Coverage of the West is West Q&A from the London Film Festival…
- Ayub Khan-Din (Writer)
- Lesley Nicol (Anne)
- Ila Arun (Basheera)
- Aquib Khan (Sajid)
- Emil Marwa (Maneer)
- Om Puri (George)
It’s been eleven years since the first film (East is East) which was very successful. It seems an extraordinary long time for a sequel when in general sequels tend to get rushed out. Explain a little why it’s taken so long.
Ayub: Before I was writing I was an actor and writing was just something I did as a hobby between jobs. I had written East is East in around ’82/’83 when I was at drama school and again much later, I think it was ’89/’90, I wrote a film called Riffle Was Here which was basically West is West. It was the follow on from East is East. After East is East came out I didn’t think about writing a sequel to it. Riffle Was Here was around. The “huge-ness” of the success of East is East was off putting. Also, having seen lots of other sequels that didn’t quite capture the original of that author was a stumbling block for me. But then a couple of years ago I stared looking a the script for Riffle Was Here and I just kind of thought what was important was to create a film that was a story in itself. You wouldn’t have to refer back to East is East, it had to be a stand alone story for me. And also for me, the worst thing about sequels is they do try to go back and do the same kind of gags and things that the earlier film did. So for me this film had to move forward, both emotionally and with the comic stance as well.
The film started off very light hearted and then developed well into a deeper area. When is the next part of the trilogy going to be?
Ayub: The thing about trilogies is that people always look at the first and second films. I don’t know probably this year or next year. I’m thinking about it now.
Three of our guests here are returning from the first film. Om, you return as the fearsome George. It must be strange coming back to a character after so long. How did it feel?
Om: It feels normal to me. The way George Khan gradually develops in East is East, I look at him at the end of the film as a mellowed person. When he’s about to hit his wife, Emil (Mandeer) grabs his hand and looks straight into his eyes and that’s where I tried to interpret that in George Khan’s eyes, the feeling is that his empire is over. He can’t take the children for granted any more and therefore he has to change his perspective and he has to behave himself. He spends the entire night in the chip shop. In the morning when Ella finds him sitting there on a chair and she asks him if he wants a cup of tea he says “I’ll have half a cup”. In this film he’s a much mellowed George Khan who’s matured, who’s full of guilt, embarrassment, awkwardness, especially when his British wife, without announcing it, lands in Pakistan and he’s totally dumbfounded. He doesn’t know how to react and how to handle this enourmous situation.
How much research did you have to put in for the script [for growing up in a mixed race household]?
Ayub: East is East is pretty autobiographical. The parents were directly drawn from my own parents. In my family there were ten kids, but unfortunately with the play [East is East was originally a stage play], and also with the film, we couldn’t afford to have a bigger cast so it was all kind of condensed down. All the arguments, like the children arguing in East is East, I formed in my own head over a period of time. it’s not something you think about when you’re a kid, you just duck. With my Dad basically you just ducked down quick and let the next one get it! So you don’t really think in those kind of terms about the wider argument, it’s only later on when I started writing East is East that I tried to understand his perspective on life, who he was, how he thought our lives should be. It was only at that time, much later, that those arguments kind of formed, and I automatically started drawing on experiences and situations that happened to me. West is West again is based on my experience. I got sent to Pakistan when I was twelve years old. I was wagging school, doing a bit of shop lifting, just being a horrible teenager. My brother was already out there and my parents thought it might be a good idea to get rid of me for a year for me to look at a different life outside of Salford. I did go there and I ran riot for a year. My Dad’s first wife and family weren’t keen on me, I wasn’t keen on them and we were just kind of knocking heads all the time. But again much later when I came to start writing West is West, after East is East there were a lot of unanswered questions. People wanted to know more, people wanted to specifically know more about that woman in Pakistan and about the daughters and about the children. For me I thought I want to know more. All I knew was the antagonism that we had, but I really wanted to explore how that woman felt. After thirty five years suddenly he [George] sends two boys who turn up on her doorstep. It enabled me to try and get into her skin and to try and tell her story.
