date: 6th October, 1999
place: Black's private members' club, London
under discussion: East is Eastintro: Mark Olden interviews Ayub Khan-Din, writer of this year's most unlikely British hit, East is East
Here's the pitch. A mixed-race family live in an overcrowded, red brick terraced house in a white, working class area of Salford in the early 70s. The Pakistani dad owns a chip-shop and runs his family with iron discipline. The English mum is forever trying to reconcile her husband's rigid ways with the needs of her six kids - who, to varying degrees, all reject the values their dad grimly thrusts upon them. Throw in arranged marriages, a dollop of black humour, a backdrop of Powellite racism and the India-Pakistan war, and you have an interesting prospect, but probably not - in this age of stark commercialism - big box-office. Think again. East is East, the film version of writer Ayub Khan-Din's successful stage play, looks set to be this year's most unlikely British hit. But for Ayub Khan-Din, however wide East is East's eventual appeal, the story remains unwaveringly personal. It is, after all, largely autobiographical.
Khan-Din grew up in Salford, one of 10 children of - as in the film - a chip-shop owning Pakistani dad and an English mum. In East is East, five out of the six kids spurn Islam and their father's world view; in real life, all Khan-Din's brothers and sisters did. Fresh from Gibraltar, where he just got married, Khan-Din is throwing himself spiritedly into the publicity machine as it cranks itself up prior to the film's general release. His status at the vanguard of Anglo-Asian artists moving into the cultural mainstream (Asian Dub Foundation, Meera Syal, Talvin Singh...), is a far cry from the days when he left school with only three CSEs, followed by a period as "the worst hairdresser in Manchester". Although Khan-Din entered the business through acting (he had parts in My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), he began writing East is East while still at college. Despite its stage success - it was the first ever debut to sell out at London's Royal Court Theatre - its passage to celluloid was tortuous. In the film, Khan-Din is represented by the permanently parka-clad Sajid, played compellingly by Jordan Routledge.
How did you get into writing?
When I left school mid 70s, I was thick as two short planks. I managed to scrape three CSEs: Biology, Religious Knowledge and Art. I hated school and I was bit thick. So I got me a job as a hairdresser and I was the worst hairdresser in Manchester. I never got further than sweeping the floor and washing people's hair. One day, in the hairdressers, I picked up David Niven's book, The Moon's a Balloon, and read that he went from being in the army to being an actor. So I thought if someone can go from one diverse job to another, why can't I? So I just rang the local college, Salford Tech, and asked if they did a drama course. They asked what qualifications I had and just laughed. But I got in and started writing East is East there.
What was your involvement with the film? I was involved right from day one, and reserved the right to say yes or no.
Just how autobiographical is East is East? The parents are drawn directly from my own family. The youngest boy, Sajid, is me as a child. All the arguments in the film, all the theories behind the father's way of thinking, are my own arguments and theories which I developed from writing the first draft of the stageplay to the last draft of the screenplay. The different issues, the different aspects of different relationships - they're all very similar to my own background.
Among the film's running themes are the India-Pakistan war and Enoch Powell. Are they particularly vivid memories for you? When all these events started happening, I was Sajid. I was living in a parka. Enoch Powell was always being thrown in my face as a child, and the whole Bangladesh war of independence had a big effect on our household, because what happened in the house always revolved around the TV news. In a way, it was almost as if the disintegration of Pakistan was happening in our house at the same time. It affected everything that was going on.
Do you have any expectations of how the film will be received in the more traditional parts of the Asian community?
I've made a point in the film of not making it offensive or irreligious at all, so there's nothing they can point to. It's like walking on egg shells. I'm sure people will have some criticism about how I portray my father. But at the end of the day, I'm portraying my father, he's not a Pakistani everyman. To a certain extent, this is a man who abandoned his culture and married an English woman, and then decided that his children should marry Pakistanis. So you know, there was huge hypocrisy there. I made a point of not going to any Q&A sessions after the play because I didn't want to have to start justifying what I'd written. It was a personal story. I wasn't writing about any specific community, I was writing about my father.
Do you think the pressures on young Asians living between the pull of different cultures are less severe than when you were growing up? To a certain extent it's gone full circle. In Bradford it's gone from being traditional to being modern, and back to being traditional again. Because Pakistanis have not seen themselves accepted in this country and have faced racism, along with unemployment and riots, the younger generation has rebelled against the older one and said that they have become too modern and too accepting. You have to find a balance. When you decide to move to a country, you have to understand that your children are going to be influenced by the culture of that country. I think most of the young Asians have found a happy balance, taking the best and leaving the rest of each culture. There will always be traditional families and there will always be the kind of problems my brothers and sisters faced. It'll never go away.