Movie hit revisited as a new star rises in the East

A Yorkshire teenager is at the heart of one of the hottest sequels of the year. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw meets Aqib Khan, wide-eyed star of West is West.

The play’s tight focus was broadened out to create a fleshy, fully-rounded feature by playwright Ayub Khan-Din and producer Leslee Udwin. Together, they transformed it into a film akin to those that formed the core of the 1960s social realist movement.

Khan-Din was heavily influenced by those bittersweet northern films – ground-breaking dramas like A Taste of Honey, Spring and Port Wine and This Sporting Life. He fought vigorously against any attempts to marginalise the story, preferring to consider it simply as a northern comedy in the tradition of those past classics.

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Thus East is East runs deep with comedy, but cuts equally as deep with the overwhelming feeling of marginalisation felt by George “Genghis” Khan (Om Puri), the Anglicised Pakistani father who has lived in the UK with an English wife but who desperately wants his children to be brought up within the Muslim tradition of his homeland, sometimes at any cost.

Puri is wholly believable in his crisis – a loving father who is blinded by his devotion to tradition and unwilling to accept the changes England has wrought in his children. Speaking in 1999 he summed up his character thus: “There are a lot of dramatic moments as well as funny ones. This is reflected in George – he is both monstrously authoritarian and gently comic.

“It seems to me that he is a product of generation upon generation of tradition and he is neither strong enough nor educated enough to break out of this mindset.”

Eleven years later, George is back in Khan-Din’s long-awaited sequel. Another autobiographical tale, West is West sees the still conflicted traditionalist father taking youngest son Sajid – the one who spent most of the original film in his Parka, hood firmly zipped up – from their Salford fish and chip shop to a village in remote Pakistan in the hope it will give him a taste of the old country.

While there, George is forced to confront his past and reluctantly reacquaints himself with the wife and family he abandoned 30 years before. Sajid, now played by 16-year-old Bradford schoolboy Aqib Khan, gets a rude introduction to the life his father once lived.

Aqib’s casting is the stuff that dreams are made of. He is in his own words “a normal teenage lad” who was a final year GCSE student when he was urged by a teacher at Nab Wood School, in Bingley, to take part in open auditions being held across the city. Director Andy DeEmmony, whose previous work includes Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story and Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!, had auditioned more than 30 boys – his casting director had seen about 300 – when Aqib walked in for his reading.

“He was one of the last ones [and] having not acted before at all, he was a real find,” he says. “We had a bit of a chat initially to see if he had the temperament and the cheek. We saw a lot of Asian boys for whom just the process of swearing was pretty tricky. It comes pretty easily to Aqib.

“We did three different scenes in different flavours within the film to see whether he had the cheek and the heart to do it. The character’s a cheeky little so and so and so is he, so it works really well.”

Aqib’s character is a winning mixture of wariness and cockiness. Hired, very briefly rehearsed and flown to India’s Punjab – standing in for Pakistan – he suddenly found himself thrust into a major movie with a legendary co-star: the great Om Puri.

Other lads might have understandably had a panic attack. Not Aqib Khan. He adapted to his much-changed environment like he was already a veteran.

“I’ve been to Pakistan a number of times, so I’m in touch with my roots and I enjoy going back,” he says.

“This was filmed in India, which I’d never been to before, but I could speak the language – Urdu and Hindi is not that much different; it’s just the writing. I made a lot of friends there by speaking our own language. Everyone was really friendly.”

Ayub Khan-Din’s story fastforwards from the original to the 1970s and focuses on the uneasy bond between George Khan and his westernised children.

There is a sense that in immersing Sajid in Pakistani culture he is seeking a final chance to redeem himself – to shake off the shackles of northern English influence he feels has been so detrimental to his brood. Did Aqib feel a kinship with Sajid?

“As a British-Asian boy, you do. Living at home, absorbing different cultures, living in Britain, you see that as your own background whereas family members try and bring in their own roots, which is a bit difficult for some. Some people find it quite easy; I did. But there are the drawbacks and I put them into my performance.”

He rejects suggestions that he has experienced the same issues as his on-screen character, but admits that, even 40 years on from the writer’s world, the process of immersion and the difficulty of straddling two cultures still causes some disquiet.

“You can put yourself in [Sajid’s] position. I’ve seen people around me who have had problems like he has – trying to fit into two cultures at once. They say ‘I don’t want the other one, this is mine’ but then they get forced into the other culture because some people don’t want them to be in that background. Sajid, when he was in school, was getting bullied because he was half-Pakistani. When he went back to Pakistan he was getting discriminated against because he was half-English. He learned he was not going to be accepted in either culture.”

An intelligent, articulate teenager, Aqib quickly assimilated himself into the wider cast and crew and learned to watch established actors like the 60-year-old Puri – a 35-year veteran of films in South Asia, England and the US. It was a steep learning curve and he recognised the burden he bore by following in the footsteps of a film which had not only been a commercial success, but had been loved by a global audience.

“Everyone I know has seen East is East. I knew how huge it was but I tried not to think about it because that could screw me up in my performance – get me nervous before going out and acting. Everything was new to me [but] everything was surprisingly easy.

“With Om, it was a bit daunting seeing him every day ’cause he’s just a legend. But he was a really good guy, very down to earth and a father-son relationship was established. If I was messing around on set he’d jokingly say ‘Shaddup, bastard’ or something [in character] like that, just to make me feel more comfortable.

“Just watching him every day – the way he just put himself into roles and was very casual about it – I learned summat new. I’m lost for words with everything that’s happened.”

Inevitably, talk turns to future plans. After filming, Aqib went back to school and he is now halfway through his A-levels – a fallback in case acting doesn’t work out “but I’m really hoping it will”.

And with Ayub Khan-Din confirming that a third film is in the works, there may be more opportunities on the horizon. In the meantime Aqib has to deal with his mates.

“They haven’t seen the film but they’ve seen clips on the internet – it’s already got 40,000 views. People are really interested so I’m really excited about the prospect. I think the cinemas in Bradford are going to be completely jam-packed. My friends, they just take the mickey. They’ve seen some clips, mostly [of me shouting] ‘Camels, look! Loads of ‘em!” That’s all I hear from them, every day,” he laughs.

The first actor who played Sajid, Jordan Routledge is now a chartered accountant and his successor knows there are no guarantees. The film world is littered with former child stars who couldn’t hack it or decided the movie business just wasn’t for them – I suspect young Mr Khan won’t have any of those problems.

West is West (15) is released on February 25.