By Michael Gray
The latest British indie film success to arrive in New York comes laden with BAFTA nominations, the British equivalent of the Oscars, and the winner of the prestigious Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film.
"East Is East," a riotous comedy-drama set in a mixed-race household in the north of England in the early 1970s, was nominated in all the top categories — Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Film and Best Screenplay — except one, that of Best Director. The reason? Director Damian O’Donnell, despite the lavish praise for his debut feature, is ineligible because he’s from Ireland, and the BAFTA Best Director award is open to British filmmakers only. It’s a testament to the young Dubliner’s talent that he handled a screenplay about arranged marriage in an Anglo-Pakistani family with such skill that the film went down well in both communities, and if the trophy eluded him this time on grounds of birthplace, he will doubtless win silverware elsewhere as the film gains momentum worldwide.
O’Donnell was enlisted by the producers of "East Is East" after they had seen his short "35-A-Side," the most successful of the RTE-financed "Short Cuts" series. His flair for sight gags and slapstick in that multiple award-winner carries over into "East Is East" and makes for lively comedic viewing in a film with a dark and serious subtext: the harm done to a family when an intransigent patriarch keeps his children in line by brute force.
Indian actor Om Puri, star of "My Son the Fanatic," "Jewel in the Crown," and dozens of Bollywood hits in his native country, plays George Khan, chip-shop owner, devout Muslim, and a stern father of seven from his marriage to a salt-of-the-earth north of England woman, Ella (Linda Bassett). George is determined to raise his offspring the way he himself was brought up in his native land, and disregards completely the fact that he’s more than three decades and several thousand miles removed from the cultural circumstances that molded him. He dragoons his eldest son, Nazir (Ian Aspinall), into an arranged marriage to a woman he’s never seen, and the petrified lad does a runner on the day of the wedding. His father is disgraced in the Muslim community, and the son’s picture is removed from the family photo album as though he never existed. If anyone inquires about him, George claims that he’s dead.
His next two sons are rapidly coming of age and put up more of a fight against the father’s plans to pair them off with the daughters of a snooty, tactless Pakistani family from Bradford. Tariq (half-Irish "Eastenders" actor Jimi Mistry) and Abdul (Raji James) are more interested in going drinking and chasing girls at the local disco than they are in doing what father thinks is best. Sneaking out on the town, as teenagers do, via the bedroom window and adjacent drainpipe while the da thinks they’re asleep, they pay no more than lip service to the religion in which they were raised, speak no Urdu, and consider themselves English rather than Pakistani.
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Their younger siblings live in dread of the father’s wrath (there’s a hilarious scene of the teens enjoying rashers and sausages while the father is out, then frantically spraying the house with air freshener to get rid of the smell of forbidden pigflesh when they realize he’s about to return) but the unfettered energy of youth makes them rebel despite the potentially violent consequences.
The father has a blind spot, and the film does too, about addressing his own abandonment of his culture as a young man, leaving wife number one in Pakistan before the war to come to England and start a new life with wife number two, a white Catholic woman. His lack of introspection on the matter and her unquestioning acceptance of her Muslim life as his devoted spouse seem to short-change the serious dramatic issues that underscore the ribald comedy of the piece. And his transition from an old-fashioned, rigid ideologue to a defeated man accepting that the times they are a-changin’, is too modest a development to tilt the film away from being primarily played for laughs.
But "East Is East" remains an impressive first outing from the young Irish director and is well worth the price of admission. The film’s visual strength lies in its deft directorial style, witty camerawork and fine ensemble acting from O’Donnell’s gifted cast.
Veterans Puri and Bassett are outstanding, and the seven young actors playing their children excel as the unruly mob wiggling out of their father’s authoritarian grip. In most big-family features, only a couple of the children really matter, and are developed as characters in the round; the rest are almost invariably sketched in as types. But the Khan kids all go far beyond the usual two dimensions. All seven are fully realized by the big-screen newcomers, giving credible life to the dutiful, religious son, Maneer (Emil Marwa), the tomboy daughter and alluring Bollywood dancer, Meenah (Archie Panjabi), and the charming, arty Saleem ("Coronation Street" star Chris Bisson), as well as the aforementioned arranged-marriage victims.
The parka-clad and put-upon youngest son, Sajid, played by Jordan Routledge, is based on the screenwriter, Ayub Khan-Din, as a child, and the depth of character in the author’s text is due to the fact that the script is based on his long-running hit play about his own upbringing in Lancashire in the 1970s. His dialogue is refreshingly indelicate about issues that weren’t clamped and muzzled by political correctness at the time in which "East Is East" is set, and sex, race and religion are legitimate targets for blunt humor from all family members throughout the film. The script earned Khan-Din a BAFTA nomination for Best British Newcomer as well as Best Screenplay, adding to the list of awards he had received for the original stage version.
The broad success of the film in Britain and across Europe, and the litany of international awards and nominations convinced Miramax to give the irreverent multiracial hit the big push in the U.S.
"East Is East" opens April 14 in New York.