East Is East

on April 14, 2000 by Lael Loewenstein
A bittersweet portrait of a mixed-race family set in England in the free-wheeling early '70s, "East is East" does justice to a difficult subject. George Khan ("My Son the Fanatic's" Om Puri), a Pakistani shop owner long settled in Britain, insists that his grown children follow Pakistani traditions, much to their displeasure. Though married for 20 years to the Caucasian Ella (Linda Bassett), George is something of a hypocrite when it comes to his own kin. Ignoring his own example, he demands each of his children wed a Pakistani in a match to be overseen by him alone. The first attempt at an arranged marriage ends disastrously: eldest son Nazir (Ian Aspinall) jilts his prospective bride, is evicted from his parents' house and cut off by his father for life.
   As horrifying as that may sound-and there are worse punishments ahead-director Damien O'Donnell never lets things get too dreary, largely because the characterizations are so full and the dark scenes balanced with plenty of humor. When his back is turned, George's daughter and six sons flout traditions. They eat bacon, frolic with their Anglo neighbors, and secretly pay homage to Christ, not Allah. Despite their father's efforts, the kids don't see themselves as Pakistanis.
   The film might not work as a comedy were it not for its nuanced performances and thoughtful script. What saves George from being an unsympathetic character is that despite his gruff and intractable manner, he loves his wife and kids; he simply can see no other way of raising them. Puri fleshes out the part with a considerable amount of warmth and emotion; he has deep recesses of longing both for his homeland and a way of life that has all but disappeared. Even when he strikes his kids, he comes off more as a pathetic oaf who doesn't know how to communicate than a monster. And because Linda Bassett plays Ella with fine, gentle strength, she softens George's edges and renders him almost lovable. Writer Ayub Khan-Din and O'Donnell have done a fine job opening up the piece from its original London theatrical version, making good use of locations, adding characters and using stylistic elements like subjective shots that accentuate varying perspectives. Starring Om Puri, Linda Bassett and Jordan Routledge. Directed by Damien O'Donnell. Written by Ayub Khan-Din. Produced by Leslee Udwin. A Miramax release. Comedy. Not yet rated. Running time: 96 min.
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