LONDON — It sounds like a story so culturally specific you'd imagine it couldn't have wide appeal--a family of Anglo-Asian adolescents in the North of England in 1971, rebelling against their Pakistani father's insistence that they attend mosques and agree to arranged marriages.
But "East Is East," both as a play and a film, has overcome its initially unpromising subject matter. It was a big hit on stage, first at London's Royal Court Theater, then off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club. The film gained a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes last year and was acclaimed in countries as varied as Israel, South Africa and New Zealand.
"It's gone down really well everywhere," says actor-turned-dramatist Ayub Khan-Din, who wrote "East Is East" as a play, then in his debut screenplay adapted it for film. "I was at the Brussels Film Festival and saw it subtitled both in French and Flemish. The audience got every joke and just loved it. So the story crosses over.
"What the audience went through in the theater--they laughed, they cried--stayed in the film script. So I'm not even surprised by it anymore. All audiences seem to react to the film in the same way."
In Britain, "East Is East" has become a phenomenon. Despite not having a single bankable name in the cast, it has become a genuinely populist word-of-mouth hit, grossing about $16 million, big numbers in the U.K., especially for a British movie. At the box office it has outstripped higher-profile and supposedly more accessible Hollywood films such as "The Green Mile," "Angela's Ashes" and "The End of the Affair."
"East Is East," a Miramax release that opens April 14 in Los Angeles, also represents a personal triumph for the 38-year-old Khan-Din. It has established him at the forefront of British writers just when he was starting to feel jaded about his acting career. And his success has come with a story that is almost totally biographical.
The film is about the Khan family, who live in Salford, a working-class district of Manchester. Patriarch George Khan (played by Indian actor Om Puri) is the Pakistani owner of a fish-and-chips shop, married to Ella (Linda Bassett), a white English woman. They have seven mixed-race children, six sons and a daughter. George is determined to raise his kids as Muslims, and every evening corrals them to go to a local mosque; he also tries to persuade his daughter to dress in saris rather than skirts.
But the kids, comfortable in English society, have other ideas. When George arranges a marriage for his eldest boy, he flees from the wedding ceremony. Undeterred, George tries to arrange a marriage for two more sons. But unknown to him, one of them, teenage Tariq (Jimi Mistry), is already having a fling with a local white girl.
This serious clash of cultures is deftly handled in Khan-Din's script with cheerful, broad humor. Much of the action is seen through the eyes of George's youngest son, Sajid (Jordan Routledge), a withdrawn little boy perpetually bundled up in a hooded jacket he refuses to take off.
"Sajid is me as a 12 year-old," said Khan-Din, a soft-spoken man with a dry wit, over morning coffee at a central London hotel. His accent still betrays his Salford roots. "I really was withdrawn. I lived in that [jacket] for a whole year. In reality, I was the eighth of 10 kids. The boy [in the film] who's an art student is my brother Rassheid; he's now an interior designer in London. All the other kids in the film are different aspects of myself.
"Salford was a very cosmopolitan place down by the docks. It was known as the Barbary Coast. There was racism there, but it was never talked about. My dad was an illiterate Pakistani villager who jumped ship in London in the 1930s. His English was terrible. He never learned to read or write. All he knew was his religion, and if you were a Muslim it didn't matter what nationality you were, because you belonged to a larger family. They'd always be there for you. That's what he tried to teach us."
So though George's attitudes seem rigid and flexible, he still emerges in "East Is East" as a sympathetic man vainly trying to do his best for his family. "It was a bizarre upbringing," Khan-Din recalled. "What it created was this strange humor we had in our family. If one of us got beaten up by my dad, it was a joke to the rest of us."
Khan-Din has been brooding about the stories in "East" for 16 years. He wrote a first draft when he was at drama school: "In my second year there, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. And a lot of the [neighborhood] in Salford was being demolished and the community becoming scattered," he recalled. "As her disease progressed and her memory faded, I felt there were aspects of my life disappearing.