Which Way Is East?

Badal's East

A kichri of themes tied by the thread of identity -- religious, gender, immigrant, generational, racial, and sexual (all spiced in one) -- East is East is a juicy slice of life of the mixed Anglo-Pakistani family under the Powell-Thatcher era of early seventies Britain. George Khan (played by Om Puri), a Pakistani immigrant grown angry and embittered, lives with his English wife, Ela (played by Linda Bassett), and seven "hybrid" children in a Manchester suburb. Attempting to preserve his Pakistani roots and Islamic culture, Khan desperately tries pass on his notions of values and tradition to his offspring, in an effort that becomes violent and abusive. More in beat with the free-spirited pop-hippie culture of the times, the kids rebel and find ingenious ways to navigate the pressures of living between urban youth subculture and the expectations of a father turned tyrant. The white mother caught between her husband and children, constantly buffers each side's conflicting desires.

East is East rejects puritanisms of all kinds, and celebrates -- in its own somewhat harsh terms -- the victory of "cross-breds" over the "in-breds." This ray of hope is perhaps most aptly embodied in the last exchange between the little white boy and Khan, when the former greets the latter with a "salaam 'aleikum," evoking a tender and touching response from the pained man. The film's primary focus is on the Khan family and their negotiation process to define not only their individual grips on their familial fabric, but also their collective position as a cross-cultural entity. The film not only presents a dialogue between two cultures as embodied by the parents, but also that which takes place between the family as a negotiated unit and the larger dominant mainstream culture. This culture is shown as one characterized by cultural, racial and religious homogeneity. Using peripheral characters such as the bigoted white neighbor and scattered shots of Powellian campaign posters, the film attempts to highlight and denounce the strong anti-immigrant sentiment that marked the era.

The children (or in George's caricaturized personal code, "the bastards") comprise the nucleus of the film's energy. Their assertion of their mixed identity in a white, racist neighborhood is a spirited struggle. A scene in which Meenah (the spunky daughter) kicks a soccer ball through a neighbor's window and the head of the Powell poster taped to it epitomizes this struggle. The narrative also includes an engaging (though much simplified) discourse of the orthodoxy of Pakistani Islam. It is neither surprising nor disconcerting that the kids, essentially products of western society, have a love-hate relationship with their South Asian heritage. As most second generation immigrants, they rejoice and take refuge in it on their own terms, as seen during Meenah's impromptu footwork to Inhi Logon Ne or the family viewing of Chaudhvi ka Chaand. For all their rebellion, mockery and bacon-eating behind their father's back, however, they also share an understanding for Islam's role in their father's life. So they squirm through Sunday school, are tickled by circumcisions while they tackle purdah, and take on this familiar yet not so familiar culture with true sportsmanship. It is in this context that one of the sons, Tariq, harshly declares that he's "not marrying a fucking Paki." This need not be seen as anything more than an outburst against his father's attempts to wed him in to the community against his will. The children, especially young Sajjid, lend the film a spectrum of endearing quirks with a youthful energy that is both refreshing and hilarious.

The sensitivity bestowed to the characters of George and Ela, and their relationship together, is key to understanding what the film sets out to do. For all his tyranny, George Khan radiates a humanity and warmth, which can't help but engender some degree of compassion. Here is a man stuck between a rock and a hard place. Socially ostracized by his own community for marrying a white woman and culturally unaccepted by the white mainstream, Khan is a tormented soul clinging desperately to his religious cultural identity. As a result he seems to put all his eggs in one basket, seeking his own redemption through his children. His grand expectations of them becoming the torchbearers of his tradition are steadily shattered as the kids defect one by one, further fueling his agony and desperation. His earnest confusion evidenced by his constant inquiries about where he has gone wrong to the maulvi dwells on his essential geniality. As do his constant entreaties to his children that he is only trying to help and look after them. Nevertheless, the extent of his abuse -- physica and verbal -- inflicted upon the rest of the family, particularly

Ela, considerably undermines his character.

