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September 25, 1999


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Through The Eyes of an Outsider

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Aseem Chhabra

When Irish film-maker Damien O'Donnell was first offered the job to direct the film East is East, based on Ayub Khan-Din's 1996 autobiographical play, he was "quite intimidated". He thought he did not know enough about the Pakistani culture in England and he felt a huge weight descend upon him.

Jimi Mistry and Emma Rydal in 'East Is East' The 32-year-old film-maker had not grown up in England and did not have any south Asian friends in Ireland.

"So at one stage I quit because I was too nervous. I sent a fax (to the film's producer Leslee Udwin) saying that I wouldn't do the project," O'Donnell said recently in an interview. "But the fax didn't go through the machine. So what can I say, I thought that was a sign."

O'Donnell, who had previously worked on an award-winning television movie, changed his mind when he thought of films like Alan Parker's The Commitments ("The best representation of Dublin I have seen by a director from England") and The Ice Storm, Taiwanese director Ang Lee's exploration of life in suburban Connecticut in the 1970's.

"I thought there is a record of people coming from outside of cultures and telling stories about it," he said. "All I had to do was to tell the story as well as I can. We decided to make the film for a larger audience. That was a part of our agenda. Basically make it an appealing film."

East is East, a highly appealing and charming human document, directed by O'Donnell and based on Khan-Din's script was shown earlier this summer at the Cannes Film Festival.

Earlier this month, the film's US premiere was held at the Telluride Film Festival in Telluride, Colorado, where it was one of the most popular films shown this year with six screenings (including three on popular demand), all of which were sold out. Miramax, the leading art house distributor and producer of films, plans to release East is East in the United States soon.

Om Puri in East is East The film stars Om Puri as George Khan, an abusive, tyrannical, working-class Pakistani man in Salford, England and Linda Bassette as his British wife, Ella. Bassette also played Ella in the London production of the play.

East is East is set in 1971 (although O'Donnell and his production designer have given the film a very 1960s look). Yahya Khan's West Pakistani army is brutally suppressing the independence movement in East Pakistan.

In England, Enoch Powell is spilling out his anti-immigrant hatred. And in Salford, a working class town in England, George Khan, the father of seven free-spirited children, runs a fish and chips shop with his meek British wife.

Khan clings on to old values, including wanting to bring up his children in the traditional Pakistani culture. Meanwhile, his children are growing up in the "free" culture of bell bottoms and discos, rebelling against their father, while searching for their own identities.

O'Donnell said Khan-Din had written "a very personal story, not a generic rehash of something you have seen a hundred times before". The director related to the story of a big family, since both his mother and father came from big families, living in small houses.

For the three months after he joined the project in March 1998, O'Donnell and Khan-Din worked together revising the script. ("It was a very collaborative effort," O'Donnell said.)

One of the most significant things the two did was to make the character of George "as sympathetic as possible." In Khan-Din's play (which was performed this summer in New York City by the Manhattan Theater Club), George's character starts of as being abusive. His motivations are never fully explained.

"We didn't want to make a film about a monster in a family," O'Donnell said. "That's too easy. We wanted to show the complexities of this character, what his motivations were. We wanted to show the pressure from the Pakistani culture in Britain, to explain why he wanted his children to conform to Pakistani traditions."

The film, unlike the play opens with the Khan family preparing for the wedding of Nazir, their oldest son. (Nazir, the gay son, never makes an on-stage appearance in the play.) Before the ceremony starts, Nazir walks out of his wedding leaving his father, George in a deep sense of shame and embarrassment. In an attempt to restore his image within the Pakistani community, George later becomes obsessed with arranging the marriages of his two middle sons.

In the play, the Khan family was limited to a couple of sets inside their home. The film is richer in details. Street scenes introduce us to the Khan's mostly white-English neighbors. There are family trips in a packed van to Bradford (on the way, the family listens to Chalo Dil Dar Chalo from Pakeezah), where there is a larger Pakistani immigrant community.

There are visits to mosques, and to Pakistani homes, where the women sit in their kitchens, while the men discuss "important worldly matters" in the living rooms.

During one such trip, the Khans go to an Indian movie theater in Bradford. The theater is showing the 1962 Hindi film, Professor, and Shammi Kapoor is signing to Kalpana on the screen. But George Khan wants to see Chaudvin Ka Chand, a Muslim social. The owner of the theater is a family friend and he agrees.

In the midst of the song, and much to the dismay of the audience in the theater, the projectionist changes the film. Shammi and Kalpana are off the screen and now Guru Dutt is singing to Waheeda Rehman.

Damien O' Donnell, left with Gary Damer A lot of the richness in the film, O'Donnell said, came from Khan-Din's memories of going to movie theaters and listening to Hindi film music. However, when it came to facts, O'Donnell had to refer to Graham Meethoo, a Pakistani, "who had an intimate knowledge of Islam and is also gay."

Meethoom, who was hired as a consultant to give authenticity to the film, was used "as a back-up and a cross reference to Ayub's memories".

"When I was getting involved with the film, I felt that I couldn't take any liberties with this culture," O'Donnell said. " If there was any error, it wouldn't be fair to the culture and it wouldn't be fair to the film. We had to be one-hundred per cent truthful."

"He [Meethoo] gave us details of how weddings are conducted, because he actually had run away from a wedding as well," O'Donnell said.

While casting the film, O'Donnell, Khan-Din and Udwin were in unanimous agreement that Om Puri would fit the part of George Khan. According to reports, to star in East is East, Puri gave up another film project that he was previously committed to doing.

"He is one of the most charismatic, sexy and sympathetic actors around," O'Donnell said. "He brings a warmth to the part which is vital because the audience cannot just hate George, the reaction to him becomes much more complex."

He said the role was a challenge to Puri, especially during the shooting of a sex scene with Bassette, and when George begins to unleash violence on his family. Some of the violence scenes were shot several times which made Puri rather uncomfortable, O'Donnell added.

O'Donnell conceded that marketing East is East is not going to be an easy task. He said he and Khan-Din were keen that the film does not get pigeonholed with an "Asian film" label.

"The problem with the 'Asian' label, especially in Britain, is that the films then get consigned to the ghettos," O'Donnell said. "The general audience usually don't find the idea of an Asian film hugely appealing. I would rather have the film be labeled as a comedy about an immigrant experience.

"I can't help it that people are generally narrow minded," O'Donnell said. "Quite honestly, if I hadn't made the film, if someone else had made it and I didn't know anything about it, chances are, I probably wouldn't have gone to see it. It is not something that would instantly appeal to me and that's a hurdle that we have to overcome."

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