As the day winds down, we no longer have to ask “What’s on tonight?” to keep ourselves entranced by moving pictures. We can download, dvr, stream, rent, borrow, or – don’t forget – go out to the movies. However, the myriad options can stymie us. My purpose in this article, and in others I am planning, is to point the way to worthwhile films (and maybe other screen offerings). I’m about as old as the television that also entered my family household nearly 60 years ago, and I’ve been spellbound by stories told on screen since. (How’s that for credentials?)
A recent brouhaha on Fox News about so-called “no-go” zones in Britain and France brought to mind some excellent British films from the 1990’s that remain relevant today. While Fox News issued apologies for claiming there are cities in England where anyone who is non-Muslim dare not go, assimilation is discouraged, and Sharia law dominates, their false reporting and subsequent retractions exposed their efforts to polarize attitudes. In contrast, the films “East is East” (1999), “Bhaji on the Beach” (1993), and “My Son the Fanatic” (1997) enhance understanding of the British-Asian experience and discourage simpleminded attitudes. Taking a different approach, a more recent British film, “Four Lions” (2010) relies on stereotypes to create a wickedly funny satire that tells the pathetic story of four “homegrown” terrorists.
Ayub Khan-Din, a writer and actor born in England to parents from different backgrounds – his father, an emigre to England from Pakistan, and his mother, an Anglo-British woman – crafted “East is East” out of his own family experience. First a stage play in 1996 and then a film in 1999, it tells the story of the Khan family’s intercultural complications, and it does so with loving tenderness. Set in 1971, the plot opens on the day of the arranged marriage of the eldest son. How will children who have assimilated to modern western ways respond to these circumstances? How does the mother, brought up in England, cope? How does the father fulfill his traditional role, meet the eyes of his peers in the immigrant community, and yet keep his modern British family together? Tension and pressure come from inside and out. The family’s concerns are situated in the time of Enoch Powell’s popularity. Opposed to an open immigration policy, British politician Powell called for repatriation in his infamous 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech. Despite the serious issues, the 96 minute “East is East,” starring Om Puri and Linda Bassett, delights through the authenticity of the setting, characters, and conflicts and favors a comic tone. It was a big hit in England. In 2010, Ayub Khan-Din released a sequel called “West is West” in which the father takes his youngest son back to Pakistan for a visit. The film received accolades from critics. I am still on the lookout for it.
British author Hanif Kureishi, (“Le-Weekend”, “My Beautiful Laundrette”, “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid”) like Ayub Khan-din, was born to a father who was a Pakistani immigrant in England and an Anglo-British mother. In 1997, his short story, “My Son the Fanatic,” first published in The New Yorker, was released as a film starring Om Puri (who also plays the father in “East is East”) and Rachel Griffiths, an Australian actor made famous in the U.S. by her stint on the television show “Six Feet Under.” The assumption that in modern western societies children will be more tolerant and progressive than their parents comes under direct challenge in this film. The father, a taxi driver for many years in England, encounters all sorts of people, and despite his conservative upbringing in Pakistan, has developed liberal attitudes. His closest confidant happens to work as a prostitute. His wife and son, on the other hand, develop differently. His son, Ali, challenges him: “The Western materialists hate us…Papa, how can you love something which hates you?” By the end of this complex drama, the lead character says “I have managed to destroy everything and I’ve never felt better, or worse.” “My Son the Fanatic” sympathizes with the father’s point of view but does not soften the issues with an easily digested predicament.
”Bhaji on the Beach” written and directed by Gurinder Chada (“What’s Cooking?” “Bend it Like Beckham”) puts female characters front and center, and despite being twenty-two years old, the film seems fresh today. The plot revolves around a day trip to a seaside resort town hosted by the Sahali Asian Women’s Centre in the north of England (which happens to be a real organization). The participants represent a range of ages and concerns. Each woman has a story, any of which could serve as a single movie. The organizer of the bus trip greets the women with a proclamation saying: “It is not often that we women get away from the patriarchal demands made on us in our daily lives, struggling between the double yoke of racism and sexism that we bear. This is your day. Have a female fun time!” When was the last time you saw an overtly feminist film, especially one that also made some fun of itself? This colorful film, a drama and a comedy, toys with a Bollywood style, and is rich with cultural touches. Check it out, and Chada’s other films, too.
“East is East”, “My Son the Fanatic” and “Bhaji on the Beach” all entertain while illuminating the British-Asian experience. They take a thoughtful, humanistic approach, and are created by British-Asian filmmakers. A more recent film, the 2010 “Four Lions” is different but also worth viewing. It dares to satirize a highly sensitive subject, terrorism, by creating characters who are utter buffoons. The Three Stooges meet Monty Python in the guise of five British men who try to wreak havoc in the name of jihad. Some viewers may want to use subtitles to catch the quick banter. The dark comedy is quite funny but has chilling aspects that will not be to everyone’s taste. Notably, the bumbling crew plan to set off explosions at the London Marathon. After the April 2013 Boston Marathon, where real bombs were ignited, a television station in England declined to air “Four Lions.” The film is directed and co-written by Chris Morris, a British comedian well-known for taking on controversial material.
Let me also suggest two other excellent films that provide authentic and timely takes on related material. The fascinating 2003 film “Osama” shot in Afghanistan by Afghani writer, director, and producer Siddiq Barmak, tells the story of life under Taliban rule from the point of view of a pre-teen girl and her widowed mother. And in theaters now is the 4-star, must-see “Timbuktu” from African director Abderrahmane Sissako. How fortunate we are to have these films that bring heart and beauty to our understanding of tumultuous conflicts in distant places.