Ela, on the other hand, is the more realistic of the two. She is understanding and compassionate to the plight of her children as well as the predicament of her husband, and is often torn between the two. She seems to accept her husband's need to raise their children as Muslims, while at the same time protects their aspirations from being squashed by their father's orthodoxy. She faces no qualms in exposing George's internal contradictions when required. In numerous instances, including the final climactic showdown, she rightfully takes him to task on his sexist/patriarchal tendencies, be it over his need for her to be "a good Muslim wife" when it suits his purpose or his demands that she take "her" children and leave "his" house

As South Asians, there is no denying that our communities -- especially those in the diaspora -- are often caught between the opposing pulls of (often backward) cultural conventions and individual freedoms. These conflicts have pronounced social costs and thus deserve inspection. An in- depth examination is prerequisite to understanding some of these complex issues. While East is East tackles many of the issues arising from this struggle, it also leaves many intricate subtleties of this skirmish unaccounted. George's character raises the question of whether the film's portrayal of the dogmatic Muslim man was necessary in capturing all of the above. Unrelenting fundamentalism, gender inequality, and repression of the individual are concepts much too often associated with a stereotyped notion of Islam. This view is based more on fiction than fact. All of the featured Muslims -- Khan's counsel, the prospective father-in-law, the Branford "men's club", the family of the prospective brides -- are caricaturized as pig-headed patriarchs or patriarchal victims, so immersed in their anachronistic value-code that they are rendered incapable of respecting their next of kin. Instances when the film could mitigate such perceptions at little or no cost to the narrative structure fail to do so. During the family visit to Branford, Ela consoles the distraught white wife of their Pakistani host. Unlike George, her husband not only attempted but successfully arranged their daughter's marriage and sent her away to Pakistan. One is left to wonder why this mother agonized at her daughter's loss could not have been depicted as a Pakistani woman.

In spite of these shortcomings, the film has plenty to offer. A multi-layered, gripping performance by Puri and a tender, glowing performance by Bassett are highlights. Adapted from an highly acclaimed autobiographical play written by Ayub Din Khan (one of the half-English, half-Pakistani "bastards"), the film is steeped in thoroughly enjoyable, unabashed humor. If director Damien O'Donnell's claim, that Khan is not representative of all Pakistani culture, but rather "one man in a unique situation," is to be taken at face value then the film does radiate a resiliency of spirit and an irrepressible buoyancy. Needless to say, with controversy or lack thereof, this film is worth a watch.

Sujani's East

The charming and seemingly innocuous movie East is East provides us with the following answer: it is not West. The answer begins with the title, East is East, which leaves the audience with few directional options. As we follow the film's story-line we can see this directional impasse transform into a full movement, one that gains much of its force and momentum from the film's socio-historical setting. It is the early 1970s, the dawn of the Thatcher/Powell era in British politics. This period also marks a high point for commonwealth migration to the heart of former empire, when shifting global political and economic power dynamics force ex-colonials to Great Britain's door. As the influx of immigrants asserted visual and cultural presence in urban centers, they upset the sense of what it meant to be traditionally "British" and forced the state to redefine the boundaries around this "Britishness." At the head of this offensive was Enoch Powell, who led a successful campaign to pass a series of exclusionary measures aimed specifically at "coloured" ex-colonial subjects. One of the main arguments against these immigrants was the claim that they were indelibly foreign, unable to assimilate, and thus should not be allowed into the nation. At specific moments East is East highlights this political context by including several shots of Powellian campaign posters, and by introducing several minor characters who are staunch Powell supporters and who view their Pakistani neighbors with suspicion and distaste. These are, admittedly, minor characters, and the movie focuses instead on a mixed immigrant family. Rather than using this focus to effectively argue against the anti-immigrant setting, however, East is East corroborates it in several subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

