The release of the long awaited sequel to 1999’s hit comedy/drama East is East should in theory hit all the right buttons; it has a strong cast, an interesting premise and the personal insight of screenwriter Ayub Khan-Din, who has based both films on his own experiences of the culture clash felt by many British-born Muslims, and also the degrees of variation from generation to generation.
Unfortunately, despite an obvious ensemble effort, the stand-out performer in East is East’s sequel West is West (2011) is cinematographer Peter Robertson, for his depiction of Pakistan’s vibrant and beautiful landscape.
West is West picks up the Khan’s story a few years after their poignant family showdown, following the father and two of his sons as they travel to Pakistan. George ‘Genghis’ Khan (Om Puri) is troubled by youngest son Sajid’s reluctance to embrace his Pakistani heritage, and blindly believes that the difficulties Sajid is having gaining acceptance in school are nothing more than signs of his teenage delinquency.
Whilst putting into action his plan to whisk Sajid’s older brother Maneer (Emil Marwa) off to rural Pakistan to find him a suitable wife – and at the same time as “fixing” Sajid – George hides his own personal ulterior motives for the trip: to reconnect with his own past, and the wife and daughters he left behind decades ago. In doing so, he underestimates the powerful coupling of maternal bonds and female gumption, and finds his naively awkward reception worsened by the unexpected appearance of his British wife Ella (Linda Bassett) and their out-spoken neighbour Annie (Lesley Nicol).
Collectively, all the elements seem more than capable of coming together to create an emotional and politically-minded slice of cinema, dealing with cultural clashes and generational differences, whilst leaving plenty of opportunities open for comedic insertion. Having written East Is East, we know Khan-Din is easily capable of this. Director Andy DeEmmony also has a history of working with said subject matter, having directed Meera Syal’s made for TV Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee.
So why doesn’t this sequel work? Khan-Din and DeEmmony don’t seem to have gelled harmoniously on this project, as its message and its motives feel confused. Many of the ‘laughs’ fall short as the jokes are very limited in content, consisting mainly of cliched culture gags and Sajid’s adolescent sarcasm.
There are several moments with the exciting potential to really get under the skin of modern Muslim issues (such as the realities of George’s alienation in his native country, or the struggle his wives experience to accept each other whilst understanding each other’s pain). These are only fleetingly absorbing however, as the writing never seems to fulfil its premise.
Whilst there are obvious attempts at striking emotional chords, the underlying problem is that its central character is tyrannical and misguided. Modern cinema is often all about the lovable anti-hero, but George seems to cause misery and destruction wherever he goes, and yet still somehow inspires loyalty from his family, particularly his abused wife Ella.
To be fair to the film, West Is West is definitely watchable, visually appealing and at times genuinely amusing. The real shame here is its inability to get to the root of itself, and really speak up with a voice that its represented society can relate to. Perhaps the golden coupling of Khan-Din and Damien O’Donnell – director of East is East – would have saved this project from mediocrity. My fingers remain crossed that a comeback collaboration lies in the not too distant future.