannot bear contradiction.
The film opens with his oldest son running away from an arranged marriage, at which George declares him dead to the family. It continues with the remaining children's little acts of defiance, starting with the eating of bacon and pork sausage, then with the sneaking out at midnight to a disco club; and parallel to those we follow George's desperate plan of arranging a double Muslim marriage for two of his sons to two traditional brides, and his insistence that his 12-year-old be circumcised. By the end the sad brutality that is George's only remaining weapon has been used and exposed, having cut like a knife through the core of the family.
The film veers off into burlesque at times, particularly in the painful scene of the visit by the proposed brides' family -- the brides are deliberately made into horrifyingly ugly caricatures, and their parents into unbearable snobs -- but there is enough truth in the film, particularly in Puri's descent into hell, to hold us bound to its frank look at fundamentalist religion, and force us to examine our own cultural clichés and biases.