Response to the film "West Is West": Essay on "West Is West" by Rev Bruce Stuart
West is West went on general release in cinemas on Friday, 25 February. Director: Andy DeEmmony; Writer, Ayub Khan-Din, and stars Aqub Khan as the teenager, Sajid, Om Puri, as his father, George (Ghengis) Khan, and Linda Bassett has George’s white British wife, Ella. It is the sequel to East is East (1999).
I enjoyed watching it at 3.0 p.m., Friday, 25 February with approximately 20+ others in the cinema, all of whom, I would guess have backgrounds in Pakistan or India. Their laughter and enjoyment as they saw Sajid’s first impressions of life in a rural area of Pakistan were a delight to hear.
Two young lads to whom I spoke afterwards (as it happens, in the Men’s Room) said it was funny, but not as funny as East is East. I would agree. There is humour, but it focuses more on the change within George as he recognises that he has changed as a result of his life in Salford, Manchester. I spoke to three young women in the foyer of the Rotunda and as we travelled down the escalator to leave the premises. They were concerned that someone who knew nothing of Pakistan might not know that there were very modern, sophisticated areas of Pakistan, “….like this,” said one of them, gesturing to the whole of Kingston with its many smart shops. “A danger of stereotyping, then?” I asked, and they agreed.
I would welcome your responses, too, to this posting on our website – your reactions to the film.
East is East was set in the early 1970’s. In West is West it’s now 1976. The youngest son, Sajid, is now 15 and is facing bullying at his school and tells his father he hates being a ‘Paki’. George decides, in his typically autocratic way, that the way to sort Sajid out and make him a good Muslim is to take him to Pakistan, and back to George’s home village. Of course, this means meeting up with ‘Mrs Khan number 1’ and the daughters of his first marriage, whom – despite regularly sending money to them – he has pushed out of his mind during his life in Salford.
The film’s plot develops around George’s reactions to what he finds in Pakistan, Sajid’s reactions, but also those of another son, Tariq, who has freely come to Pakistan and is trying to live there as a good Muslim. There’s one problem, though: finding a wife. Tariq takes the initiative on this matter, and the unexpected consequences ensure that the film returns to a humorous mood. The reactions of ‘Mrs Khan number 1’, and of George’s old friend, Zaid, take the film into a darker, difficult area of self knowledge for George. Finally, the film shows the reactions of Ella who unexpectedly turns up from Salford.
Imagine someone who is not very well off moving to the United Kingdom. Their suitcases may well be battered.
A battered, well read copy of Kim, by Rudyard Kipling keeps cropping up as a motif throughout the film, especially its iconic, opening image of the boy, Kim, sitting astride the cannon, Zam Zammah, that sits near the old Ajaib-Ghar, the ‘Wonder House’, in other words, the Lahore Museum, and the phrase. “Who hold Zam Zammah…hold the Punjab”.
‘Battered, and weather worn’: during the film a friend of George in the village, Zaid (played by Raj Bhansali) takes Tariq under his wing. One day he takes Tariq to an abandoned Hindu temple lying away from the main road, with overgrown vegetation. Tariq loses himself exploring it in its vastness and peculiar carvings. He returns to Zaid, who tells him, pointing to the temple: “That’s time.” He explains that culture is about all that has come before, of which we are largely ignorant. He tells Tariq that he, too, can make his mark on culture, now, by the way he chooses to live his life. Zaid adds, “What we leave is what matters.”
Later Zaid gives Tariq some more wise observations. It’s good to have a known path to walk on and to keep to it, he says. But what if, one day, there’s a cobra on the path. Then you have to change your route. Zaid speaks of Tariq’s father: “England has changed your father.”
All of us, as the saying goes, have our own ‘cultural baggage’.
The Inter Faith Forum is a space in which to negotiate and express how we make use of (or have felt some need to suppress) our own cultural baggage. One thing we’ve unmistakably and repeatedly discovered within the Inter Faith Forum is our different-ness from one another. What if your parents or grandparents came to the United Kingdom to escape persecution in Germany and Austria? Or more recently from Eastern Europe? Or if they came and joined working class jobs, or came as merchants from Uganda or South Africa, or the Indian sub-continent? Or came from Arab countries and qualified for various professions in British universities or teaching hospitals?
In our lives have we been able to make use of our ‘cultural baggage’? Or is it something (as I’ve intimated above) that we feel we have to suppress and hide?
Our faith itself can also be something we each keep in a battered suitcase, the lid closed, the suitcase stored away in a dark place, not often visited. A large part of that has to do with the sacred and ancient writings and the traditions that have grown up around them, in each of our respective religious traditions of which we are aware – Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Sikh. Is all that something that we are hesitant and unsure of how to share with those outside our own religious community? If we open up our battered suitcase and offer to show and share something from our own distinctive tradition – what will the reaction be? Curiosity? Boredom? Appreciation?
To conclude: West is West is largely set in a village in rural Pakistan, but it raises the question of how each of us lives here, in the UK, in Kingston, in London. That inevitably has meant incorporating into our daily life aspects of UK culture (diverse, secular, etc.). But it has also meant making use of our faith, and our culture of origin.