Mixed-race revelations still strike a chord

Pauline McLynn and Simon Nagra in East is East. Picture: Marc Brenner
Pauline McLynn and Simon Nagra in East is East. Picture: Marc Brenner
  • As a new production of East is East arrives in Bradford later this month, Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad looks at how the play’s themes are even more relevant today.
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I’ve always had a complex relationship with the film East is East.

When it was first released, in 1999, many of my friends urged me to see it immediately.

Yes, the family dynamic reflects mine and, yes, that’s what my family looks like.

Being mixed race English and Asian in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s meant you had precisely zero chance of seeing yourself truly represented in popular media. Then here was Ayub Khan-Din, showing what it was really, actually like. The subtle nuances of eating bacon when dad wasn’t around, a mother who loved you enough to give you a good whack, because that’s what Northern mums did, Khan-Din captured the duality perfectly.

It felt strange, though, that the secrets had been shared. Looking like our family did always felt like something special. There were no families that looked like that in Keighley at the time, we felt like our little unit was special – and here was Khan-Din telling everyone all about it.

I subsequently interviewed the author a few years ago for The Yorkshire Post and the connection between the two of us, given that he had written something that felt so personal was... not reciprocated. Not one of my favourite interviewees, it has to be said.

Sitting and watching a new iteration of this story in Brighton, on a hot, sunny June day this year, the old strange feelings came back. The production in Brighton is a touring version of the one that received high praise when it was in London’s West End earlier this year. The play will be on stage at the Bradford Alhambra later this month.

In Brighton, at the show’s denouement, which features an anatomical life-like sculpture interrupting proceedings at a highly inopportune moment, the theatre is almost universally doubled over in laughter. I am not laughing. The comedy in East is East isn’t just pushed up against the tragedy, it’s overlapping, and all I can hear are the insults being thrown at the Khan children in the maelstrom of the comedy.

“Half-breed” sticks in the memory.

Speaking to the cast after the show in Brighton, there is an understanding that audiences will take very different things from East is East the stage play, dependent on the worldview they bring into the theatre with them.

Darren Kuppan, who plays Maneer, the devout young muslim of the Khan family, has complicated feelings when it comes to the liberal use of the word ‘paki’ in the script.

“Audiences laugh about it, but as a child I got into a lot of trouble because of that word. It actually really hurts, but I know that a lot of audiences won’t understand that, because they’ve never been through the experience of having it said to them.”

For Salma Hoque, who plays the headstrong Meenah Khan, the play has become more, rather than less, relevant in the intervening years since it was debuted.

She says: “It feels like the sense of identity, immigration, what it means to be British, people seem to be much more vocal about their opinions around all that these days. People are a lot more forthcoming – issues of prejudice were hidden behind closed doors in the past. Now it feels like those opinions are something you are constantly coming across.”

East is East tells the story of the Khan family. The patriarch is George Khan, a Pakistani man who has settled in Britain with his English wife, Ella, and their brood of headstrong children, all of whom have a different take on the fact that they are Northern, British and Asian.

Kuppan says: “I think it’s about love and understanding, and that’s why people still want to see it. I think it’s also about misunderstanding that can sometimes happen between generations. George wants to build a bridge between himself and his children, but he doesn’t know how to.”

Simon Nagra is the man tasked with playing George Khan. In the West End production Ayub Khan-Din himself took on the role. On tour it goes to a man whose acting credits include working with the RSC.

“I’ve worked on plays by Ayub a few times now – I wasn’t surprised when they approached me for this,” says Nagra, fully aware that the pool of Asian actors of his age and stature is not exactly deep here in Britain.

“People do keep saying to us that the play is now even more relevant than it was in the past. It’s about identity and you can relate to that wherever you’re from.

“The themes are universal. What it’s really about is home and where that is. I don’t mean just physically, but metaphorically too. At the moment we have people from Africa and other parts of the world, looking for somewhere they can call a home and that is George’s great preoccupation. He is always talking about ‘my house’ or ‘my shop’. He’s shipwrecked in this country.”

Ashley Kumar plays Tariq in the production. Interestingly, he is the only member of the cast who is actually mixed race. “My dad’s Indian and my mum’s from Liverpool, so this really does feel like my story,” he says. “It can be a strange situation, you can feel like a man without a country. When I was younger and going to family functions on my dad’s side of the family, my cousins would have to explain what was going on because I didn’t speak my dad’s language and didn’t really understand.

“My mum and dad came to see the show and I think they found it quite emotional. They went through all that stuff, all those battles that this family go through.”

All the cast also talk about the fact that when the show comes to Bradford – how to put this without offending the lovely people of Brighton? – chances are, in Bradford we will understand this story of what it is to be Northern and caught between two worlds.

It’s easy to see why and how it is just so very relevant right now.