But Khan's blindness to his son's fear has less to do with adherence to tradition than his own complicated circumstances. The owner of a quintessentially English fish-and-chips shop in Manchester, the Pakistani pater familias knows he will never be fully accepted in his adopted land-as the right-wing racist next door serves to constantly remind him. Married to a non-Pakistani woman himself, he also feels like an outsider among his own kind. By imposing his will upon his children, he believes, he can regain his standing with his peers and assert his place in the world.
As his kids like to point out, it's a hypocritical stance: Dad abandoned his first wife back in Pakistan, then married an Englishwoman--their mother--for love.
The idea of arranged marriages strikes most of us as archaic, and the surest path to unhappiness. But on the taxi ride home from seeing "East Is East" I wondered to my cabbie whether the topic of arranged marriages has relevance to today's immigrant communities. It turned out that this thoroughly westernized 28-year old Indian who grew up in the United States, was still grappling with the problem, planning at that moment a trip to his homeland to meet prospective brides he parents had lined up. Marrying outside the community, he explained, means crossing the line, a gesture as meaningful in today's assimilating cultures as it once was for a Jewish immigrant who decided to eat non-kosher food, or a Catholic who neglected to baptize his child. In this light, "East Is East" suddenly seemed more tragic than comic.
But the movie turns somber. Blinded by the guilt he feels for abandoning his culture and the inevitability of his family's assimilation, Khan becomes verbally and physically abusive, and more determined than ever to determine his children's fates.
That he doesn't come off as a villain owes much to the subtle portrayal of his character by the Indian film star Om Puri, who combines the rough-edged sensuality of a Richard Burton with the stubborn likability of an Archie Bunker. Puri sympathetically portrays a man trying to catch up to his own flight across the globe: Khan's assimilation is already a fait accompli. He knows this in his head, but has yet to accept it in his heart.