Ever watch a film and wonder why on earth you fell in love with it? That is exactly what happened when I tried to watch the film East is East a couple of years ago. Full disclosure I have the film on DVD and I have spent years watching it, enjoying it, relishing in the fact there was representation of people of South Asian culture on film at a time when that just wasn’t happening.
This changed the last time I tried to watch it and within 10 minutes, I had to watch something else. I was beginning to see a film which was made through the eyes of a privileged narrative of what it felt like for British Muslims living in the ’70s.
First of all, let us talk about Tariq. His need to protest his culture and in turn, his father wasn’t because he wanted to live his life on his own terms as I originally saw it. In hindsight, looking beyond what we saw on screen, putting into to context of the era, I see it as a need to fit in and be a part of the world he was told was the best. He changed his name, the way he acted in order to be accepted in the society in which he lived in. Contrast that with coming home to a father who did his utmost best to ensure his children didn’t forget their heritage, no wonder he was lashing out occasionally. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t explore this, instead, it just lets us see it as an act of rebellion towards his overbearing father when in actual fact, there was a bit more depth to it.
Then there is the direct racism the family experiences in the form of the marches, the big Enoch Powell posters, really hit home to me. I have heard these stories all my life from family members who had to experience what I feel I can only describe as outright torture simply for being brown and Muslim. I couldn’t watch it because I felt what the Khan family were going through during those scenes.
I look at today’s society and the prominence of far-right activists who are gaining power day by day and it makes my blood boil. It serves as a clear reminder that while we come a long way, there is still a lot of work which needs to be done.
There is also the portrayal of Mr Shah, who is seen as the monster or antagonist of the film. When I use to watch the film I saw as extremely problematic and essentially the devil, I now look back on in pity. I started seeing his perspective as an immigrant father, bringing his family here for a better life, only to find he didn’t know how to parent his children in this new world they lived in. He was trying to guide them in a society he knew nothing about. He rammed his culture (not religion there is a difference) down his children’s throats because this was all he knew. It was all he knew so it was hard for him to see anything else. The film made him out to be a monster and yes some of his actions were very problematic and inexcusable (Hitting his wife and the potential forced marriages definite no nos) but he wasn’t a demon the way the film made him out to be. In creating this character, the film gave the perception of what it was to be a Muslim father which is just not the case. It didn’t do justice in showing him as a man struggling to keep his culture alive and in turn keeping his family together in a world he was still trying to make sense of himself.
It is also important to know while the writer himself (Ayub Khan Din) came from a British Pakistani background, the rest of the production team did not, therefore decisions and the storytelling was very one dimensional and created in a way which would not stand in 2019. If this story was retold today, it would be done with more consultation and creative input from those whose story they are portraying. (See Black Panther, The way they see us, Greys Anatomy as an example of the best way to do this)
I think the film tried to tackle a lot of taboos and societal issues at the time, however, due to the lack of context in the storytelling, I do not think the way in which they did it portrayed an accurate representation of Muslims living in Britain during this time. The fact it doesn’t stand up to today’s standards is a good thing. It shows we are open to more discussion and nuanced way of storytelling, which can only be a good thing.
The last time I pressed play to watch this film, my dad gave me a slightly surprised weird look. I now understand why.