Back in the day, there was this drama teacher who I still consider to be one of the biggest positive influences of my life. Let’s not mention that she may have been stark raving mad, but she taught me to have an unshakeable belief in myself. I’ve never forgotten this lesson.
It was also this drama teacher that introduced me to East is East; a film I’ve recently re-watched and I’m now convinced was ahead of its time.
East is East is about a British-Pakistani family struggling to overcome several cultural differences.
The most surprising thing about East is East is how it doesn’t turn into a disaster of a movie based on the different themes and ideas it is trying to juggle. There is a hell of a lot of things going on in this film and I’m pretty sure that the 15 year old Bear missed quite a few back in school.
Before I get into the heavy emotional stuff, it’s important to make clear that East is East is a very funny film. Stomach achingly funny. The humour may get drowned out when the film gets dark and serious, but it always finds away to seep through the cracks of the heavy stuff. It is surprisingly and consistently funny.
With that said, it’s this consistent humour which makes the film’s drama elements feel pitch black. It’s strange, because I have watched this film a number of times and it feels like it has gotten a lot more sinister. I think about what has happened in the world since this film came out and it’s not surprising I feel that way.
The father’s inability to come to terms with the fact that his children will not accept the strict Muslim traditions of his native Pakistan is a subject matter that is more relevant today than it was back in the late 90’s.
I can’t remember how I felt in drama class, but watching the father arrange the marriage of his children is hard to take and hard to comprehend - especially through the eyes of an ethicist African Brit. What is devastating about the way the film depicts arranged marriage is how routine it appears to be within the community, how offended the potential bride’s parents are by George's son's rejection and how this ‘disrespect’ by his own flesh and blood sends George into an almost homicidal rage.
It’s horrible how real George feels in this film, I wanted him to be a caricature – credit to Om Puri, he’s terrifying.
Like I said earlier, the comedy is always bubbling underneath the surface and the film uses it to address the culture class issue further - whether it’s the children eating pig products or the youngest son needing a circumcision.
What makes this film ahead of its time is how it deals with the subject matter of religion and clashes in culture. It doesn’t overplay the religion card and I wonder if this would have been the case if it was released three years later. Islam is an important factor within film, but it isn’t the only factor to consider. It isn’t Islam that is the driving force to George’s madness, it’s his desire to exert control over his family and regain some respect.
I also think the ghost of George’s gay son sends him deeper down the rabbit hole than any other issue in the film.
What it does with Islam is use it to ask very interesting questions. Are the circular British culture (the sexual revolution culture) and the Pakistani/Muslim culture compatible? It doesn't bail the audience out and answer the question either.
This cultural compatibility question was asked of me and my family when we moved to the UK. I chose to wholeheartedly accept British culture, warts and all, but my parents wanted me to be as devoted to Christianity as they were back in the motherland.
I guess the difference is, my parents didn't violently try to make me conform. Fair enough, I still had to go to church and if I resisted I caught a wooping, but when I was old enough they simply accepted that it wasn't for me and we moved on.
You can’t watch this film without thinking about what 9/11 has done to the reputation of the Muslim family in the western world. What is most telling about this film to post 9/11 eyes is its complex depiction of family life in the Pakistani community. It is unburdened by the black and white broad strokes of the post 9/11 era. Things are very grey indeed.
It’s a very complicated film, and for me that is refreshing. Like I said earlier, there are a lot of things going on here; I forgot to even mention interracial relationships and racism as themes in this film.
This is a gem of a movie that I hope we don’t forget in a hurry.