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The representation of ethnic minorities in film: East is East

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Multiculturalism, as it is an aspect within society, also plays a role in the media. The aspect of the media, for the purposes of this report, will be film, looking specifically at East is East (1999).

Multiculturalism in film

Film and cinema provides a space for debate and discussion and is able to highlight certain viewpoints that may not openly exist within the majority or mass public. The media can also introduce new discourses that go against the mainstream. It has the ability to conform or subvert the stereotypes offering “simplistic and/ or exaggerated definitions” (Dyer 1977). It can bring new perspectives and solutions to a certain issue or issues under the guise of the narrative of the film e.g. through comedy or a drama.

It is a medium that is chosen to be viewed and therefore is produced in order to fill a demand for certain themes and issues to be highlighted. This means that minorities that do not have a voice in the mass media now can, as film can be catered to specific audiences. Also, as audiences choose to watch, they bring with them their own experiences and opinions of the themes and issues and so, in turn, interpret the film differently too.

East is East


Set in Manchester, 1971, East is East (1999) offers the audience an intriguing and honest insight into multicultural life through the eyes of the Khan family. They are a multi – ethnic family headed by chip-shop owner George Khan, a Pakistani Muslim (played by Om Puri) and Ella Khan, an English White Christian (played by Linda Bassett) and their 7 children; Mina, Sajid, Nazir, Maneer, Abdul, Tariq and Saleem. The film takes the viewer on a journey with them as they grow up in a predominantly white community subverting stereotypes as they go. They strive to embrace their Western identities yet, their old-fashioned, traditional father is continually reminding them of their Pakistani Muslim culture and traditions, attempting to keep them well rooted, trying to do what is best. East is East is the hilarious story of what happens when two cultures collide within one family.

The characters

Coming from a mixed heritage and living in Manchester, the children come across many issues that they have to deal with. As their father tries his best, to do what is right for them and guide them to hold the traditional Muslim values, he faces problems at every hurdle. He confides in the mosque cleric confused as to why his children defy him “always making a bloody show of me”, to which he advises “it will always be difficult for you Zahir, they’re different” and he will only be able to stop worrying when they fully integrate themselves fully into the Muslim community. This is the key issue that runs throughout the film, they find it increasingly difficult to live by their father’s strict rules as well as finding their own identities as British Muslims because they are different.

Meenah (Archie Panjabi), the only daughter of the family, refuses to wear the traditional dress and even hates putting on a scarf over her head when she has to. Strong minded; she rejects the traditional Muslim girl traditions in favour of being a tomboy, running around on the street playing football.

Sajid (Jordan Routledge), the youngest member of the Khan family, adores his nylon khaki parka and will go nowhere without it on. Constantly bullied and ridiculed by his siblings, he brings a sense of innocence and mischief to the film.

Nazir (Ian Aspinall), the eldest son, has been outcast from the family by George for not going through with his arranged marriage in the second scene. We see him later in the film as his siblings go in search of a place to stay, having run away from their dad. He owns ‘Le Beau Chapeau’ in Eccles and lives with his dog and gay partner.

Maneer (Imil Marwa), the exception in the family as the only religious one, he wears the traditional dress and takes part in daily prayers conforming to his Pakistani Muslim identity.

Abdul (Raji James), the now eldest brother, after Nazir left, has taken on the mature role and looks out for his brothers and sister. During his journey in the film he is faced with the prospect of an arranged marriage set up by his father to one of the Shah sisters.

Tariq (Jimi Mistry), the ‘geezer’ in the family, has truly embraced all that is British especially when it comes to drinking and women, courting Stella, the granddaughter of racist political activist for nationalist Enoch Powell, who lives opposite them. He is also faced with the prospect of an arranged marriage alongside his brother to the other Shah sister.

