East Is East (1999)

by Tobias Peterson


All in the Family

The opening scene of East is East depicts a small, Christian procession winding its way through the red brick houses of Salford near Manchester, England. Among the revelers are several children of George and Ella Khan, marching merrily along as their mother watches proudly from the street. When the children hear that their father is stationed further down the street, though, they’re forced to detour from the main parade route, ducking through alleyways and rejoining the procession only after it moves past their unsuspecting father.

This scene is a fitting introduction to the world according to East is East. Set during the early 1970s, the film tells the story of the Khan family, a group of people situated in a social limbo resulting from a biracial and interfaith marriage. George (Om Puri) is a Pakistani immigrant while Ella (Linda Bassett) is a native Anglo. Their children (seven all told) are subsequently torn between the strict Islamic dictates of their father and the modern realities and attractions of English life, such as discos, mini-skirts, and hi-fi.

cover art

East Is East

Director: Damien O'Donnell
Cast: Om Puri, Linda Bassett, Jordan Routledge


Their detour from the regular parade route is the first of many circuitous paths the Khan children take to circumvent the domineering will of their father and explore the secular world around them. In the process, the children come to shape their own identities both as individuals and as part of a family. The subject matter for East is East could easily lend itself to knuckle-biting dramatics and grandiose melodrama, but the film gracefully avoids these options and instead tells its story with a mix of humor and honesty. As the children stare at the family television, a black and white figure intones self-righteously about the importance of the English “repatriation effort,” the euphemistic term for the emergence of anti-immigrant sentiment in England during the 1970s. The children, however, are too busy pestering one another to pay attention. The scene demonstrates how the inflated rhetoric of politicians has, in truth, precious little bearing on the everyday lives of their constituents. Only the aging neighbor Mr. Moorhouse (Josh Barden) bears any visible ill will against the Khans, posting right-wing flyers around the neighborhood and directing slurs toward the family when he sees them on the street.

However, his grandson Earnest (Gary Damer) speaks Arabic with the Khans’ youngest child, Sajid (Jordan Routledge), and is infatuated with Sajid’s sister, Meenah (Archie Panjabi). Potentially more distressing to Mr. Moorhouse — if he finds out — is the fact that his own teenaged daughter Stella (Emma Rydal) is involved with Sajid’s good-looking older brother Tariq (Jimi Mistry): the teens spend much of their time sneaking kisses in the alley behind their homes. Mr. Moorhouse’s progeny thus make a mockery out his racist beliefs and racism in general. Along with its focus on the Khans’ many dilemmas, the film thus shows that, despite their grandfather’s efforts to the contrary, the Moorhouse children simply deal with their neighbors as people, as they’re growing up in a social climate that’s already far removed from the overt racism their grandfather assumes as “normal.”

Such changing attitudes mean that the real problem for the Khan children is not how to fit in with their English neighbors, but how to fit in within their own family. They struggle daily to strike a balance between opposing expectations and activities: taking Islam lessons and spending nights out at the local disco. Their father makes this struggle especially difficult: none of the seven are able to live up to his ideals, even when they do attempt to live by his rules. Nazir (Ian Aspinall), the eldest, flees the wedding ceremony on the day of his arranged marriage. After this, George declares him “dead,” and Ella and the other children must sneak out to the corner phone booth to speak to him without his father finding out. Meenah, the only girl, is a tomboy who prefers playing soccer (football) in the street to wearing traditional saris. In addition to dating Stella, Tariq spends his nights at the local disco, drinking and doing the hustle. His Austin Powers lifestyle goes against everything his father believes should constitute a “good Pakistani.” Saleem (Chris Bisson), George believes, is an engineering student. In truth, he attends a local art school, secreting money for supplies from his mother behind the unsuspecting back of George.

Sajid, the youngest, constantly wears a hooded parka (inadvertently resembling South Park‘s Kenny) and embarrasses his father when it is made public that he is uncircumcised. George can only regain face through the prompt removal of the unfortunate boy’s “tickle-teckle.” Maneer (Emil Marwa) is the closest to his father’s ideals, observing many Islamic customs (refusing to eat pork, praying five times daily, avoiding alcohol), yet George remains unsatisfied. And the final brother, Abdul (Raji James) goes along with this father’s wishes, just to keep peace: he’s willing to accept the arranged marriage his father plans for him and even seems pleased when he meets his decidedly uncomely betrothed.

Each child’s individual idiosyncrasies incur the disappointment and wrath of their father. Their mother can do little to protect them from George’s anger and, in a brutal scene, finds herself the victim of his misdirected anger. In this stifling environment, each child is each uniquely resistant and further bonded with his or her siblings, through the common experience of their father’s repression. These bonds are never more evident than when Tariq runs away from home, seeking to escape the arranged marriage his father has set in motion for him. Alone, Tariq heads for the nearest bus stop. Before long, however, he is joined by his girlfriend Stella, her friend Peggy (Ruth Jones), and his siblings Meenah and Abdul. Though he might imagine escaping his house, Tariq cannot escape his friends and family.

As East is East has it, family is the cause of, and solution to, the various problems facing the Khan children. The movie is careful not to gloss over the family experience as simply a good thing, where blood is thicker than water and love conquers all. Instead, the film more faithfully represents the Khan family for what it is: a group of strangers brought together through the accident of birth. The Khans spend a good deal of the movie fighting with one another as individual personalities spark clashes and conflicts.

Paradoxically, the very thing that holds them together is what threatens the family’s destruction, George’s harsh expectations: Ella and her children are brought together by their common experience of his tyrannical behavior. And still the film refuses to simplify its conflict to this opposition. When an enraged George takes out his frustrations on his son Maneer and wife Ella, beating them, the film refuses to paint him as simply the evil father. Instead, this scene is followed by one showing an ashamed and anxious George, desperately trying to explain to his son Tariq how important his for him to retain his Pakistani heritage and identity. East is East forces its audience to consider the Khans’ situation from a multiplicity of perspectives and, as a result, portrays the complexities of family dynamics, telling its story not in broad, stereotypical strokes, but in the fine, complex touches of reality. By not judging its characters, by refusing to smooth over the difficulties inherent in familial relationships, East is East stays true to the contradictions and intricacies that exist in all families. Ultimately, this film succeeds because its characters are not good nor evil, just believably human.

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