Based on an autobiographical 1996 play by the actor Ayub Khan-Din (of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), East Is East is set in the north of England in the 1970s. The central character is George Khan (Om Puri), a Pakistani immigrant who, with his wife Ella (Linda Bassett), a redheaded Englishwoman, runs a suburban fish-and-chip shop. Despite all this, George regards himself not as an Englishman but as a proudly traditional Pakistani, and he's adamant that his seven kids be raised in his tradition.
The kids have other ideas. With the exception of the meek Maneer (Emil Marwa), who tries for Muslim piety, the others all regard themselves as English. As the story begins, the eldest son, Nazir (Ian Aspinall) leaves his arranged bride at the altar and flees to London, which causes George to take his picture off the wall, declare him dead, and turn his attention to controlling the other kids' lives.
Tariq (Jimi Mistry), or "Tony" when he's at the disco, is a heartthrob who's carrying on with the pretty girl across the street (Emma Riydal); she adores him despite (or because of) her immigrant-hating father's tendency to display campaign posters for the notorious "Rivers of Blood" nationalist Enoch Powell in his window. Less wild is Abdul (Raji James), but despite his father's wishes, neither is about to marry a "fookin' Paki," and especially not the homely daughters of a respectable Pakistani gent from the next town, whom George has in mind for them.
Saleem (Chris Bisson) is the college boy, but while he leads George to believe he's an engineering student, he's actually studying art, with Ella slipping him money on the side for supplies. George and Ella's only daughter, Meenah (Archie Panjabi), is spirited and smart and miserable in her sari.
The youngest Khan, Sajid (Jordan Routledge), is a mystery. To the mortification of his parents and siblings, he's withdrawn and sulky, hiding behind the hood of an ugly blue parka cinched up around his face. His "tunnel vision" becomes a metaphor for the film's viewpoint: He is the surrogate for author Khan-Din. But the poor kid doesn't get overlooked, much as he would like: George realizes that Sajid is due for circumcision, and his "tickle-tackle," in his father's phrase, is marked for removal.
Despite the outcome on this matter, George's spiteful, demanding, explosive behavior doesn't take him very far with his family. The Khan children's rebellions, like Nazir's unwillingness to marry or Saleem's secret art-student scam, tend to be silent coups -- often with Ella's quiet alliance -- so George is almost touchingly astounded when he realizes that he's not going to have his way. Yet the film doesn't soft-soap the character; this frustrated, unsuccessful petty tyrant can easily be pushed to ugly violence.
The ensemble acting gives the film its comic snap. The siblings seem so much like real brothers and sisters that, if we were told that they were a family of Anglo-Pakistani actors, we'd probably believe it. And Bassett's weary, genuinely loving Ella is a joy. But it's Om Puri, one of the truly great actors of world film, who dominates East Is East and gives it its dignity. Like the director, Puri is neither English nor Pakistani. The performance is harsh and sad and unsentimental and deeply funny. The same goes for the movie.