Bright Lights Film Journal

When Worlds Collide: Damien O’Donnell’s East Is East (1999)

Stereotypes and social critique spar in this culture-clash dramedy

East Is East, based on Ayub Khan-Din’s play and directed by Damien O’Donnell, is a huge hit in England but has largely has been written off in the U.S. as an uneasy and unsuccessful blend of sitcom, racial politics, and domestic drama. Is this yet another instance of our being separated by a common language? Before he sickened us with his recent self-indulgence, Intimacy, Hanif Kureishi’s frequently hilarious literary and cinematic riffs on being Asian in England seemed to travel far better. Although the actors are the real reason to see East Is East, I found the film funnier, more complex, and more vexing than I expected it to be.

East Is East is a dark comedy about George Khan, a Pakistani man, his English wife Ella, and their seven children struggling to get along in Manchester in the early 1970s. In a Britain brimming with bigots, Dad is a bigot too – disdainful of his white wife even as he cheerfully exploits her Englishness. Having her British name on legal documents has enabled George to own his house and business, and she is free to work as hard as he in their fish and chip shop. For all of his insistence on tradition, his is a thoroughly modern marriage when it suits him. When his children are too modern, taking liberties like their Manchester peers, they are “bastards,” his wife’s English brats destined to be booted out of his house along with her. For all this blame and threat, the couple are cosy together – they make love and banter lovingly and amusingly, but if it turns nasty, George always wins. A consistent laugh is had at George’s repeated mock-threats to send for his (presumably abandoned) first wife in Pakistan. The film eventually becomes an interracial Punch and Judy show, replete with beatings that veer between cartoon and tragedy.

The extraordinary actor Om Puri somehow imbues this martinet with humanity and humour. George Khan grows ever more brutal, but Puri intimates his hurt, hesitation, and self-doubt. George is quietly driven desperate by the TV’s images of Pakistan bombed by India and his neighbours’ loud support of a virulent anti-immigrant politician. Khan deserted his homeland long ago; now they are both under siege and his edict that his children be proper Pakistanis blazes into despotism.

While East Is East seems intent on social critique, it is peopled with stereotypical characters. Ella is a salt-of-the-earth type, incongruous beside her dark, glossy husband and children with her ever-present cig, pink lipstick, and dyed, done red hair. When the family is beautifully, if reluctantly, resplendent in Pakistani dress, she juts out among them in a dress, hat, and bag – relics from the old Monty Python costume department. Linda Bassett makes a compelling and sympathetic Ella out of these recycled elements. Ella seems so sensible that we cannot understand why she capitulates to her husband’s increasingly outrageous demands, giving up when it is no longer possible to tease or coax him into reason. She is such an unlikely victim it is shocking to see the extent to which she cooperates in her family’s devastation.

The marriage has created a perplexing situation for the Khan kids. Some of the funniest moments occur as the siblings chat and joke with each other in their cramped house and chip shop or flirt with life outside their mixed-up family. They are sausage-munching, soccer-playing, disco-dancing English kids in Pakistani bodies, coming of age in an England that reviles them even as it is erotically fascinated by them. George wants to sidestep this confusion by making his children attend a mosque and forcing them into arranged marriages with suitable Pakistani mates, but to do so he must ignore his own choice of an English wife and their English life. The film begins and ends with the escape of resistant bridegrooms, the defeat of George’s will, and Ella as the stalwart Angel of the House. It is inevitable that the issue of marriage dogs and shapes East is East. As ugly as things get, and they are hideous by the end, the film never lets us forget that marriage is the essential plot of comedy.

East Is East is a thrust at racism that cuts both ways; the shouting hate of the jingoistic Britons and the bigotry of the Pakistanis who set up their homes among and with the English people that they scorn. But it is sad that a film bent on exposing the ugliness of prejudice so comfortably employs a batch of stale jokes at the expense of fat and unattractive women, everyone’s favourite butt. We see an enormous dog towering over and humping not one but two undesirable women – but the dog and the film are ostensibly unbiased because one of the women is a fat, horny, English girl and the other is a haughty Pakistani matron. The image of the dalmation clutching the shrieking white girl is deemed so hilarious it’s being used on posters to promote East Is East.

Whatever colour lines may be tested and blurred here, gender remains a clear line in the sand. The Englishwoman married to an abusive Pakistani may finally reach her limit, but she will do the right thing and stand by her man. East Is East shows that while racial prejudice mars and divides us, even within our own families, it pales in the shadow of the order that unites all men, regardless of nation, colour, or creed – the pecking order that is patriarchy.