Emil: Well I was first part of the stage play and being mixed race myself I drew from my own experience. What was nice was reading West is West and actually seeing that my character had a nicer journey if you like, a more mature journey. He becomes a man, he is standing up to his father which he doesn’t have the opportunity to do in East is East. It was great for me as an actor to take that character on further and develop him in such a way. Ayub wrote it in such a way that it gives Maneer [his character] a chance to sort of develop out of this religious zone where he’s desperately trying to please his father. He goes to Pakistan in order to find a wife but at the same time he learns that things aren’t the way his father told him they were, and that’s what gives him the strength to stand up to him. And eventually, luckily enough, he finds himself a wife.
Aquib, this is your first acting experience and you’re taking over, if you like, a character [Sajid] that was rather well loved first time around. That must have been quite a challenge?
Aquib: Yeah, nearly everyone I know has seen East is East so I knew it would be pretty challenging but I thought I’d relate myself towards him because I am an annoying little teenager! So actually it was pretty easy!
So some experiences you have in the film, are they from real life too?
Aquib: Yeah there were some experiences from real life. I have lived in some areas around where I live, in Bradford, which were pretty racist and me being British Pakistani I could draw from those experiences and add it towards this film. He [Sajid] experiences racism from both sides not just from the white culture but the Pakistani culture as well. When he goes there they say “who’s this little English boy?”
What were the challenges, if any, when scripting this film to make it appear as a stand alone film?
Ayub: I think the major challenge for me, even before I started writing it, was thinking about Ella and the first wife in Pakistan. It was one of the most important issues in the film, that these two people have to communicate in some way. Every time I started thinking about it I was coming up against a brick wall because technically one spoke English and one spoke Punjabi so to have a third party in that scene that they have together in the film would have been taking away from it. And then it suddenly dawned on me that it didn’t matter that they didn’t speak the same language because they were talking about the one person they both loved, in a different way, but it was the one person they were both focusing on at that point. They communicate through the gestures they make. I wanted to be really clear when I was writing about that, about the way they both touched things and touched each other. Until I got that, that was the most difficult part of the project for me. Once that had happened so many different things started falling into place. I wanted to tell Basheera’s story well, without just being about this angry woman who had been abandoned thirty five years before. I wanted to make her a rounded character so you could understand exactly who she was and the decisions that she was going to make about this relationship and this man. A lot of the groundwork had gone in when I wrote Riffle Was Here so it wasn’t just jumping in to something that was completely new. I had a rough outline from the original script I started to write that I could follow. I was also trying to follow on from East is East so I had to decide to take only two of the boys. It was hard to discard those other characters because they were fantastic and needed to have a voice as well but I thought at this point the two most important were Sajid, the youngest boy, an Maneer the religious boy. Both those characters had to have a Road to Damascus moment.
Ila, you are new cast member is this potential saga. When you read the script how truthful did you feel it was from when you first saw it?
Ila: Like Ayub said, my character was genuinely a very well written role, and I can see thousands of such women who are forced to be silent. I could see their pain, so for me to get into that role it’s emotional, for any woman not just Pakistani. So for this fantastic role I can give what a woman can give, all the emotions. I [as the character] was told be silent for all those years, I don’t just want to speak for two minutes now.
Ila and Aquib, what was it like joining an already established cast, and also for everyone, what challenges did you face shooting in India?
Aquib: At first I found it pretty hard to blend in to the family, but I just thought ‘I am Sajid’, he is me now, and pretended the character hasn’t changed. Going to India was fantastic, it was the first time I’ve been there, I love the climate obviously, coming from rainy Britain! I stayed there for six or seven weeks. I’ve been to Pakistan before so it’s a lot like that, I could speak the language so it was great.
Ila: I always felt I was part of the family as Mrs Khan number one! So I’m shocked when [speaking in character] my husband comes back with these two sons who will take their own time to adjust. I felt absolutely at home. I think it was a difficult job for George (Om Puri) who ignored me, left and created his own world. I was waiting for them to come back and for me it wasn’t a problem.
Lesley you are another returning character [as Auntie Annie]. What were the challenges you faced in India?
