Thanks principally to novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, the Anglo-Pakistani social comedy has been a boom genre in British cinema for some 15 years. East Is East loosely fits the form but is distant in time, place, and tone from such Kureishi-scripted films as My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and My Son the Fanatic. Set in Manchester in 1971, the film is broader, more boisterous, and—despite depicting the specialized subject of an Anglo-Pakistani brood torn by issues of religion and tradition—more mainstream.
That is, the movie proved mainstream in Britain, where it was a critical and box-office hit. In this country, Miramax is clearly worried that—to conclude the quotation that provides the film’s title—never the twain shall meet. Not only did the distributor dub some of the dialogue for American ears, but it has also built its publicity campaign around the image of a young Anglo woman who plays only a small role in the movie—and in the family. That’s awkward, because family is the essence of this tale. Directed by first-timer Damien O’Donnell from Ayub Khan-Din’s autobiographical script, the film is often cartoonish, but only characters who are not members of the Khan clan are treated as utter buffoons.
O’Donnell exhibits his flair with the kinetic opening sequence, in which some of the Khan kids duck down alleys to avoid revealing to their father, George (Om Puri), that they’re marching in a Christian procession. With a minimum of dialogue, the director establishes the Khans’ essential conflict: Their mother, Ella (Linda Bassett) is English, and George runs that quintessential English institution, a fish-and-chips shop, but he insists that his seven children be raised as observant Muslims. Yet only one among the kids—six boys and one tomboyish girl—is truly following his father’s wishes. The rest are faking it with various degrees of enthusiasm and skill.
Because there are so many children, they are mostly limited to a single attribute: The oldest, Nazir (Ian Aspinall), is deemed “dead” because he flees his arranged marriage at the movie’s beginning. Tariq (Jimi Mistry) is a playboy who prefers to be called Tony; his sometime girlfriend, Stella (Emma Rydal), is the blonde featured in Miramax’s posters. Abdul (Raji James) is generally obedient, although he has doubts when he realizes that his father is arranging two more marriages and that he and Tariq are the intended grooms. Saleem (Chris Bisson) has pleased his father by pretending to study engineering, but actually attends art school, where he’s working on a confrontational piece that will ultimately prove vital to the plot. Sajid (Jordan Routledge) is the youngest, an eccentric who rarely takes off his parka—and becomes even more determined to keep it on when he learns he’s to be re-circumcised.
As the controversy over Sajid’s inadequately clipped “tickle-tackle” suggests, Khan-Din’s humor is often earthy. He gets considerable material out of the fact that the Khans live in a neighborhood where the sanitary facilities are of Angela’s Ashes vintage; the family relies on an outhouse and a chamber pot, and both are worth a few gags. Yet, although it sometimes lurches too far in the direction of farce, East Is East has grave undertones. It’s 1971 (also the year of Such a Long Journey), the time of the Bangladesh war, and George is concerned about relatives back home. It’s also the era of racist British politician Enoch Powell, who’s generating anti-immigrant fury. It’s in this context, of an unwelcoming Britain, that George has decided to ensure his boys a place in Anglo-Pakistani society through marriage. When they resist, his concern for their well-being mixes with macho pride, leading to volatile rages against his wife and children.
Puri brings memorable intensity and nuance to the role of George, who could have seemed merely monstrous despite his many lighthearted moments. As the long-suffering Ella, Bassett is a worthy match. Few of the other characters, however, have such depth. The film is particularly rough on women: Prospective Anglo girlfriends and Pakistani brides alike are dismissed with a single unattractive trait, usually physical. Still, Khan-Din shows genuine affection for Ella, who has the second richest role, and tomboy sister Meenah (Archie Panjabi), in a small but engaging part. East Is East skewers the institution of family, but there’s nothing it treasures more.
The opening scene of The Terrorist is, appropriately, explosive. The screen is black, placing the audience in the same sensory-deprived plight as a man being accused by unseen voices of being a traitor. Then the man’s hood is removed and he finds a gun against his throat. The trigger is pulled and blood spurts, spotting the mask of the assassin. (Since the sequence is shot mostly in tight close-ups, viewers themselves might expect to be spattered.) The shooter’s mask comes off, revealing a striking young woman. This is the movie’s heroine, 19-year-old Malli. The terrorist.
Shot in 17 days for a mere $50,000 by brilliant Indian cinematographer Santosh Sivan, The Terrorist is a tour de force that’s worth seeing simply for its exceptional sense of style. Sivan’s directorial debut is visually spectacular and structurally elegant, a commanding mix of luxurious images and spartan storytelling. What it is not, surprisingly, is political.
Sivan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ravi Deshpande and Vijay Deveshwar, has said he was inspired by the 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The bulk of the sparse dialogue is in Tamil, the language of Sri Lanka’s rebels, and John Malkovich—who is “presenting” The Terrorist to American audiences—has written that the film is set in Sri Lanka. Neither of these real-world precedents is apparent from the movie, however. Malli (Ayesha Dharkar, the film’s only professional actor) is simply a young woman who has lost all her family members to an unspecified struggle. When she volunteers for a suicide mission—to become “a thinking bomb,” as she’s called by the leader who never shows his face to the camera—her target is identified solely as “the VIP.” Only the language, the jungle, and Malli’s face suggest where in the world this drama is transpiring.
Indeed, the story is played out mostly on that face, and especially in its deep, dark eyes. Although Sivan uses some terse flashbacks to explain Malli’s motivations, mostly he observes her visage. The obvious precedent is Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, another tale of a young woman with an overwhelming mission—and another film that studies its mute heroine in a series of extreme (some would say excessive) close-ups. Yet Malli is not exactly Joan of Arc. Indeed, in its rapt contemplation of a young woman who has to make a big decision, The Terrorist resembles Benoit Jacquot’s A Single Girl. That movie’s protagonist was a Paris room-service waitress rather than a jungle-bred zealot, yet the two have something in common.
The movie follows Malli (whose name means “jasmine”) from her cadre’s hidden jungle camp to a farmhouse, where she is to await the completion of her task. While being led to a seaside rendezvous by her 10-year-old guide (Vishwas), Malli demonstrates both tender empathy and instinctive ruthlessness. Once becalmed as a guest of farmer Vasu (Parmeshwaran), who’s been told that Malli is an agriculture student, the thinking bomb at last has time to think. The garrulous Vasu at first seems a South Indian Polonius, but Malli gradually comes to see that he’s well-meaning and even perceptive. The farmer and his comatose wife represent the normal life that Malli thought she could never have—but begins to suppose might be possible after all.
Despite its vivid (if mostly off camera) depictions of violence, The Terrorist gradually discloses a sensibility that has little to do with the political events that inspired it. Sivan’s viewpoint is humanistic, even a bit romantic. Although the film is minimalist by the standards of Indian cinema—including the politically charged Bollywood musicals the cinematographer has shot for director Mani Ratnam—it’s sometimes a bit too lush. Sivan used only natural light and shot on location in South Indian jungles, yet the images of his water-dappled star sometimes glisten as sumptuously as upscale perfume ads.
Like the most emphatic flourishes of Sonu Sisupal and Rajamani’s decidedly non-Indian score, these overly voluptuous moments occasionally overwhelm the film’s most distinctive aspect: its austerity. Still, Sivan’s stark yet luminous style ultimately proves eloquent. Those expecting The Terrorist to take sides in any particular South Asian conflict will be disappointed, but the film’s assault on bloated Bollywood could hardly be more revolutionary. CP