The great Indian actor Om Puri has made nearly 40 films in his country, but very few have been shown here. Wouldn’t it be great if some enterprising local film programmer staged a Puri festival? (It could start with Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati). Best known here for his role in My Son The Fanatic, where he played a sweet-souled Pakistani cabdriver in England whose son becomes an Islamic fundamentalist, Puri makes another resplendent appearance in East Is East, where he once again plays a Pakistani in England; only this time, it is he, and not his family, who is locked viselike into tradition. As George Khan, a fish-and-chips-store owner who came over as an immigrant in 1937 and married an Englishwoman (Linda Bassett), Puri transforms what might have been a mixed-race Life With Father into a jagged comedy bristling with emotional contradictions.
George arranges marriages for his uncooperative sons with Pakistani girls, and yet his own marriage, maddening as it often is, sustains him. He’s torn between believing he’s a bad Muslim or just a thwarted one, and as his frustrations mount, he seems throttled by his own ferocity. The film, set in the seventies and directed by Damien O’Donnell from a script by Ayub Khan-Din based on his play, offers Puri a wide dramatic range, which the actor extends even further. George is no mere monster; although his rages are truly frightening, he can also light up like a cherub when he has a treat to share. Giving his indulgent, uncomprehending wife the present of a barber chair, he carries on as if it were the queen’s throne. Puri shows us a man who is riven not only by his own religious conflicts but also by an England that cannot accept his differentness. He’s proud of that differentness, and yet, in a way he may not be able to admit to himself, he’s also contrite. He’s caught up in a racist culture calling for his repatriation, and on some level, he’s ready to comply and chuck it all. George is both a success story and a horror story of the immigrant experience; Puri gives him his full measure of complexity.