Daring to be non-PC

East is East
(directed by Damien O'Donnell; written by Ayub Khan-Din)

East is East is an interesting, possibly a brilliant, film. It's interesting in that it dares to present an English mixed race family in which the non-English-origin member doesn't always behave impeccably, and where the wife supports her husband even when he's wrong (and violent). Set in 1971 in a working-class area of Manchester, the Khans are the only 'Pakis' on the block. Mr Khan (Om Puri) left his first wife back in Pakistan when he came to England, where he acquires a second, white, wife; twenty-five years and seven kids later, they're squashed into a tiny terrace house, scraping a meagre existence from running a fish & chip shop. George Khan tries to cement his self-appointed position as the head of the family and worries endlessly about their status in the Muslim community, his wife Ella (Linda Bassett) tries to keep the family together in the face of seemingly impossible odds, and the kids -- well they just seem to want to eat bacon and snog white girls. Things inevitably escalate.

George & Ella and their strangely successful marriage are painted in realistic detail, and both actors do a tremendous job with some difficult material. Their respective influences on the family are complex, eg with Ella handing out money to the kids while George attempts to bribe them all with pricey but useless gifts. Inevitably, the seven children are relegated to types to a certain extent -- though all seven are very well portrayed, with special kudos to the 12-year-old newcomer Jordan Routledge, who plays the youngest kid. The background is relegated to occasional glimpses of neighbours (budget restrictions apparently limited their number), over-libidinous dogs, space-hoppers, Enoch Powell repatriation posters and a lot of Mancunian rain (I can vouch for the veracity of the last), but the tight focus on the family works in the film's favour.

There are some very dark juxtapositions of tense scenes with images of fish being beheaded, but the story is at its heart a tragi-comedy, and there are some great comedic moments even when things feel at their bleakest. (It reminded me at times of Caro & Jeunet's Delicatessen.)

In the end, there are no easy answers for the Khans, but you're left with some hope that all the family learned from their ordeals during the course of the film. East is East is an intense, absorbing film: highly recommended.

The DVD has a director's commentary, a brief shooting documentary & four deleted scenes with optional director's commentary.

19 January 2004