Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bridging East & West

West is West (2010, UK, Andy DeEmmony)

East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling’s overused line held true in the absorbing East is East (1999) when George Khan (Om Puri) failed to instill Pakistani values and traditions in his British born children. However, West is West shows that it is indeed possible to bridge East and West provided one has the right teacher and the right book, which in the film happens to be Kipling’s Kim.

West is West takes place a few years after the first film and once again depicts an authoritative George Khan. George’s ways have led all his children, except his youngest son Sajid (Aqib Khan), to leave home. Sajid is tired of getting bullied at school over his Pakistani roots and clashes frequently with his father. After yet another painful episode at school, Sajid insults his father’s heritage. George is shocked by his son’s behavior and decides that the only way to salvage Sajid is to force his son to live and study in Pakistan. George tells Sajid that they are going to Pakistan on vacation in order to visit his elder brother Maneer Khan (Emil Marwa) who left England more than a year earlier. Sajid only learns the truth about his trip after they arrive in Pakistan and is understandably upset. However, a wise sage, Pir Naseem (Nadim Sawalha) comes to the rescue and takes Sajid under his wing. Pir treats Sajid with respect and answers all his queries calmly. The fact that Pir explains the importance of traditions to Sajid wins the young boy over because Pir’s ways are completely opposite from George’s methods. George never explained why his children must follow certain rituals but instead always demanded that everyone obey him without question.

Pir also manages to broaden Sajid’s perspective so that the boy can better mesh his Eastern origins with his Western life. A simple example from Pir explains to Sajid why his father acts the way he does. Pir describes a scenario where he encounters a cobra on his usual way home one day. He questions whether he should continue along the path and risk getting bitten or seek an alternate path to get home. Through this example Pir explains to Sajid that the alternate path is a method to adapt to a different culture and a way of surviving in a foreign land. George never adapted to British life but tried to live his Pakistani life in England and continued moving in the only path he knew.

Sajid is not the only one who goes through a transformation or coming of age process. George is also forced to face his own values and old life. George left his wife and children behind in Pakistan when he moved to England and instead of returning back, he married again in England and had more children. He continued to send money back home in the belief that he was being a good man. However, he neglected his first wife and family, leaving them to endure a life of hardship and struggles. George returns back home after a period of more than thirty years to face his first wife Basheera (Ila Arun) and her wrath. She rightly blames him for abandoning her, especially since she was only fifteen when she got married and was forced to tend to the fields and look after the kids on her own. George is responsible for ruining Basheera’s life but he is also to blame for making life difficult for his second wife Ella (Linda Bassett). Ella is forced to concede that she spent her life trying to force her children to be more Pakistani than English while George himself abandoned his family back in Pakistan. There is a tender moment in the film when both wives sit face to face and even though neither of them can communicate in the same language, they are able to recognize each other’s misery. Puri’s character is constantly frustrated and abusive but unlike a sinister villain, his character comes off as a man caught in a war of traditions. He acts the way he does because he believes it is his duty to enforce the “right” cultural values on his children but in West is West he finally realizes that his ways have alienated him from both his traditional Pakistani and English lives at the same time. George’s behavior was always seen as hypocritical in the first film and that point is emphasized in West is West again, where it is pointed out that he changed his name from Jahangir to George and married a British woman, despite wanting his children to be Pakistani.

George may be a fictional character but his plight is similar to that of countless other immigrant stories. Millions of immigrants moved to new lands through the 1950’s to 80’s with a snapshot of values from their homelands. While their homelands moved ahead and adopted newer values, the immigrants kept their beliefs alive despite being surrounded by a differing set of values. The lack of satellite tv and internet meant that the immigrants had limited information about the changing values of life back home but instead continued to live in their new country with traditions and beliefs which were now frozen in time. Such a way of life may have been acceptable for the parents but it created struggles for their children who were born in foreign countries. East is East and West is West are just two examples of films that depict the cultural clash between first generation immigrant parents and second generation Western children. Even though many films exist on this topic, director Andy DeEmmony and writer Ayub Khan-Din manage to ensure their work is still engaging and contains a warm heart. Ayub Khan-Din had also written the first film and as a result, he is able to provide continuity with the characters even though the second film has been made more than a decade after East is East. It is credit to the returning actors as well that they are able to recreate the same persona from the first film. Om Puri deserves a lot of accolades for presenting his angry character with the same energy even though he picks up his character after a long gap. The new actors perform their parts quite well, especially Ila Arun and Aqib Khan. Arun is well known to fans of Indian cinema for her amazing vocals as a playback singer but she also sometimes plays small roles in Indian films. West is West gives her a bit more screen time than what she normally gets and this allows her to shine. Aqib Khan turns in a commendable performance in his debut film. At the start of the film his character is angry and constantly on edge as one would expect of a teenager, but as the film progresses, we see growth in his character and he matures to care for those around him. He even plays matchmaker for his brother and chases his brother’s dream woman in a hilarious sequence.

West is West contains the same style of humor that made East is East a pleasure to watch but this new film has a calmer core than the first film and that is solely because of the character of Pir Naseem. Pir’s warm smile and philosophical words takes the sting out of any anger that Sajid has. The story may not be new but the presentation and quality of acting manage to make this a pleasurable film to watch.

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