“This was our Pakistani life; this is how we existed outside Salford. A life none of my friends knew or could understand…I think in [East is East] I came as close as possible to understanding my father’s motivation in the way he tried to bring us up,” explains Ayub Khan-Din with regard to his award winning play (Khan-Din, xi). The 38-year-old playwrite is originally from Salford, England. He is the eighth of ten children to a Pakistani father and British mother. With one brother four years his senior and another three years his junior, Khan-Din admits: “I wasn’t part of the older kids or younger kids. I lived in my own world and spent a lot of time daydreaming. It paid off in the end” (qtd. in Wolf). Strangely enough, throughout his childhood, and well into teenage years, Khan-Din had severe difficulty reading and writing. With such poor linguistic skills, it was impossible for anyone to believe that his daydreaming would ever really pay off.
At the age of sixteen, Khan-Din left school and worked at Lee’s Salon, where he went on to become “the worst hairdresser in Manchester.” Khan-Din’s inspiration to become an actor stemmed from David Niven’s autobiography entitled The Moon’s a Balloon, in which Niven writes about his own decision to pursue a career in acting after having served many years in the army. Indeed, Khan-Din also transitioned into the acting profession. His on-screen credits include “My Beautiful Laundrettez” and “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid”. He remembers his acting experience to be a tumultuous one, mostly because of his bicultural background: “I had no idea after leaving drama school that I would suddenly be stamped with an invisible mark that said BLACK ACTOR! So while more of my contemporaries went off to rep, I had the added disadvantage of trying to find a company that enforced integrated casting — I didn’t work for a year!” (Khan-Din, ix). Although Khan-Din wasn’t “working” in the traditional sense per se, he was in process of creating what would later become his ticket to success, East is East. The play is based heavily on Khan-Din’s own life and experiences growing up in a bicultural, working-class background: “The parents are drawn directly from my own family. The youngest boy, Sajid, is me as a child. All the arguments in the film, all the theories behind the father’s way of thinking are my own arguments and theories which I developed from writing the first draft of the stageplay to the last draft of the screenplay. The different issues, the different aspects of the relationships — they’re all very similar to my own background.” (A Quick Chat with Ayub Khan-Din). Khan-Din’s mother passed away because of Alzheimer’s disease soon after he graduated from the Mountview Drama School. As a tribute to her and in an attempt to understand his past, Khan-Din decided to delve into the complexities of his childhood by writing East is East as a stage play. He later produced it as a screenplay for Miramax films. Khan-Din has received harsh criticism from more traditional members of Asian society for what they believe to be a somewhat derogatory depiction of Pakistani culture. In response to such comments, he claims: “It was a personal story. I wasn’t writing about any specific community, I was writing about my father.” (A Quick Chat with Ayub Khan-Din). Khan-Din is currently married and has authored several other plays including So Soon, So Soon and Belmondo Sahib. In 2007 and 2010, Khan-Din’s plays Rafta, Rafta and the sequel to East is East titled West is West premiered. His work has received mixed reviews, but the overall consensus of critics is that East is East remains his most solid and compelling play.
East is East: Major Themes
Khan-Din’s autobiographical play, East is East, is his most well-known and best received work. It explores the trials and tribulations of George and Ella Khan as they raise eight rebellious and rambunctious children. George, the children’s Pakistani father is adamant that his children wed other Pakistanis, while Ella, George’s British wife would rather their children marry whomever they choose. The central paradox that the Khan children grapple with is the fact that their own father has married someone outside his race. As critic Les Gutman eloquently states: “The play’s weight… arises from the complex bundle of contradictions that George represents. He is a devout Muslim, proud of his Pakistani heritage and culture. He anguishes over the current fighting between India and Pakistan [...] and longs for the family he left behind. He is firm in his intent to rear his children as Pakistani Muslims which prompts the controversies central to the play.” Indeed, it is George’s own insecurities about his lifestyle and decisions that lead him to place unbearable pressure on his family. George and Ella have been married for nearly twenty-five years and she is his second wife. ”Mrs. Khan number one” as George calls his first wife, lives in Pakistan and is always referred to when George is upset with Ella. George and Ella own and run a fish ‘n’ chips shop, the wages from which are barely enough to support their family. Within the family itself are 7 boys, Nazir, Tariq, Abdul, Maneer, Saleem and Sajid and one girl, Meenah. Khan-Din’s characterization of the Khan children is particularly interesting. On one hand, he cannot develop them to the extent that novels can, so in a sense they are stereotyped. On the other hand, he does provide his audience with just enough information to understand each character’s underlying personality. Nazir breaks away from George’s edict of matrimony very early in the play and is consequently considered no longer part of the family. Tariq, the most strong-willed son and Abdul, the most passive one, are focused on heavily because it is their wedding that George is trying to arrange and what most of the action is centered around.