Lesley: To be honest there weren’t really any challenges. It was one of those dream jobs. I’ve been a part of this whole East is East project, and West is West, for fourteen years. We did the stage play together, it’s been a family affair for a very long time. Weirdly Ayub [writer] and I had been working together in a television drama when he handed me the script and said ‘do you want to have a look at this?’ It’s been a project very close to our hearts, still is. India is beyond wonderful and I can’t wait to go back. All the crew their, the Indian crew, and to have Ila there was a great privilege and everyone was wonderful as always. It was a very very happy job and I feel lucky to have been there.
Ayub, were you conscious to portray a more positive image of Pakistan than we often see in the media over here , and were would you take the trilogy in the third part? Would we be following them once they [the Khan family] got back to the UK?
Ayub: So many things happened after East is East, like the bombings in London. No matter what I did people were going to refer back to that. I was writing about the Pakistan I saw in 1974 when I was there. You can’t make references to what’s going on today and what’s happening in Pakistan now. I didn’t attempt that, I just wanted to portray what I saw at the time and put my characters into that period. In terms of what’s going to happen next I can’t really say yet! George has got an understanding with his younger son and at the end of East is East there was a kind of ‘live and let live’ situation that was going on with the older sons. He hasn’t really come to turn with his older sons and his older sons haven’t really come to terms with him yet. There has to be a situation that brings those people together. Even being brought together by an emotional situation, whether or not they’ll walk away with any further understanding of each other I’ve yet to kind of develop.
Om, if you could chose what Ayub wrote about you [as George] for the third film what would you like him to do with your character?
Om: I want to live with both the women!
Aquib, this is your first film, and a major role, how did that feel? And on the subject of this being a trilogy is it going to be set in the 70’s/80’s again or are you going to bring it to 2010/2011?
Ayub: No it’s going to be around the time I left school so ’77, ’78, late seventies, early eighties.
Lesley: Well the clothes are fabulous!
And Aquib, how did this first major role feel and did anything go wrong at all?
Aquib: I wouldn’t say anything went wrong, it was all smooth. I just tried not to think about it because I knew if I thought about it there’d be pressure and I might break down! I just thought ‘this is my new family for six weeks’ and to just blend in. I just thought ‘I’m Sajid now’, it’s pretty easy to play, that’s it!
It’s been eleven years now, and I remember when East is East came out and it felt like a landmark, a chance to see Asians in a great British film. There have been more representations since so I wondered what the panel thought of the intervening years, whether we’ve [Asians] been represented more on screen.
Om: I’m not really familiar because I don’t live here.
Emil: I’m thinking off the top of my head, Slumdog Millionaire. Well actually that’s set in India isn’t it. We’re talking Bend It Like Beckham, It’s A Wonderful Afterlife, Gurinder [Chadha]’s films. Basically I can only think of Gurinder’s films, so in answer to that I would have to say not really.
Ayub let me just come to you with this. I remember talking to you a few years ago and you saying that there had been a very limited representation, an almost patronising wave of Asian characters. I think you yourself were in something like London Bridge, a television series, then things perked up a bit. What’s your observation?
Ayub: It changes. When I came out of drama school, the only representation we [Asians] had in the media was we either played shopkeepers or were beaten up by skinheads, or we were just being allowed to be doctors. But it gets better. Without My Beautiful Laundrette [a British film from 1985] there wouldn’t have been Brothers in Trouble [another British Asian film from 1995, also starring Om Puri], without those two there wouldn’t have been East is East. Every generation moves it on a little step more. It’s hard enough getting films made whether you’re Asian or not, the money isn’t there. There’s even less money there now because of the cut to the UK Film Council, which was a major mistake. They kind of supported young black filmmakers, and I include everyone in that [Asian, Indian, Pakistani filmmakers]. It was a place where young black filmmakers were helped, were encouraged. We’ve still got Channel 4, Film 4 and the BBC but it much smaller ways. But it helps every time a film like East is East or Bend It like Beckham comes out, it just pushed to the fore that black stories are mainstream, it doesn’t just have to be specifically about black problems. Emotions are universal. Every film that comes along helps that.
Read our review of West is West here.
Jon Dudley is a freelance film and television journalist and his 17-minute short film Justification was shown at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.