Rarely has a film blended earthy humor with powerful drama as
effectively as this marvelous filmization of Ayub Khan-Din’s
semi-autobiographical play by the young Irish director Damien
O’Donnell. The story is a conflict-of-generations tale, set
in a London suburb in 1971, and centered on a Pakistani
immigrant, George Khan (Om Puri), who has married a British
wife, Ella (Linda Bassett); together they run a small fish-
and-chips shop. They’ve also managed, over the years, to have
a large brood of children, from the eldest son Nazir (Ian
Aspinall) down to the youngest, Sajid (Jordan Routledge),
who’s apparently Khan-Din’s surrogate.

The difficulty that the close-knit but frequently battling
family members face, at a time when anti-immigrant feelings are
growing in British society as a whole (a phenomenon exemplified
in the rise of Enoch Powell to prominence), is that George is
determined to maintain Pakistani customs, especially when it
comes to the futures of his sons, whom he intends to marry off
in traditional arranged marriages. It’s the rebellion of his
children against his dreams and desires that acts as a
catalyst for the comedy and the drama of the piece. Much of
the film is decidedly funny, as George’s expectations come up
against the realities of swinging London in the seventies. Some
is poignant, as the children seek to find ways to get around
him. And, especially toward the close, there are incidents
that are shockingly harsh, especially when the patriarch turns
violent as his family opposes his plans.

What’s astonishing about “East is East” is how beautifully all
this material hangs together, despite the enormous variations
in tone it entails. Much of the credit must go to the fine
cast, especially Om Puri and Linda Bassett. The former brings
George to life with extraordinary skill; the father becomes
a figure whom a viewer can sympathize with while still
understanding the fear and resentment his children feel toward
him. Bassett is equally amazing as his long-suffering spouse
(he never neglects to remind her that he still has a first wife
in Pakistan he can go back to). Her attempts to mediate
between her husband and her kids are expertly caught, and when
at the end Ella must suffer George’s wrath and defend the
interests of her children against him and the in-laws he would
bring into the family, the effect is both very funny and
remarkably real. The young actors playing the Khan siblings
are uniformly appealing and capable; if one singles out
special praise for Routledge, as the tyke who insists on
perpetually wearing a hooded parka (probably as a shield
against the inevitable family quarrels), that shouldn’t be
taken as a slight to the others.

“East is East” will probably be a fairly hard sell to American
audiences, who will be mostly unfamiliar with the English
historical context and, with their love of big-budget action
flicks, are never inclined to embrace smaller films that have
the courage to be more complex than the feel-good foreign
pieces of whimsy that usually succeed on these shores. One
can only hope that it will buck the odds and gain wide
acceptance; it’s both an exceptionally funny and quite
affecting film.