East is East (1999) emerged as a domestic hit when released in the UK, one of the first ethnic comedies skewering interactions between immigrants and “residents” of Western countries. Its sequel West is West had its North American premier at TIFF yesterday and, as its title suggests, backtracks to Mr. George Khan’s (Om Puri) native Pakistan. The humour is still present, now tempered with cultural introspection and identity searching.
George’s son Sajid (Aqib Khan) is growing up in no-man’s-land, otherwise known as Manchester, England, 1975. Mr. Khan and his British wife Ella (Linda Bassett) own a chip shop and eke out a living while sending checks East to George’s first spouse and extended family, whom he left for a new life.
Bullied for being foreign at school and slapped about by his perpetually unsatisfied father, Sajid has no interest or knowledge of his background. Aqib is jaded with a squinted look and fast with the insults, but he struggles during the film’s more emotional scenes. He is a newcomer to acting, but I’m sure we’ll see more of him.
Lamenting his son’s indifference, George hauls Sajid to Pakistan on a mission to relearn his roots. Soon George too is at school as the past he hasn’t seen for 30 years rears up in the form Mrs. Khan I (Ila Arun). Her appearance jolts the film out of its boisterous jokes and easy-going coming-of-age arc. It’s a good thing too, none the least for the acting. Arun is the picture of lost beauty and Puri’s face freezes in inertia at her sight.
For my money Puri is one of most natural actors ever on-screen, and one of the most revered. He can be pompous and curse Sajid like a broken record. Or he can pause, allow his eyes to wander over the dusty fields outside his village, letting the past overtake him.
While George re-acquaints himself with the community Sajid is taken under the wing of a wise old man (he is Rafiki down to the cane) whose parables start to widen Sajid’s squinted eyes. “I take the same path home every night,” he says, “But if one night I find a cobra lying in front of me, do I take a new path?” He nudges us towards the adaptation school of thought, suggesting immigrants should adapt to their new surroundings. This flexible attitude is behind West is West, but is not ham-fisted by producer Leslee Udwin or first-time director Antony DeEmmony.
Just as serious is George’s bigamy, made worse by the arrival of Ella. Bassett burns in her rage at being abandoned but is pulled aside by Mrs. Khan I. Neither character can understand each other’s language and yet it is the film’s most touching minute. Ella smiles and says “I don’t know what you’re saying but you sound kind.” Can we ask for more from two people from two worlds? In that scene is the complication of living multiculturally. They both say nice things, but are still, quite literally, talking past each other.
However, the dominant feeling of West is West is feel-good. These films, including Bend it Like Beckham and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, are predestined to end on a happy note. By the way, the previous sentence does not qualify as a spoiler. The homeward bound sequel reconciles pain and comfort with more aplomb than I expected (even critics (I should say wannabe critics) have expectations). Sajid comes out with the familiar but durable conclusion that he’s neither East nor West, but a little bit of both.