A traditional Pakistani father finds his family spinning out of cross-cultural control in “East Is East,” a sprightly acted, warm and often extremely funny ensemble comedy set in early-’70s, northern working-class England. Though it tackles a serious subject in a broad, defiantly non-p.c. way, the pic’s sheer cheek and big-hearted approach to its characters is likely to turn this into a solid, specialized hit if the enthusiastic response by auds at its Cannes screenings is anything to go by.
Set in 1971 in Salford, near Manchester, where the spirit of the Swinging ’60s is still lingering, story centers on the Khan family, whose stern paterfamilias, George (vet Om Puri), rules over a brood of six sons and one daughter with an increasingly limp rod of iron. Meenah (Archie Panjabi) is a tomboy who prefers playing soccer in the street; Saleem (Chris Bisson) is meant to be studying engineering but really reckons himself an artist; handsome Tariq (Jimi Mistry) is canoodling with blonde Stella (Emma Rydal) down the street, and so on.
All of them speak English with solid northern accents, eat bacon and sausages when Dad isn’t around, and would rather do anything than go study Arabic at the makeshift local mosque.
Despite his adherence to traditional social ethics, the irony of George’s life is that his wife of 25 years and mother of his children is, in fact, English — the no-nonsense but devoted Ella (Linda Bassett), a salt-of-the-earth Lancastrian. And the family business couldn’t be more true Brit — a small fish-and-chips shop on the dreary street of row houses where they live.
Family life starts to unravel when eldest son Nazir (Ian Aspinall) leaves his arranged bride standing at the altar and runs away from home. Next, the Khans suddenly discover that youngest son Sajid (Jordan Routledge), who walks around in a parka like Kenny in “South Park,” hasn’t been circumcised yet — resulting in a hasty trip to the hospital.
George decides that the family needs to be brought into line, and secretly arranges for two of the sons, Tariq and Abdul (Raji James), to be married off to the daughters of a traditional family in nearby Bradford, which contains a much larger Pakistani community than George’s neck of the woods. The chance discovery by the two sons of their father’s subterfuge threatens to unglue the fragile structure of the family.
Intelligently opened out by writer Ayub Khan-Din from his play (first produced at London’s Royal Court Theater in 1996 and set to open imminently Off Broadway), and given plenty of energy by first-time feature helmer Damien O’Donnell’s lively direction, “East Is East” in fact recalls regional British pics of the ’60s far more than cross-cultural movies of the past two decades.
The slangy dialogue from which the pic draws so much of its flavor, the slightly exaggerated production and costume design and the broadly drawn, though ultimately sympathetic characters all neatly dovetail. The film doesn’t ignore the social and political realities of the time (such as Tory MP Enoch Powell’s controversial stance on immigration) but resolutely holds to the comic flipside rather than become mired in conventional social drama.
Pic’s refreshingly “incorrect” approach — not only to race relations — will test the parameters of some audiences’ tastes but is leavened by a general good-naturedness and warm humanity that few could argue with.
Veteran Indian thesp Puri has a ball as the patriarchal George, managing to steer a delicate line be-tween comedy and pathos without upsetting the general knockabout tone. He’s wonderfully supported by veteran Bassett (the original stage Ella), whose split loyalties to her kids and husband give the picture a strong emotional undertow in the final reels. Large cast of younger players, from Routledge’s put-upon Sajid to Mistry’s Westernized, womanizing Tariq, meld into a believable family.
O’Donnell, who’s previously made a clutch of award-winning shorts, gives the film a thoroughly pro look on an obvious budget, with Michael Parker’s trim editing and Deborah Mollison’s sparse but well-spotted score maintaining a brisk tempo. Mancunian accents pose no particular problems for non-British viewers, and the lively use of slang is accessible on a general level.