Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Comic Collision of Customs, Cultures

In the last two decades Om Puri has become one of India's major screen actors and now he's emerging as an international star as well. In "East Is East," winner of the British Academy of Film and Television Art's Best Film of 1999 prize, he's the traditionalist Pakistani proprietor of a Manchester fish and chips shop, married 25 years to an Englishwoman (Linda Bassett) who has borne him seven children.

The couple live in Salford, a redbrick row-house in a working-class neighborhood; the time is 1971. If Puri's George Khan is a bit bombastic, Bassett's Ella, an earthy, chain-smoking redhead, has the spunk to talk back to him. George is a loving, hard-working responsible man, but his by-and-large happy household is about to be plunged into crisis.

The cultural give-and-take in the Khan family has been reasonably workable, but now that his eldest sons are reaching adulthood, George reverts to a passionate adherence to custom. Without consulting anyone, he arranges the marriage of his eldest son, Nazir (Ian Aspinall), to a Pakistani girl. Just as Nazir is about to say "I do," he panics and announces he can't go through with the ceremony. He runs off and is instantly considered dead by his father.

Scant time passes before George is arranging the marriages of his next eldest sons, Tariq (Jimi Mistry), a handsome disco king, and the seemingly dutiful Abdul (Raji James), to two homely but well-off sisters. It's at this point "East Is East," adapted by Ayub Khan-Din from his semi-autobiographical play, begins moving from raucous comedy to volatile drama. George's stubbornness brings to the surface his family's deep resentment that he's never really listened to any of them. "East Is East" is above all a man's confrontation with self in middle age and his need to accept the fact that his children, beyond their mixed ancestry, are after all native-born English citizens. It is, therefore, natural they will rebel against arranged marriages, a custom from a distant land that they have never seen and that goes completely against the grain of the free society in which they've been raised. George truly believes that he's doing what is best for his sons while forgetting that he defied tradition himself in marrying their mother.

For a film that is essentially a comedy, and one with some very broad strokes at that, "East Is East" nonetheless allows the craggy, forceful Puri to discover some Lear-like dimensions in George, who is as capable of violence as he is of affection, and is a man torn apart by his refusal to comprehend the reality of his family's life or his own chauvinist nature. Similarly, Ella is forced to accept that her spunkiness is superficial f that she is either going to have to give in completely to her husband or to stand up to him bravely and without fear of consequences. Like Puri, Bassett is more than up to the challenges of playing this sensible, loving woman.

Khan-Din and director Damien O'Donnell do a masterful job in making this stage adaptation seem completely cinematic, and amid much rowdy humor and emotional fireworks, "East Is East" never loses sight of what's going on in the world outside of the Khan home. George responds with anguished concern to India's aggression in East Pakistan and a persistent racism confronts the Khans. The American-flavored pop culture so embraced by the Khan children is also noted, with the affection that permeates the entire picture, embracing as best as it can, even George, understanding that he means well, even in the throes of his worst behavior.

"East Is East" is now playing in English at the American House of Cinema and in Russian at a number of city theaters. The film will also be shown on June 24 and 25 as part of the Festival of New British Film. See page III for details.