West is West Interview Special with Ayub Khan Din

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Writer Ayub Khan Din on bringing his childhood to the big screen

When Ayub Khan Din wrote the first draft of ‘East is East’ when he was still in drama school, little did he think the story of his own childhood would become one of Britain’s most loved films. This month the sequel to ‘East is East’ – ‘West is West’ – hits our screens. Here Ayub reveals how his story made it to the big screen.

 

Ayub tell us about ‘West is West’

The character Sajid from ‘East is East’, the youngest son, is having problems at home with his father and at school as well, where he’s facing a lot of racism. He’s going off the rails, wagging school, truanting, and has now started going off on stealing trips to Manchester. It all comes to a head when he’s arrested by the police, and this makes the parents sit down and decide they’ve got to do something with him. George decides to take him to Pakistan to go and live with George’s family there. George thinks he’s going to leave him there and disappear again, but when he gets there he realises that the problems he left 30 years ago in Pakistan are still there, and he realises that things in Pakistan are not what he imagined them to be in his dreams for those 30 years.

George ostensibly takes Sajid over to Pakistan hoping to impress upon him a life, a family, a culture that George feels the boy is having problems with in England. He’s trying to teach Sajid something about his own life; but he realises that that life doesn’t exist anymore. The relationship he believed he had with this Pakistani family, over that 30 year period, through letters and occasional visits to England from various nephews etc., doesn’t exist. George, realising this for the first time, is left adrift out there and in the end it’s he who has to start learning about the life that he left and the consequences that leaving had on him and on the family. The George who comes back from Pakistan is ashamed of what he did and how he left his family. He comes away with a hope, and the objective of rebuilding his relationship with his other sons.

 

Was it hard writing ‘West is West’ knowing how successful ‘East is East’ had become?

It was daunting at first because East is East was such a big hit and has become a sort of British classic. And every sequel I’ve ever seen is a big disappointment so I felt the most important thing was to write a completely different film that would stand up alone. If you haven’t seen ‘East is East’, you could still go along to this film and enjoy it.

My main concern was to make it as honest and as fresh and as real and different as ‘East is East’ was. People seem to remember ‘East is East’ as a comedy, but it was a very serious film in which you laugh more because of the seriousness; the ‘comedy’ identity of it was just marketing. And the same is true of ‘West is West’. My childhood was very dark; my father was very strict and didn’t think twice about using his hands to discipline or punish us. But that was funny, because when it was happening to your brother it was him who was getting it, not you. I had a very dark but very funny upbringing and that runs through my writing.

 

What was it like revisiting the characters from ‘East is East’ after such a long time?

Apart from the fact that a lot of the story is autobiographical, my relationship with this story is very long. I wrote the very first draft of ‘East is East’ in 1982 when I was at drama school, so these characters have been with me a very long time and this has been a very organic process.

Sajid has been dragged away from 20th century Salford and dumped in 19th century Pakistan with no electricity, no running water and no school. Initially he’s anti-everything until he starts to enjoy his life there. Over a period of months, and through his relationship with Pir Naseem, a Sufi wise man he meets and connects with out there, he’s gently led into an understanding of who he is and where he’s from and what he can leave behind.

The film is equally shared between George and Sajid. There’s a moment in the film where George is absolutely lost — the sequence in the sandstorm — and Sajid holds out strength to him and brings him into the light.

 

Tell us about the autobiographical nature of the two films

‘East is East’ is pretty much my family background, though there were 10 kids in my family. George and Ella are my mother and father — they called my dad Charlie and my mother was Hilda and they had a fish and chip shop. My dad came from a village in Kashmir and left India before partition. There was some spark in him which made him go against everything that was expected of him: he should have stayed and worked on a farm. But some spark of rebelliousness made him leave the village, go to Bombay, join the merchant navy and jump ship and settle in England. But one of his great failings was that he never recognised that same spark in his own children. During the war he worked in an ammunitions factory in Birmingham and then he moved on to Manchester. My mum was a ‘clippie’, a conductress on a bus, and she’d noticed this man just riding the bus all night long and then one night he asked her to go the pictures with him. In those days, if you were a white woman with a black man, you were considered a prostitute. They went through a lot together.

None of the kids were religious in any way, even though my dad used to send us to the mosque, which was in someone’s front room because there weren’t any purpose built mosques in those days. And all that meant to us was that we’d miss Blue Peter and we’d miss Magpie. And when the mosque van came to collect us and we heard the knocking at the door, we’d all hide. And then my dad would come and throw us all into the back of the van which we hated. All that was taken and put straight into ‘East is East’.

My father was very strict, like George. This was a man who was a peasant who didn’t read or write his own language or English. He experienced a lot of racism when he married my mum and for him what was very comforting about Islam was that it didn’t matter what country you came from, Africa or China or wherever, or who you were as long as you were a Muslim, you’d be accepted into the larger family of Islam. In his uneducated way, that is what he was trying to give us, a family we could fall back on and find comfort in. But when you make the decision to move to a country which is completely different from the society you grew up in and then on top of that you marry a woman from that country, there are certain things you are going to have give up. You can’t dictate what your children’s culture is going to be; you have to let them discover that for themselves, even if it flies in the face of all you hold dear and true. And I don’t think he ever accepted that and he thought he would mould us into good Pakistani boys and girls, and that only made us rebel against him and everything that he was.

The only autobiographical parallels in ‘West is West’, are that as a 12-year-old I was sent to Pakistan because I was running wild. I was there for about a year, didn’t get on with my dad’s wife and daughters, and was just left to my own devices. My brother was out there and had been there for a year and spoke Punjabi. I didn’t know any Punjabi and refused to learn any, and just swore at everyone I came across. There was a Pir Naseem character: a holy man who lived in the village, always insisted on sitting on the floor, slept in my cousin’s stable, dressed in rags and looked after the cemetery. I never had a relationship with him but followed him at a distance, and kind of stalked him, never thinking he would come back into my life in this way years later.

 

Ayub what are your personal thoughts on how the film has turned out

I was being sent rushes every day from India but it was very frustrating because I live in Spain now, up a mountain and down a valley, so I don’t easily get a single and every time I tried to download the rushes it’d say “48 hours”, and I don’t have a battery that’s last so long, so I could never see them. When I saw the film for the first time, it was amazing because the scenes I saw were the scenes I wrote and the performances were excellent, so I am very happy.

 

Why should people go and see West is West?

I think it’s a great story and a poignant one and, though set in 1974, has its feet firmly in Britain of today and is about the way Asians and Pakistanis perceive themselves and are perceived. And it allows people to see that they have a choice about who they are, what their culture is and how much of their culture doesn’t belong here.

 

 

West is West is released across the UK on 25th February 2011

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