Saleem (Chris Bisson), the supposed engineering student according to his father’s knowledge, is the creative hippie in the family studying foundation art at college. Having created a model of the female form for his final project, he brings it home and in the following obvious shock in the family it makes its way on to the lap of Mrs Shah, driving them out of their home and lives forever, saving the boys from their arranged marriages.

There are many themes and issues that crop up in the film subverting stereotypes and challenging issues surrounding multiculturalism. Having said this, this report discusses their journey, looking at selected scenes from the film analysing them in the respect of the issues that they address in regards to the theory of multiculturalism.

I am your father. You are my son. You do as I say. Buss!1

As stated above the second scene is that of Nazir preparing for his arranged marriage. For George this is the defining moment in his son’s life that he has been preparing for, ever since he moved here. Finally he can be proud of his family as he follows through his Pakistani Muslim rites of passage. “Son, today you make me feel very proud”, he says to Nazir just before they leave for the ceremony. However, as the wedding begins, Nazir runs out on everything, his family and life at home as he knows it. Distraught, George casts him out of the family removing his image from the photo family tree, never to talk about him again. He considers him dead, he corrects Mr Shah who praises him for having six sons; “five, one dead”.

He is subverting the traditional view of what a Muslim man should be and do. Unhappy to follow the conventional path, we find that he has run away to follow his own path in life, living in Eccles with his gay partner.

This representation highlights how culture and traditions are variously interpreted, that not all are the stereotypical reflections of their parents. Being born and bred in Manchester, the Western society and ideals form a part of the Khan’s identity. They may be Muslim but they are still their own people and have formed their own identities, a mixture of both their British and Pakistani heritage.

Another scene that I would like to highlight, in accordance to this point, is where the family take their trip to Bradford or ‘Bradistan’ as the road sign puts it, “to see film”, visit family and give the kids a taste of traditional Muslim culture (George Khan, Om Puri, East is East: 1999). Alongside this, George has a hidden agenda, to meet Mr Shah, who he hopes to strike a deal with, for his two daughters to marry Tariq and Abdul.

As they arrive, George reminisces about moving here, “Everybody happy in this town, see”, to which Ella replies, “forget it George. I don’t care how bleedin’ big their grins are, were not moving here”. The kids look out of the windows and are intrigued by what they see. Sajid is quick to point out that “there’s hundreds of ’em”, rejecting what they see, used to their lifestyles at home, despite the monocultural view of some of the White community there.

Whilst in Bradford, George and Mr Shah agree to the engagements, which George keeps to himself until they get home. Later that evening George tells Ella of the arrangement;

George – I ran into a friend, and a family come from Bradford. I hope the boys not embarrass me

Ella – Oh, who’s that?

George – His name Mr Shah. Good family. In this country 25 years. He got double extensions. He got two daughters, you know, same age as Abdul and Tariq.

Ella – For Christ’s sake George! Were not gonna go through all that again. You’ve gotta talk to the boys.

George – I’ll tell them when I want bastard telling them!

Ella – They have a right to know George.

George – What do you mean right?!? Pakistani believe if father asks son marry, son follow father instruction.

This traditional view of how Pakistani Muslim sons should behave and act towards their fathers is something that the brothers just can’t and don’t do. Having tasted the freedom and the life that Western culture offers, they continuously reject their fathers attempt to discipline them as they simply do not agree with his values and ideals.

When Tariq finds out about the engagement, he is fuming. He storms into the room where his father keeps the ‘wedding box’, now full of the new things bought for the arranged weddings. As he opens the box he realises what his father is planning and goes about destroying everything, including the precious watches. “I don’t believe this, I’m not marrying a fucking Paki!” he exclaims.

As George returns he finds Maneer scrambling to get everything back into the box. Realising his son’s insubordination he is furious and goes to the shop to tell Ella what ‘her’ children have done, dragging Maneer with him. He then goes about beating him and Ella up as he wont tell him who did it and she undermines his authority by defending Maneer.