The entire play hinges on the problems encountered in bicultural families and raises important issues concerning whether two very different cultures can coexist. Additionally, the play has strong historical relevance because it takes place during a very turbulent time in Indian history. The year is 1971 and Bangladesh is trying to gain its freedom and talks of Enoch Powell are always in the air. With so many relevant ideas and themes, the play raises extremely important questions in regards to whether two opposing groups of people can coexist or whether Rudyard Kipling’s quote, from which the play borrows it’s name, holds true that, “East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.”
There are a variety of issues and themes that Khan-Din explores throughout his play. Most of them can be classified as social, historical, or symbolic in nature.
Bicultural families: Khan-Din is particularly interested in illustrating the obstacles that bicultural families must surmount in order to maintain some level of stability and contentment within them. The cultural differences within the Khan household present various problems for all of its members. Careful exploration of George’s character reveals that he longs for his Pakistani heritage and compensates for it by instilling Pakistani ideals on his children. As Les Gutman states, “East is East beautifully harmonizes the bedlam of life in a large family and the personal crisis of its conflicted immigrant father. The former is at once touching and very funny; the latter, tormented and ugly.” George is a Pakistani man living in Britain during a time in which bi-racial marriages were looked down upon. Although George loves Ella and his family, the reader understands that he longs for his own homeland as well. As for Ella, the dual cultures within her family force her to compromise her thoughts and beliefs heavily. Despite her lack of refinement in behavior, Ella is a loyal wife and mother. However, many problems arise in trying to satisfy her husband’s wishes as well as her children’s. Throughout the play, Ella always feels as though she must choose between the happiness of her children and the happiness of her husband, since both seem to be mutually exclusive.
Gender Roles: The roles of men and women deserve a close exploration as well. However, Khan-Din is more concerned with depicting the dilemmas faced by his female characters. His principal female character, Ella, challenges many of the societal roles that have been relegated to women. Ella is an interesting character because, on the surface, she is the direct antithesis of femininity. She curses and insults her husband and children, but underneath everything, she is extremely vigilant in regard to her family and sacrifices a lot in order to hold it together. In his representation of women, Khan-Din compels his readers to consider the roles they played in order to hold the family together. The only other character that Khan-Din develops is Meenah. Due to such strong male influences, Meenah is something of a tomboy. Although George tries to enhance Meenah’s Pakistani side, there are instances which attest to the fact that Meenah simply does not ‘fit’ into George’s ideals. Even when she is first introduced, she is wearing a sari and it is pointed out that it “makes her look like a sack of spuds” (Khan-Din, 4). Khan-Din’s presentation of women is intriguing and provides many key insights concerning the workings of the Khan family.
Bangladesh Liberation War: East is East is set in 1971. During this time period, Bangladesh is trying to gain its independence from Pakistan. In March of 1971, the Pakistani army committed genocide against the east Pakistani people. This prompted the Bengali people to wage a war for their own independence. Because India helped Bangladesh do this, George is always making negative comments about this throughout the play.
Enoch Powell: This historical figure has a foreboding presence throughout the play. Although he is not an official character, he is a major part of the historical backdrop of the play. During the early 1970′s this prominent politician and writer launched attacks on the immigrants taking away British jobs. Of both historical themes, Khan-Din asserts: “Bangladesh’s war of independence had a big effect on our household, because what happened in the house always revolved around the TV news. In a way, it was almost as if the disintegration of Pakistan was happening in our house at the same time. It affected everything that was going on” (A Quick Chat with Ayub Khan-Din).
