When we last left them, in East Is East, the Khan family were tormenting each other in that Manchester flat and rollicking on in all their dysfunctional glory - the Pakistani father, the English mother, and the mixed-up brood of mixed-race kids. Anyone who saw them then will remember the raw, autobiographical energy of Ayub Khan Din's script (adapted from his stage play), and his brazen way of leaping from broad farce to teary melodrama and back again. The film, like the characters, was an unblended emotional stew. Now, he has resurrected the clan in this stand-alone sequel, where the focus is narrower and the setting has changed, but the energy is as raw as ever and the tone every bit as jumpy. It takes some getting used to, but be patient: Within the madness, there's definitely a method, and rewards for the reaping.
The opening frames take us back to Manchester, circa 1976, where Sajid (Aqib Khan) has the misfortune of being the last sibling still living at home. A teenager now, no longer hiding under that perpetual hoodie, he's a target on all fronts - attacked by racist bullies at school for being a Pakistani and abused by his Dad in the house for not being Pakistani enough. Understandably, his default setting is anger, lately supplemented by intermittent doses of petty theft. A decision is made: Pack off the misfit to a homeland he's never seen, for a crash course in how to fit in.
The action shifts to the ancestral farm in the Punjab, where Sajid arrives accompanied by his ever-glowering father, the man known, depending on who's addressing him, as Jahingar or George or just plain Genghis Khan (the marvellous Om Puri again). What follows is the expected coming-of-age tale but with this unexpected twist. Both the boy and the man have some serious growing up to do - the younger, stifling in his British clothes, faces megawatts of culture shock, while the elder, clinging to his patriarchal status, must confront the ex-wife and grown daughters he abandoned 30 years ago.
Yes, it's certainly a messy business but, in any multicultural society, a familiar one too - familiar enough that we know how easily, in the wrong hands, all this past/present tension can turn trite. Happily, Khan Din is allergic to anything remotely earnest. Instead, he plays the anger and the shock for laughs, often finding them. What's unique about his style is his credo, his philosophy that pain is always bearable and cruelty is usually funny. At least until it isn't, which explains those sudden leaps into unabashed melodrama, and the search for poignancy among the yuks.
Not all those leaps are negotiated. When they fail, the hurlyburly gets annoying. But when they succeed, the result can be genuinely touching. The best example comes as George's English wife Ella (Linda Bassett) pays a flying visit to the village, popping up unannounced in her red polyester pantsuit. Her presence is the stuff of farce and, initially, that's all we get.
Yet watch for the scene where the antagonistic wives, the current and the ex (Ila Arun), settle into an actual conversation, neither speaking the other's language but communicating across the barrier to reach a common ground that transcends words - their shared sense of a woman's hard lot, so different from a man's in any culture. It's a superb scene.
Then, amid the tragic-comedy, a wedding breaks out, along with a musical hint of Bollywood, and the tone shifts to raucous again. Such energy, indeed. East Is East had it, and West Is West is identically blessed. Here, frantically and maddeningly and yet with surprising warmth, the twain not only meet but embrace.
West Is West
- Directed by Andy de Emmony
- Written by Ayub Khan Din
- Starring Om Puri and Aqib Khan
- Classification: 14A
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