In despair, Tariq runs away to Eccles in hope that Nazir will be able to help. As Nazir comes back to Salford with him, Ella turns him away, insisting that she is fine and that if George finds out he will kill him. So now at a loose end Tariq tries to speak to his father instead.

George – Don’t be bloody starting coz I’m not in bloody mood.

Tariq – Look dad, we’re all fed up with being told what to do and where to go

George – I warning you mister, I not bringing you up to give me no respect. Pakistani son always shows respect!

Tariq – I’m not Pakistani, I was born here. I speak English, not Urdu.

George – Son you no understand, coz you no listen to me. I trying to show you a good way to live. You no English. English people never accepting you. In Islam everyone equal see, no Black man, no White man. All Muslim. Special community.

Tariq – I’m not saying it’s not dad. I just think I’ve got a right to choose who I get married to.

George – You want to be like Nazir, lose everything? You want bloody English girl. They no good. They go with other men, drink alcohol, no look after.

Tariq – Well if English women are so bad, why did you marry me mam?

George – Bastard! I tell you no go too far with me, you do what I tell you. Buss. You understand? You understanding?!?

Tariq – I understand you, I understand you. I’ll do what you want. I will get married to a Pakistani. And what ill do then, I’ll get married to a fucking English woman as well. Just like my dad!

As much as George strives to teach his children the right path in life, he is the ultimate contradiction to everything that he stands for. Everything that he is trying to drive into his children is always going to be contradicted by the fact that he is married to Ella, a White woman. The final scene in the film sums this up where Ella decides that she has finally had enough of George and his pigheaded ignorance and volatile behaviour .

This is an example of unsettling monoculturalism as they are going against the ideals of the typical Muslim family.

Differences between the minorities

As well as there being differences between the majority and the minority, there are also differences and conflicts highlighted between the minorities also.

One example can be seen when the family go to the local Bollywood cinema in Bradford, the ‘Moti Mahal’. One of the workers, Sayed, a Muslim, is told to go and change the film; he then goes into the projection room run by two Hindu workers. As he finds them they are eating rather than working, he shouts, “Change film, quickly. You cow worshipping bastards!”2

This suggests that there is an underlying conflict between the two communities that live in Bradford unsettling monoculturalism.

This is also highlighted by the way that George reacts when he realises that the doctor who carried out Sajid’s circumcision is Indian. “You Indian?” he asks him. The doctor looks at him in dismay and luckily gets called away by another nurse before he can answer. “Bastard Indian” George mutters to Ella.

This conflict has arisen due to the conflicts between India and Pakistan at the time over Kashmir and has been carried over to England by them through these prejudices.

Sajid highlights differences between the Pakistani minority to which he belongs as he announces the Shah’s arrival in Salford. As he runs into the house after having spotted them driving down the street, he shouts, “Mam! Mam! The Pakis are ‘ere!”

Unsettling monocutralism and expressing the fact that they see themselves as different from their heritage – something that is inherent in the film

A traditional Pakistani upbringing

George, in his relentless battle to bring up the children in as traditional a way as possible, knows that he is losing. As he tries to make the right decisions for them to embrace and understand their religion and culture, one of the ways that he does this is by marrying his children off into well-to-do and respected families, as shown in the example above. He wants his family to be accepted and integrated into the Muslim community so much that he is happy to overlook their feelings and arrange these marriages as social contracts elevating his and his family’s standing in the community as traditional and respected member of the community. He regards the others in his community so highly that he agrees with them at every aspect even when it undermines what he actually believes and tells his family.

This can be seen when the Shah’s come to meet the family. As Mr Shah sits down in the barber chair that George picked up at the local market, he asks, “Is that too low?” as he pumps the chair higher up, reflecting his status, bestowed upon him by George, as he towers over the others.

