Small time British film ‘East is East’ (1999) was a stealthy smash hit taking an estimated £10 million at the UK box office and a subsequent £12 million in DVD sales and rentals despite only costing around £2 million to make. The reason for its success? It’s vivid, hilarious and often bitingly painful portrayal of the Khans, a large family of English and Pakistani descent torn between Islamic tradition and British culture in 1970s Salford.
It is the kind of story that really embeds itself in a national consciousness. Repeated endlessly on television, rented out, downloaded and rewound by hundreds of thousands of us, it’s stock phrases – ‘Tickle tackle,’ ‘I’ll have half a cup’- are instantly recognisable. Over a decade since it hit our screens a sequel to Ayub Khan Din’s semi-autobiographical screenplay is being released, for which most of the stellar ‘Khan family’ cast reprise their roles.
Set just four years after the original, when Khan Din’s alter ego, the youngest Khan, Sajid, is about 15, ‘West is West’ moves the action from Manchester backstreets to rural Pakistan. The authoritarian, George ‘Genghis’ Khan (the always brilliant Om Puri), is a belligerent figure, seen in 'East is East' lashing out at his put-upon wife (the excellent Linda Bassett) when his children defy him, whisks Sajid (last seen as a cheeky duffle coat-clad 11 year old) off to Pakistan to drum a mixture of cultural identity and discipline into him.
Puri says it was “surprisingly easy” to slip back into character ten years on. The only thing the Indian-born actor found tricky was the accent “because it was a bit of a mixture” with phrases and intonations George would have picked up from his Mancunian wife. Puri agreed to do the second film before there was even a script. Speaking of 'West is West,' he describes how “struggle and pain” led the character to bring his youngest son to Pakistan – something that might surprise an audience often unsure whether the vocal and easily provoked George is lovable or loathe-able.
“In this film people will see another aspect of George Khan. One that is capable of emotions and is human...I don’t consider him to be a demon,” he says. Puri’s assessment of a patriarch who left his first wife and daughter in Pakistan to come to England, where he married Ella and had six more children, is revealing: “His English wife, who is educated and broad minded, would have left him if the character was truly as he is portrayed in the script...”
“When his son runs away from the marriage ceremony [in the first film] he is devastated. He feels shame. He feels he has to handle his other children but he doesn’t have a voice. He cannot argue with them because they are school-going children and he’s not as articulate as they are. Therefore he uses his fist, his physicality to control them. That’s the only weapon he has.”
Aqib Khan, who plays Sajid, is a new addition to the cast. After ten years Jordan Routledge, who played Sajid in ‘East is East’, was too old to reprise the teenage role. When we see him in ‘West is West’, Sajid is wildly unhappy due to racist bullying at school. His waywardness, truanting and shoplifting follows the pattern of his five siblings’ earlier defiance - sausage-eating, arranged marriage sabotaging and flared trouser-wearing. Most teenagers would have been terrified at the prospect of taking on the nation’s expectations of what Sajid would grow into. But Aqib, who was plucked straight out of his Bradford school with no acting training, took it all in his stride.
“My head of year gave me an audition slip. I’d never done acting before but my best mate was like ‘Yeah, yeah go for it and then you’ll get lots of money’ and my family said I should give it a go,” he says. Having been the last of 200 hopefuls to audition in Leeds, Aqib was cast after a second London audition a couple of weeks later. “I was in the back garden with my baby sister when we got the phone call. I was jumping all over the moon! I couldn’t stop screaming!”
‘West is West’ is partially a coming of age story for Sajid. When he first arrives in Pakistan it is certainly a culture shock – no electricity, no flushing toilets and his father’s first family to contend with. There’s a comedic moment when an astonished Sajid shouts “Camels!”, pointing idiotically at some – something for which Aqib’s friends have since mocked him endlessly, he says. It is the next instalment of Khan Din’s own life story, something which, Sajid says, was joyfully affirmed when the screenwriter rang him after filming to tell him “You got my character spot on.”
“‘West is West’ again is based on the fact that I was that boy,” Khan Din told the BBC recently. “I did suffer a lot of racism in school, I did truant, I did petty shoplifting. I wasn't caught by the police but I was sent to Pakistan for a year…So I went from Salford in 1974 to Pakistan where there was no electricity, the water came from a well and there were no toilets.”
The new film doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. An audience expecting more verbal chivvying in the chippy will be disappointed. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance by Jimi Mistry and other potential highlights are glossed over far too quickly. The story is strong and the characters remain sparkling. However, much of the caricature and bombastic wit of the first film has been replaced with thoughtful introspection and ethical pondering as George is consumed by guilt over his first wife and the sense that his empire at home is crumbling.
As their stay in Pakistan, ostensibly in the interests of Sajid, becomes more protracted, George’s shame and self hate moves him to sacrifice his marriage to Ella. Ella, however, is having none of that and flies to Pakistan to drag them both home to Salford. There is an interesting moment when Ella and the first Mrs Khan (Ila Arun) sit down and compare notes about their marriages to George while speaking in different languages. There is compassion in both women and hurt that has gone beyond the need for vengeance.
It is this, the collective experiences of George’s original and new families, which should be the subject of a planned third film in the franchise, Puri says. “They’re still wondering what to do with the third one. But my personal feeling is that it should be about the family’s gradual acceptance of each other. Maybe the Pakistani wife visits England. Both she and George are old now, so there’s no physical needs to get in the way. Maybe George is ill, doesn’t work anymore and losing his memory. Many things can happen. But I think getting all the family together and realigning the relationships should be next.”
From 'East is East' comes 'West is West.' Perhaps 'North is North' (referring to the North of England, of course) should come next?
West is West hits UK cinemas tomorrow