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'East is East'

Pakistani family juggles comedy and conflict in 'East is East'

Friday, May 26, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's no wonder that young Sajid Khan won't remove his hooded parka -- ever. Even in the house. Even while lying in a hospital bed after undergoing a circumcision because his Pakistani father belatedly discovered the youngest of his six sons wasn't like the others.

'East Is East'

Rating: R for language, sexual content and some domestic violence

Starring: Om Puri

Director: Damien O'Donnell

Web site:

Critic's call: 3 stars


There is enough inherent conflict in the Khan household in Manchester, England, in 1971 to make anyone want to withdraw like a turtle now and then.

The unruly household in "East Is East" is run with a stern hand by George Khan (Om Puri), who left Pakistan for Britain, fell in love with a red-haired Englishwoman named Ella (Linda Bassett) and married her in 1946. They opened a fish and chips shop and had six sons and one daughter whom George considers Pakistanis but who think of themselves as English and act accordingly.

Girls in white go-go boots may be flocking to the discos, but George is busy arranging marriages for his sons. The eldest, Nazir, bolts from the ceremony, to George's shame and incomprehension. And just like on "The Sopranos," where Tony's mother is dead to him, Nazir is now dead to his father. George removes his photo from the family gallery, not realizing that Ella and the others secretly keep in touch.

Everyone but George, in fact, is dancing as fast as they can -- hopping from one world to the next. One minute the offspring are carrying a crucifix and statue of the Virgin Mary through the neighborhood streets, the next they're off to class at the mosque. One minute they're snacking on freshly fried sausage in the house, the next they're emptying a can of air freshener because their father is at the door.

Only one of the sons, Maneer, is a devout Muslim who follows his father's ways -- until he goes too far one day. George arranges for two of his sons, handsome Tariq (Jimi Mistry) who slips out at night to meet a neighborhood blonde at a club and dutiful Abdul (Raji James), to marry a pair of sisters. And what a pair!

Like cold and warm fronts colliding in the upper atmosphere, the age-old Pakistani customs crash into the modern, rebellious English ways. And what happens isn't pretty, although some of it is awfully funny.

"East Is East," opening today at the Squirrel Hill Theater, is a comedy firmly rooted in a period and a place that takes a serious turn by the end. It, disappointingly, fails to explain how George made peace with his paradoxical choices and yet its examination of rebellion and family bedlam cuts across class, ethnic and time lines.

Screenwriter Ayub Khan-Din says the parents in the film, adapted from his play of the same name, are "drawn directly from my parents, and what you see in the film is more or less my family. But obviously every family goes through some of these same situations."

Khan-Din and director Damien O'Donnell collaborated on a fresh, funny, touching and winning work that is illuminated by good performances from the adults and children.

As the patriarch, Puri manages to be sympathetic, puzzling (he refuses to see that his sons crave the very freedom he sought) and yet unyielding and abusive. Although he also portrayed a Pakistani in "My Son the Fanatic," Puri is, in fact, Indian.

In the original stage production, Bassett also played Ella, a woman who loves her husband and yet understands her children's need for freedom and choice. She may be in a mixed-race marriage, but she resonates with mothers everywhere who must play peacemakers.

Another holdover from the play and standout is handsome lothario Mistry, who appeared in Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" and the British soap "Eastenders." And huddled beneath that furry parka as Sajid is a 13-year-old novice named Jordan Routledge, who was chosen from a field of 400 candidates.

The summer movies are coming at us fast and furiously -- and with high-decibel sound effects and soundtracks. "East Is East" provides a funny, foreign and yet familiar refuge.

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