East is East marks the feature-length directorial debut by Damien O’Donnell, and tells the story of the Khan family, a group of people living in 1970s Manchester, England and coping with the social and personal difficulties of biracial and interfaith marriage. George Khan (Om Puri) is a Pakistani immigrant married to Ella (Linda Bassett), a native Anglo. Their marriage and their children face racial prejudice and internal strife as they struggle to find a place for themselves somewhere between the their modern environment and the traditional, Islamic mandates of George’s heritage.
The film deals with a very specific group during a very specific time period but, as O’Donnell relates in his description of audience reactions, its message extends beyond those boundaries: “We’ve had personal reactions from the word. We’ve had personal reactions from people we auditioned, people who read the script and said that that was their life. [We also had] someone call from a newspaper called the Jewish Exponent, who said, ‘Thank you for making a very Jewish film.’ It seems to have touched a lot of people which is great. That’s what you want to do, you want to make a film that affects people and that’s what’s happened.”
Before it was affecting film audiences, East is East was garnering critical acclaim as a play, written by Ayub Khan Din. O’Donnell’s role as director involved translating Din’s original theatrical vision into a cinematic production. This process, he explains, allowed him to add depth and complexity to East is East‘s characters, particularly George, the father. About the tyrannical yet tortured figure, O’Donnell says, “The problem about the play was that you didn’t get an insight into his motivations. I felt it had to be more ambiguous than it was in the play; it had to be less clear-cut, because life is like that.”
The film portrays its characters’ ambiguities in part by oscillating between humor and dramatic action, creating a problem of labeling the project according to conventional film genres. O’Donnell says, “We’re dealing with racism. We’re dealing with the tension between Indian and Pakistani, but we do it in the film with humor because I think that’s a great way to make a point. I wouldn’t want to see a heavy film about these topics.” Still, the director is quick to point out that humor is only a portion of the story-telling process involved in East is East: “It would be bad to describe this film as a comedy. I still don’t know how to describe it.” For O’Donnell, such elusiveness is precisely the point. Just as his characters resist racial classification, the film itself is hard to label. O’Donnell sees this as a positive aspect, saying, “Everyone’s so familiar with the rules now, that you can break them and surprise people by it. I like films that play on people’s expectations.” While East is East challenges audiences with its combinations of generic conventions and racial identifications, O’Donnell also believes that it provides an entertaining, and revealing, depiction of a family at odds with its surroundings and with each other. If O’Donnell’s film touches audiences, though, it is the result of staying true to the spirit of East is East‘s original material. For O’Donnell, “Filmmaking is a small group of people working together as a team, following an idea and hoping that idea will appeal to people.” He adds that any positive reaction (critical or popular) to East is East is not the result of any artistic compromise or sacrifice for ratings: “I don’t believe in changing things to suit the public’s taste.”
At the same time, O’Donnell is acutely aware of how the viewers of his work will decide the success or failure of East is East. For the director, the finished product lies entirely in the eyes of its beholders. A film, ultimately,” the director holds, “is as much about the audience as it is about what’s on the screen. If you don’t have people watching it, it doesn’t exist, and the less [people] you have watching it, the less of an impact it will make cinema is about that communal environment.” For the director, community is central to East is East, both for the family it portrays and for the audience members who watch the film. As O’Donnell puts it, “I always say that once you make a film and show it, that becomes the property of the audience and your opinion doesn’t count anymore.” Judging from the positive reception of critics and popular audiences, Damien O’Donnell’s East is East is in good hands.