As they all settle down Mrs Shah asks Sajid “And how old are you?” to which he replies “Not old enough to get married, so don’t ask me!” He has been witness what his brothers have been and are being put through in their supposed path to becoming respectful Muslims, and marriage is seen as the defining moment in this journey and so now wants nothing to do with it. He also brings humour to this aspect through his words, voicing what he feels that would not normally be allowed to be said.

As Meenah comes in with the tea, Mrs Shah asks, “Where did you get this, this sari?” to which she replies, “Me auntie Riffat in Pakistan”. “You should wear Salwaar Kameez3, it will look much better on you than this thing” she advises. Ella then states “Her auntie Riffat says that a lot of girls are wearing saris in Islamabad, and she’s quite well to do isn’t she George?” to which he snaps “Riffat bloody stupid! Even in Pakistan women are getting too bloody moderns!” in agreement with Mr Shah who states “well its just not traditional dress in Pakistan”. “Tradition sees Allah” George finishes expressing his devotion to traditional religious Pakistani life. He wants his children to be accepted so much that he will stop at nothing to impress Mr Shah by showing him that he is traditional and respectful ensuring that the marriages will go ahead.

As the children are heard arguing in the other room, Ella tries to lighten the mood by injecting some humour, “Kids. Hey. Were your two like that Mrs Shah?” to which she firmly replies “No. I believe in firm discipline, especially in a non-Pakistani environment” informing her superiority.

As Saleem returns from college with his long awaited sculpture, he presents it to his mum. Disgraced, Ella gets into an argument over it with him, which ends with his sculpture of the female form landing in Mrs Shah’s lap. Stunned, she stands up and cries, “This is an insult to me and my family! I will never allow my daughters to marry into this Jungli family4 of half-breeds!” Ella stands her ground and replies “well they may be half-bred but at least they aint friggin in-bred like them two monstrosities! ”. As they leave, having been thrown out by Ella, Mr Shah turns to George and says, “Your wife’s a disgrace”.

This enrages George, “You bastard bitch! You bring shame on our family” he says angrily. “No you should be ashamed George, coz you’re not interested in these kids being happy. You just wanna prove to everybody what a great man you are, because your ashamed of me George and your ashamed of our kids… and you wont even admit it” she replies. This leads to a fight involving everyone as he raises his hand to Ella. Meenah pleads “Are you happy now dad, is this what you wanted?” George replies, “I know what is best for you all! I only want to help you son, I don’t want to hurt you” finally realising that what he wants for his children, the traditional Pakistani upbringing, is not what is right for them, and we, the audience now understand why he is fighting so hard to be respected.


As mentioned earlier, Tariq is seeing Stella, an English girl who lives opposite them with her grandfather. He happens to be an outright racist supporting politician Enoch Powell who believes in nationalism and the repatriation of the minorities.

They meet up in the alley at the back of the house and she always brings her best friend Peggy along to keep a watch out. On one occasion, when Tariq goes inside, Peggy notifies Stella that her “granddad will drop a bollock if he finds out your courting a Paki!” Stella is in love and replies “I don’t care, Tariq’s the only bit happiness I’ve got. So my granddad can go fuck himself!”

Sajid is also best friends with Ernest, Stella’s brother, who is fascinated by the Pakistani culture and has learnt a little Urdu despite what his grandfather thinks.

This suggests that although there is some racism within the film, it plays a minor role in the wider community, suggesting that times have changed with this community welcoming multiculturalism.

Audience response

As I have stated above, there are many issues that have been dealt with in the film. Aspects are discussed that would not normally be allowed to be discussed as many families did have the same attitude and manner of thinking that George has. Looking at the aspect of arranged marriage, my experience as a first generation British Hindu, I know that this is something that my family see as an important part of traditional Indian life. Pride and social standing within the community is highly regarded and there is much pressure to conform to this and obey your parents and elders. This allows me to relate to this aspect in the film as I have seen it somewhat in my family.

Regarding other audience responses to the film, I have looked at reviews of the film on the Internet, as I have been unable to conduct any primary research due to time constraints and other responsibilities.

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