Sajid’s parka: Sajid, the youngest of the Khan’s, and Khan-Din’s representation of himself, is associated with the parka that he constantly wears. The parka is supposed to be the boy’s shield from the harsh realities of the family, as well as the harsh realities of the world. Although Sajid is the youngest member, he is certainly not the most spoiled. He relies on his parka to protect him from what his family cannot. At the end of the play, Sajid makes a landmark decision to discard his parka. The meaning behind this action can be interpreted in many ways, but most readers see this as his readiness to take on the complexities of his lifestyle.
Khan-Din originally intended for East is East to be performed as a stage play. It opened first at the London Royal Court Theatre in 1997 and in The Manhattan Theater Club in 1999. Scott Elliot, the artistic chief and director of the Manhattan Theater Club exclaims: “Its unbelievably original…when you read it, you think ‘What is this?’ And then you find out most of it is true, so that really increases your interest. You just know where this play is coming from–the warmth and heart and love and rage that are in this family.” Khan-Din echoes these sentiments in regards to the play: “The anger is there. But you can get your message across much stronger, I think, through humor and showing humanity. That’s the only way an audience is going to come in. And if you’re not going to get an audience, at the end of the day, your play is a dead duck.” Khan-Din’s play was anything but dead– it sold out in all productions in both London and New York. Additionally, Khan-Din was awarded the Writer’s Guild Award for Best New Writer as well as Best West End Play.
In 1999, East is East was distributed to Miramax Films who asked Damien O’Donnell to direct a film version of the play. The cast included Linda Bassett as Ella and Om Puri as George. Although both cast member were a part of the original theater productions of the play, some viewers felt that the film failed to retain the same appealing qualities as the stage play. As Kristine Landon-Smith states: “The film is totally different from the stage play…I found that some of the characters lost their nuances on screen and became stereotypes” (qtd. in Ahmad). Despite a few criticisms, the film received overall positive reviews. During the first week of its release in Britain, the film grossed one million dollars at the box office–pulling ahead of the box-office smash “The Sixth Sense.” Later in 1999, Khan-Din was nominated for best screenplay at the Evening Standard Awards, one of London’s most distinguished honors. Khan-Din did not win, although East is East did receive the award for the best film of 1999. Indeed, Khan-Din’s progress as a writer is best reflected in his plays. However, equally as admirable, is his ability to present his complicated life as understandable pieces — both for his audiences as well as for himself.
- Guthman, Edward. “Old, New Ways Clash in East’; Pakistani Father Raises a Family in London.” (15 Sept. 2000) Lexis Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.
- Gutman, Les. “A CurtainUp Review: East is East.” (2, June 1999) 24 Nov 2000. Web.
- Khan-Din, Ayub. “East is East.” New York: Hyperion, 1999.
- “A Quick Chat With Ayub Khan-Din.” (6 Oct. 1999). 9 Nov. 2000. Web.
- Toscan, Richard. “Guidelines for Play Competitions.” (1995) The Play Writing Seminars Homepage. 9 Nov. 2000. Web.
- Wolf, Matt. “East is East and West is an Off Broadway Stage.” (23 May 1999). Lexis Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.
- Ahmad, Shazia. “Din’s Own Story.” American Theater. Vol. 17. (2000). Lexis Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.
- Bassett, Kate. “I Owe It All to David Niven.” The Daily Telegraph. (1999). Lexis Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.
- Donnell, Alison. Companion to Contemporary Black British Culture. London: Routledge, 2002.
- French, Philip. “A Fate Worse Than Death?” The Observer. (1999). Lexis Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.
- Hingorani, Dominic. British Asian theatre : dramaturgy, process and performance. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Reviews of the film
Bangladesh Liberation War Site
Author: Tina Bhatnagar, Fall 2000
Last Updated: July 2012Tags: Class, Diaspora, Drama, Gender, Hybridity, Identity, Pakistan, Race, Religion, United Kingdom