When I think of films about families torn apart by the clash between Old World tradition and New World values I immediately think of Double Happiness and Mississippi Masala.
In 1991’s Mississipi Masala, directed by Mira Nair, from an original screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, an Indian man (Roshan Seth) living and working in Uganda is forced to flee with his family when dictator Idi Amin chases all Asians out of the country in 1972. He settles in Greenwood, Mississippi where his luxuriously lovely daughter, Meena (Sarita Choudhury) meets and falls in love with Demetrius (Denzel Washington), an African-American charmer who owns a successful carpet cleaning business. The resulting relationship proves racism can take many forms.
Writer/director Mina Shum’s 1994 film, partly inspired by her own experiences, shows what happens when a 22 year old Chinese-Canadian woman is caught in a tug of war between the allure of modern society and her Asian heritage. Jade Li, played by a radiant, pre-Gray’s Anatomy Sandra Oh, lives with her Hong Kong immigrant parents and little sister in Vancouver. She wants to be an actress. Her strict father (Stephen Chang) wants her to marry a nice Chinese doctor. Unfortunately for Dad, Jade becomes involved with Caucasian college student Mark, played by a boyish Callum Keith Rennie.
After watching East is East on DVD I’ll have to add another film on the subject to my list of favorites.
In this 1999 UK box office hit (there was even a sequel, 2010’s West is West ) a Pakistani immigrant, George Khan (Om Puri) and his family struggle with traditional beliefs and the reality of life in Salford (near Manchester) where George owns a fish’n’chips shop. (The story is set in 1971.)
George desperately wants to fit in with the ex pat Muslim community in the area even though he shed his first wife in Pakistan and has been married to Ella (Linda Bassett), a long-suffering English woman, for the past 25 years.
Let’s just say that plotting arranged marriages for three of his six sons (he has one daughter) has not worked out as he had hoped.
Nazir (Ian Aspinall) leaves his pretty bride in the middle of the wedding ceremony.(We later find out Nazir is gay.) Tariq (Jimi Mistry) is carrying on with the (white, English) girl next door (Emma Rydal). Abdul (Raji James) isn’t crazy about the idea of an arranged marriage, either but to please his father he reluctantly agrees to meet his future bride.
The daughter, Meenah (Archie Panjabi) is also under pressure to conform. Wearing her schoolgirl uniform after class angers her father. He wants her to wear a sari when not in class.
If it sounds like a lot of arguing is going on in the Khan household, you’re right. And yet it is a tribute to the agility of Ayub Khan-Din’s autobiographical screenplay (and the light touch of director Damien O’Donnell) that the film skillfully balances moments of unlikely humour with family drama that can be somewhat dark at times. (Call me old-fashioned but I don’t think a man should ever hit a woman, no matter what he may construe as provocation.)
Although George sounds like an ogre it is to Puri’s everlasting credit that he manages to locate the humanity in the character. George honestly believes he is doing what is best for his children. He is still proud, stubborn and insensitive to his children’s true needs but thanks to Puri’s layered performance he is not entirely unsympathetic. (Mr. Puri was nominated for a Best Actor BAFTA – the British equivalent of an Oscar nod – for his work in this film.)
It is a tribute to the film that none of the characters are forced to compromise what they see as essential needs and values. George does not undergo some miraculous conversion to western values to please his family. On the other hand, the various members of the family are not forced to do something they do not want to do … unless you count Sajid’s belated circumcision.
The culture, costumes and setting may be foreign to some of us but we can all relate to the need for love and acceptance. And that is basically what East is East is all about … no matter what direction you’re coming from.