West is West, 2010.
Directed by Andy DeEmmony.
Starring Aqib Khan, Om Puri, Linda Bassett, Robert Pugh, Emil Marwa and Jimi Mistry.
The dysfunctional Khan family continues to struggle for survival in the North of England during the 1970s. Under heavy assault from his father’s tyrannical insistence on Pakistani tradition, 15-year-old Sajid is packed off to the Punjab to stay with the wife and daughters George abandoned 30 years earlier.
West is West is the follow up to the critically acclaimed British success East is East (1999). And as the title of the film suggests it takes a look at the Khan family in a different setting from their last outing in Salford. This film follows George Khan (Om Puri) and his youngest son Sajid (Aquib Khan) when they go to Pakistan to visit the religious son from the first film Mandeer (Emil Marwa) and the family George left behind when he moved to England thirty years ago.
Right from the off we are introduced to George the way most people remember him – dominating and the head of his family. In the opening scene he is marching Sajid to school (he has been bunking off as he is being racially bullied) and telling his highly tolerant wife Ella (Linda Bassett) what food to buy from the shop. At the end of East is East there is a subtle sign that George has changed his ways slightly, but will the same happen in this film?
Mandeer is struggling to find a wife out in Pakistan due to his father’s reputation. When George returns to his homeland he struggles to accept the fact he is not respected and welcomed as much as he would have liked. After being caught skipping school and being arrested for shop lifting George drags Sajid along with him to teach him some respect. George says of Sajid “He [does] not know who he is.” The same can be said about George.
What made the first film interestingly funny was the Khan family dynamic: George wanted his children to be raised as traditional Pakistani muslims in England but they wanted to live freely and do what they wanted. This time around they have all flown the nest, although we see a brief glimpse of rebellious son Tariq (Jimi Mistry) who is now working in a hippy boutique. In the first forty minutes or so I couldn’t help but feel like the humour was forced somewhat. Now that the dysfunctional family dynamic was not there, or at least not on the same level, the laughs felt like they were thrown in as an attempt just to entertain. However having said that when Ella and her sister Anne (Lesley Nicol) arrive without warning in Pakistan to see why George hasn’t come home, their whole ‘fish out of water’ situation is genuinely funny. There is a great scene when Anne is telling George’s first wife Basheera (Ila Arun), who doesn’t speak a word of English, how much she likes her kebabs, “and I know kebabs” she says of herself. In a later scene Anne has to go to the toilet outside, to which Ella gives her advice to “just let it go and think of Salford.”
The language barrier also plays a huge part in one of the most poignant scenes I have scene in a British film for a long while. Basheera and Ella have an altercation when they first cross paths, however during a sand storm they are alone in a room and instead of tempers flaring Basheera tries to explain that she knows that George is no longer in her heart, he is now part of Ella’s. The writer of both films, Ayub Khan-Din, said the scene where Basheera and Ella communicate with each other was very hard to write because of the language barrier, but after several drafts he realised that language wasn’t needed to give the scene relevance and purpose.
But it is arguable that this film is a coming of age tale about Sajid, the youngest member of the Khan clan. The divide between the Western and Eastern cultures is kept at the front of people’s minds due to Sajid’s behaviour. He arrives in Pakistan not wanting to learn about the culture or meet his distant relatives. He insists on wearing a suit George bought him and is reluctant to wear traditional Pakistani attire. When Sajid feels more settled, which is mainly down to his blossoming friendship with a local Sufi (holy man) and a goat herder called Zaid, he gets fitted with more suitable clothing and declares “comfortable, I feel comfortable,” both in the clothes and in his heritage.
And it is not just Sajid who has a change of heart whilst in Pakistan. Basheera says of George “I don’t know who he is, George or Jahangir (his traditional name)”. By the end of the film he finds out.
In the production notes producer Leslee Udwin says “the most unique and valuable gift we can give to our fellow beings is the freedom to be different from us and the understanding of what it is that makes them different.” And that is what the characters, especially George, learn over the course of the film.
Although many people will have seen East is East, those who haven’t will still be able to enjoy this film on its own level as a stand-alone movie. On the relevance of the story of West is West writer Khan-Din says “There are a lot of people who understand what it means to come back home and rediscover roots, and to trace the fact that in this process of leaving and coming back, you also become a bit of both.” This analyses can be adapted for many situations, for example moving from your hometown to live in an unfamiliar city, however throw it in a cultural context and it’s meaning becomes all the more powerful.
West is West is a beautiful film that, like its characters, is more mature than East is East. There is a lot of growing up in this film and that is something audiences will find interesting to watch and emotionally engaging. Whether you have seen the first film or not I highly recommend you catch this one.
Jon Dudley is a freelance film and television journalist and his 17 minute short film Justification was shown at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
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