East is East (1999)

D: Damien O'Donnell
S: Om Puri, Linda Bassett

Lively, well-directed comedy from the play by Ayub Khan-Din following the misfortunes of an Anglo-Pakistani family poised on the brink of change in early 1970s Manchester. Traditional father Om Puri (My Son, The Fanatic) is horrified when his eldest son (Ian Aspinall) abandons an arranged wedding, and determines that from now on his family will be more respectful. Among his plans are the weddings of two of his other sons, both of whom are less than pleased with the idea. Khan-Din's clever script never allows the clichés to overrun what amounts to a satisfyingly dramatic, but also warm and funny, study of the clash between tradition and modernity. It covers similar territory to My Son, The Fanatic and Bhaji on the Beach in this regard, but sneakily incorporates a range of interim character positions and allows a much greater range of dramatic tension to emerge.

Central to this is Linda Bassett as Puri's second wife, an English woman who indulges both her husband's traditionalism and her children's sense of rebellion while nonetheless attempting to retain her own dignity. Sympathy is also given to Puri, who though eventually driven to greater and greater levels of frustration (and, eventually, violence) is understandable in the context of a world where his sense of values is threatened by events in the background including the ongoing war between Indian and Pakistan, the speeches of Enoch Powell on racial purity, and what he sees as the collapse of a world suitable for his family. Both actors are excellent in their roles, with Puri an absolute marvel as his character oscillates between villainy and amiable buffoonery.

The performances are very good on the whole, and there is plenty of opportunity to explore the complexities of the group's relationship as they play against one another in ensemble scenes. The film comes to a marvellous climax as the entire family faces an awkward social encounter with the family of the brides-to-be and the tensions explode in an effective combination of drama and comedy in which everyone plays a part (watch for the ultimate fate of one son's art project). The fresh cast of Anglo-Pakistani actors includes Archie Panjabi, Emil Marwa, Chris Bisson and Jimi Mistry (some of these are already familiar to British audiences through TV soap operas, of course).

Irish director Damien O'Donnell adds to the entertainment with sure pacing and inventive visual humour, much of it centred on Jordan Routledge as the youngest member of the family, a parka-wearing bottom-of-the-pecking order character evoking South Park's Kenny McCormick (and the protagonist of O'Donnell's own award winning short Thirty Five-Aside), but of course rooted in slightly less fantastical circumstances. A sub-plot involving his pending circumcision gives O'Donnell plenty of room for hilarious visual jokes (including one in which the camera mimics the point of view of a penis), and the endearing character proves an important part of both plot and drama, so he's not just there to tug the heartstrings.

There are some great bits of comic business throughout involving the likes of a space hopper, a barber's chair, slop buckets and an excitable great dane. The film builds on little details and seemingly throwaway scenes (all of the social drama is in the background) to deepen and contextualise the central action (the opening alone is worth the price of admission), and O'Donnell never allows this to become indulgent or distracting. On the contrary, our expectations of character are frequently challenged by the insight into their lives, where sometimes conflicting ideas of who they are are articulated in small but telling scenes.

It is nonetheless not a film for everyone. Despite the plethora of reviews hopefully touting it as a successor to The Full Monty, East is East demands a little more from its audience than the average feel-good movie. It becomes quite intensely dramatic at times, and viewers run the risk of misunderstanding the motivations of its central character given the presence of domestic violence and the context of Muslim traditionalism. Its discourse on race and culture is quite intricate, but demands a greater level of concentration than the international popcorn-muncher requires of its comedy. Despite the backing of Miramax and Channel Four, not to mention its own quality, it is unlikely to generate the kind of box-office returns that Monty did. The film is still well worth watching, of course, and from a local point of view, it is certainly the most accomplished film from a new Irish director for a long time, though no one is making claims for this as an "Irish" film. All-in-all East is East is among the best British-made films of recent years; intelligent, funny, moving and stylish. Only time will tell if it finds an audience outside festival screenings and film critics.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.