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Om Puri's tough love shines in 'East in East.'

By Ray Pride

APRIL 24, 2000:  Om Puri.

Once Damien O'Donnell and I get a few jokes out in lieu of a proper hello, those are the two words, the most important two words to say about "East is East," O'Donnell's raucous, often-hilarious and occasionally moving debut feature comedy. Om Puri.

Of Puri's performance in last year's "My Son the Fanatic," O'Donnell says, "He isn't the same man. Someone had possessed his body during our film, taken him over! I saw him the other day, and I looked at the hair and the mustache and the fierce expression on his face, and I said that's not you up there. I don't know who that is, but it's not you."

Based on an autobiographical play by Ayub Khan-Din, "East is East" impresses with its knockabout comedy and its deepening melancholy. In a London suburb in the 1970s, George Khan (Puri) is a Pakistani father raising seven rebellious children by Ella, his English wife (the wry, resigned, wonderful Linda Bassett). When he insists on tradition -- which includes a pair of arranged marriages -- his children rebel. Puri does not sentimentalize George and his tyranny appalls. Yet we know this man. Puri is the rare actor whose performances bypass your head and go directly to your heart. His dignity, timing and presence are remarkable. Puri does not seem like an actor who'd talk motivation. "No, he's brilliantly instinctive, he just reacts, y'know what I mean?" the 32-year-old Irishman says. "He just reads the script. He also takes direction exceptionally well. He'll take your idea and he'll build on it. A joy to work with. He doesn't intellectualize his work at all; he's very grounded in reality of the character."

Do you have to be of the same culture to direct a film set there? "Actually, I'm 1/67 Pakistani. No, I'm not. I have no relationship to the culture whatsoever. The thing about it is, you don't have to be from a culture to direct a film about it. Ang Lee made 'The Ice Storm,' Alan Parker made 'The Commitments.' Those were experiences and cultures far removed from their own. I think your obligation as a director is tell a story as economically and as entertainingly as possible. The advantage of having a writer from that world is the key. Ayub was writing about his own family, his life. He captured that world in his writing. I was able to embellish it in some ways, do research on details and add bits, or maybe clarify things with our Muslim advisors or about movies of the time that are referred to. But I just told the story that I saw. In some ways, whatever I felt I could relate to was the whole idea of a large family living in close proximity in a very small house in a working-class area. I can relate to that side of the story. But the idea of an overbearing father? My parents were very relaxed. But I could empathize with Ayub's work."

What about the theme of outsiders in a culture? Here's an Irishman making an English film about Pakistani emigrants. "I've been exposed to a minor amount of racism, mostly in Britain, but it's nothing worth talking about, nothing on the scale that Ayub would have to put up with in his life. But it was the reality of the script that really appealed to me. Even before I knew hew was writing about his own life, I could tell from Ayub's script that he was writing about real events."

The locations and sets have a thoroughly lived-in feel and O'Donnell says that's important to his intent. "It has to be real for you on the day, I feel. The director is the audience's representative on the set, and if he's not properly tuned to it, you're looking for trouble in the very near future."

O'Donnell presses his point. "I had to be convinced. A lot of dialogue had to be cut because it didn't convince. Ayub opened up the play; to his credit, he had a healthy disrespect for his own work. He was open to restructuring and changing key moments. But it all heads to the inevitable, horrible conclusion which is the confrontation with the family at the end. We worked intensely for about six months, does this make sense? Is this real? Constantly asking questions. I think it's the director's job. I don't think a director starts work walking onto the set or even into casting. You need to have input into the script. Even without changing a word of the script, you need to ask questions to understand how the mechanics of the story work. You have to be able to justify why the characters behave the way they do."

Miramax's advertising is strangely misrepresentative of the story, but O'Donnell, who says he hates coming attraction trailers, believes the film, not publicity, is what eventually matters. "I could answer lots of questions about the motivations of the characters, but I don't think that I should answer questions like that. Once a film goes out to an audience, it becomes their possession. Whatever their reactions to it, they're the ones that count. Not mine."

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