Saturday, February 03, 2007

East Is East

East Is East is a delightful film from 1999 about a Pakistani-English family in Salford, Manchester in 1971. I’ve read about the film in a few academic books recently, notably Gayatri Gopinath’s lovely book, Impossible Desires. The film was assigned this semester for a class I am taking with Sangeeta Ray on post-colonial theory. A variety of things struck me about this film. I’m not going to write as much about it’s significance for post-colonial theory because frankly I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that is. Instead, I want to write briefly about what I found most interesting in the film.

First, the interracial/intercultural relationship between George Kahn and Ella. They are the parents of the seven children and married in 1946 and have been married for twenty-five years at the time of the film. The film does an excellent job of capturing the tenderness between George and Ella and also the difficulties.

Related to that relationship is the brutality that George shows to Ella and his sons. The domestic violence is disturbing. Yet, the rage of George and his frustration with not being able to fulfill his duties as a Pakistani father in producing Pakistani sons, even though they are English born to an English mother, is made palpable and understandable by that brutality. It’s difficult for me to have violence become the tool by which a viewer gains empathy for a character. That lingers with me and continues to disturb me.

The other thing that struck me about the film is the way that George is unable to connect with his sons and daughter and understand what makes them happy and what they want from their lives. That is the tragedy of George, which Ella points out to him. The large clan of sons, six in total, make it difficult to connect with each in viewing the film one time, but the joy and individuality that each have is lovely and George’s loss, obvious.

Finally, I did have the sense during the film of the familiarity of the experience. That’s probably what made it a hit. This family is Pakistani, but it could have been about any group of immigrants struggling with old and new, the homeland and the newland. Moreover, there could be a variety of ethnic and religious substitutions that could have been made to make the film separate even from immigrant status. The film draws its strength from the particularity of the Pakistani family in Manchester, but it gets its appeal because it is identifiable to many.

The film is only ninety-six minutes and is funny as can be. I won’t give any jokes away, but do be sure to watch for the circumcision of the school-age child as well as the fabulous yoni artwork of the artist son. It’s a great film to watch.

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