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[whitespace] Linda Bassett and Om Puri
Kernels of Truth: Linda Bassett and Om Puri share some popcorn in a scene from Damien O'Donnell's 'East Is East.'

There's Something About Puri

Om Puri gives some weight to the frothy yet grotty British import 'East Is East'

By Richard von Busack

IF ANYONE other than Om Puri had played the hard-nosed Pakistani immigrant patriarch George Khan in East Is East, the audience might have attacked the screen. Puri is excellent with antiheroes. The sensitivity underneath his surface coarseness counteracts the sitcom tendencies of this British import.

East Is East can be recommended for delivering the gross humor qualities of a lot of popular hits. It's often as funny as There's Something About Mary, which it resembles in a too-long running time and in dick-mutilation humor wrapped in a warm-and-fuzzy conclusion.

On one level, East Is East is a social-realist memoir. Director Damien O'Donnell doesn't stint on the grim facts of life in Salford in the north of England in 1971: five to a bed, no hot water, a zinc bathtub and an outside loo. But the slapstick that envelopes this grimy comedy takes some of the intensity out of even a scene of Puri's character beating up on his wife and kids.

After the prologue (a time-wasting title sequence about the kids marching in a Catholic parade), we meet the mixed-Irish, mixed-Pakistani klan of Khan, which includes six sons and one daughter. The family runs George's English Chippy (fish and chips joint), a duty from which George is distracted by preparing for the arranged wedding of his eldest son.

All the rituals are observed: painting the groom's eyes with kohl, hiding his face under a man veil and crowning him with a polyester turban. In midceremony, however, the groom bolts out of the mosque. Dad comes home declaring his son dead. Six months later, George is ready to try asserting the old customs again by planning the circumcision of his youngest and arranging a marriage for two older kids--alliances he proposes with girls who look like the two ugly sisters from Cinderella.

That's the plot, but most of East Is East consists of a series of anecdotes of childhood and young male life, in which even the threats of the nationalist MP Enoch Powell are just another joke. The characters all basically stay the same, no matter what their experiences. The three-act structure of Ayub Khan-Din's original problem-play is still rigidly intact, including a strong, farcical ending.

At the very least, the film serves as a reminder of American luxury you never knew you had. But compare this trifle to Puri's last film, My Son the Fanatic, which is about the demands of traditional Islamic life, and East Is East seems wishy-washy.

The film jokes about circumcision but implies that it's necessary to manhood; the film is more aggravated about the possibility of arranged marriage to an ugly girl than about arranged marriage itself. It ends easily, with the snobs told off, the Khans reconciled and all the worms turning.

Remember the famous angry young man play Look Back in Anger? You could call this Look Back in Bemusement. Only Puri, with his brooding face, shows the real anger in dislocation and discrimination.

East Is East (R; 96 min.), directed by Damien O'Donnell, written by Ayub Khan-Din, based on his play, photographed by Brian Tufano and starring Om Puri, Emil Marwa and Jimi Mistry, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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From the April 27-May 3, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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