Ayub Khan-Din, the maker of East Is East, has struck cinematic alchemy. He turns the pain of his upbringing into comic and dramatic gold.
In 1971, in working-class Salford, England, disintegration is the watchword of the day - a humiliated Pakistan is torn in half by civil war, and George Khan (Om Puri) brings about the slow-motion explosion of his own family. Having left India in 1936, Khan has taken an English wife (Ella, played by Linda Basset) and has produced six sons and a daughter.
His days are divided between the fish-and-chip shop which supports them all and
the mosque that anchors his life as a Muslim. A dream of Pakistan serves as consolation
for the frustrations of his English life (while in the background, the real Pakistan
- a country created only in 1947, and which Khan may well have never visited -
lies humiliated by the breakaway of Bangladesh, ongoing internal corruption and
military defeats in Kashmir).
Khan tries to bully his children into a Muslim upbringing, going so far as to arrange marriages for his sons. Ella, meanwhile, is torn between her obligations to her husband and her own desire for the children's happiness; often running interference for them, she encourages them to pursue their own dreams of integration into the 1970s English life.
As the film opens, the resulting strains are tearing the family apart - one son flees his own wedding and vanishes, an increasingly desperate Khan resorts to physical violence to keep the others in line, and the children all live in various states of rebellion.
In lesser hands, this would be the stuff of an exotic-flavored movie-of-the-week; but Khan-Din, amazingly, avoids both sentimentality and sensationalism in constructing from this (autobiographical) material a story that blends legitimate pathos with laughs that literally knocked at least one audience member from his seat. The humor, while low and often raunchy, is far smarter than most Hollywood slapstick. The children engage in one forbidden (i.e. English) behavior after another, parading with their neighbors in observance of a Christian religious holiday, or wolfing down bacon and pork sausages while Dad's at the mosque. Whatever the source of the humor, the craft of the writing is undeniable. (No doubt this material was honed extensively when East Is East was first incarnated as a play.)
Many of the performances are standouts - besides Puri and Basset, Jimi Mistry warrants attention as the rebellious 70s-swinger son Tariq, as do Raji James as his too-straight-laced younger brother Abdul and Jourdan Routledge as the quick-witted youngest son Sajid. (One possible complaint is that the sheer number of sons in the Khan family makes it hard to keep them straight.)
The supporting cast of English and Pakistani figures - Tariq's English girlfriend, her unpleasingly plump sidekick and the buck-toothed brides-to-be for the arranged marriages of Tariq and Abdul - are mostly written and played for laughs, and come across as a bit thin, but in a film this good this is a small complaint.
Genuinely smart, hilarious, and touching, East Is East is one of the must-see
films of this year.