The most obvious example is its stereotyped portrayal of a resistant, patriarchal, dogmatic, and monolithic Islamic culture embodied by George Khan, played by Om Puri. Most important in this context is the way in which Pakistani Islamic culture is depicted as unable and unwilling to assimilate into the more liberatory, loose, and hybrid offerings of its host society. The main character who represents the flip-side of this caricatured Islam is George's loyal and hardworking British wife, Ela, played by Linda Bassett. Ela is one of the most sympathetic characters in the film. She is the one who bears the brunt of her husband's abusive dogmatism, serving as a buffer between him and their mixed children. I wish we could read the sufferings and resiliency of this mother figure in East is East as a much needed critique of patriarchy (not necessarily specific to Pakistani culture). The film, however, produces a far more troubling sexual and racial dynamic that instead reinforces its anti-immigrant flavor. In East is East, the alliance between white and immigrant and working class cultures, symbolized by the marital union of George and Ela, results in an abusive dynamic where the white working class representative is on the losing end. This is in spite of all of her work to help her immigrant husband assimilate and her labor, which produces the material means for him to do so. This division of class along the lines of race is one of the most tried and true neoconservative strategies for rallying vertically around race and preventing potentially progressive horizontal alliances along class lines.

But there is another question that Ela raises with full-force: where are all the South Asian women? They are absent, or at the very least characterized as the thing that South Asian men, and by extension the population at large, must fear. The movie opens with a scene that explicitly rejects their presence, as George and Ela's eldest son flees his marriage to a "traditional" Pakistani Muslim woman. After this, the only South Asian women to appear in the entire move are the grotesquely caricatured and entirely ridiculed prospective wives for George's children, and it is their heavy presence that ultimately forces his sons to finally reject their father and the culture he embodies. Their one daughter, a playful and charming, but nevertheless bratty child, does little to alleviate the need for a positive image of South Asian women. All of this signals not only a fear of South Asian women but also the fear of South Asian settlement and propagation on British soil (which to many minds requires stable South Asian family structures), a potential problem that looms large in the minds of those opposed to postcolonial migration of the wrong sort. If East is East is a rejection of Pakistani patriarchs, it moves beyond rejection to an outright negation of Pakistani women. We are left asking: if this is the present, what about the future? The most logical place to look for a ray of light are George and Ela's mixed children. Instead, these characters eventually come, one by one, to reject their father's dogmatism. How could they not, given the stereotyped choices that the movie offers? (The one son that does seem to stick to Islamic culture is the butt of many jokes, and a minor character at best.) Their response overall is to side with their long-suffering mother. This is not so much a choice as an inevitability given the wretched family dynamic that develops over the course of the movie. As viewers we too will fall on this side -- how could we not, given our humanity? In this way East is East asks us to join the children in a crescendo to the chorus of rejections that it develops. It is difficult to read this as something merely specific to the autobiographical depiction of a particular family given the film's socio-historical context, one which East is East does not attempt to hide or complicate in any meaningful way.

One last objection can be raised: How much does all of this matter? Indeed, it can be argued that mine is far too critical a reading, overly analytical and drawing on historical and literary settings that would not register for the typical North American viewer. So be it. This is what makes it all the more pertinent. South Asians are a much more familiar "problem" in Great Britain than the United States. We are now at a moment, however, when South Asians are gaining increasing visibility in North America, and in New York in particular. For this reason the timing of East is East's release here could not be more critical. If the movie's anti-immigrant stance were violent and open for all to easily interpret then we could easily dismiss it as such. Instead, as it comes cloaked in relatively unfamiliar references and genuinely comedic and touching moments, it is not necessarily seen as such. It quickly becomes one of the few resources available to North American viewers as they attempt to understand the impact and implications of an increasingly visible South Asian presence. Thus, it happily sits in our minds until it becomes a point of reference for understanding complicated political moments, such as the movement for social justice waged by New York's South Asian taxi drivers (in alliance with other immigrants of color). This is why it is crucial to draw out the larger social context of the movie, as anti-immigrant sentiment re-codes itself at our current conjuncture.


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