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East is East and the pitfalls of Hybridity

by Sanjay Sharma
10 Feb 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Review
 

Update: for a more developed reading of East is East, see my book Multicultural Encounters (2006: ch. 6)

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East is East has been hailed the British comedy hit of 1999. If the media response is anything to go by, this film has been a run away success:[1]

A clear audience favorite with the kind of audience reaction which hasn’t been seen since The Full Monty (The Guardian).

Fresh, frank, impudent and self-mocking, it marks a giant leap over the threshold of multicultural casting and ethnic British cinema (Evening Standard).

…but make no mistake, this very English comedy is rooted in snobbery, hypocrisy, dogma, poverty and racism … when it’s hurting, you can only laugh (Time Out).

East is East received a standing ovation at Cannes and was critically acclaimed at the Edinburgh film festival last year. Based on a successful play by Ayub Khan Din, it’s a semi-autobiograhpical account of his racially-mixed family growing up in the north of England during the early 1970s. The film has been described predictably as a ‘culture clash’ comedy. Chip-shop owner, George Khan (Om Puri) – ‘Ghengis’ to his kids – is the tyrannical Pakistani-Muslim father married to white working-class Ella (Linda Bassett). The film’s source of humour and supposed pathos derives from the their brood – Abdul (Raji James), Tariq (Jimi Mistry), Saleem (Chris Bisson), Meenah (Archie Panjabi), Maneer (Emil Marwa) and Sajid (Jordan Routledge) – finding ways to resist their father’s almost brutal insistence on adhering to ‘traditional’ values of Muslim culture. Beyond the conventions of working-class kitchen-sink drama and slapstick comedy, the film displays an enjoyable retro-chic of Formica, Space-hoppers and Parka jackets that appeals to a contemporary audience. In this respect it is a very English comedy, and yes, spiced up with culture clash elements of arranged marriages and those other antiquated Asian oddities.

So where’s the problem? It’s not because the film is facile and nor does it simplistically reduce its characters to Asian and working-class white stereotypes. Moreover, as Hanif Kureshi has maintained since My Beautiful Laundrette in the mid-1980s, representations of Asian/black culture cannot be trapped by the reductive demands of positive images. East is East isn’t at all concerned with depicting Asian culture in a positive light. On the contrary, it’s driven by a gritty narrative realism which wants to tell you ‘how it was’ – the miscegenated antinomies of surviving in a monocultural Britain in the 70s. Nor does focussing centrally on ‘Asian patriarchy’ as a source of social critique and comedy flaw this film. Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach negotiated this terrain well. More recently, the BBC television comedy sketch show, Goodness Gracious Me has successfully tread the risky ground of making astute cultural observation while laughing with (or is it at?) Asians. East is East re-creates nostalgically a 70s Britain in which we experience a working-class Asian presence: these stories need to be told. But at stake is whose stories get told and how they get told.

I must admit, watching white folks slapping their thighs and falling out of their seats in fits of laughter in the Camden Odeon made me suspicious of how this film operates in mainstream culture. Maybe you could call it cultural paranoia, but what’s the state of play when the youngest Khan, Sajid, screams out ‘Mam, quick the Pakis are here!‘ on arrival of the potential in-laws, the Shah family, to the Khan household? Have we arrived at a multicultural harmony whereby the signifier ‘Paki’ has been emptied of its racialized connotations?I don’t think so either. My contention isn’t about policing language, rather the need to explore the film’s politics of representation in relation to the crucial issue of cultural difference. We need to focus on interrogating how representations of ‘minority’ culture express existing power relationships in society, rather than indulge in the limited exercise of spotting negative stereotypes. Furthermore, is it the case that when an ethnically marked film such as East is East is described as an English film (alongside others such as My Beautiful Laundrette, Bhaji on the Beach or Wild West), there are actually signs of multicultural progress? What counts as English/British in some political arenas seems to have conceded to the issue of cultural diversity, acknowledging finally that the presence of ‘Others’ has immutably changed the nature of British culture.

However, you know that things aren’t so comfortable. We should never forget that the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the abysmal institutional response explodes any liberal discourse of cultural harmony or racial justice in Britain. Nevertheless, a new found cosmopolitanism which confidentially celebrates ‘the Curry’ as the national dish has been endorsed by New Labour and other cultural commentators seeking to embrace diversity. We live in an age of the recognition of multi-culture. For example, the critical success and celebration of musicians such as Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney rightly acknowledges the creative talents of young British Asians. A cynical stance would situate these developments in terms of the demands of expanding global capitalist markets. Let’s face it, ethnicity, diversity and difference have become commodified. Popstar Madonna donning a bindi and embracing all things Eastern captures an increasing appetite for exotica in the West. But there’s rather more to it than that. The idea of multiculturalism, or more specifically ‘hybridity’ is fast becoming a desired cultural condition of the West. And in stark contradiction, this exists alongside a seemingly incessant xenophobia which has been formative of white Western culture and identity. Moreover, the creative condition of cultural hybridity is offered as an antidote to cultural misunderstanding, conflict and even racism.

‘Hybridity’ is another of those contested terms finding favour in both liberal and radical (academic) circles, and has entered into popular cultural commentary. The term is used to describe and categorize contemporary British Asian and black cultural productions such as art, film and music. Hybridity marks a cultural state of mixing or syncretism. The future is one of fusion, different cultural elements coming together and producing something novel. Ossified cultures are being left behind, boundaries are fractured as new cultural practices, identities and ways of being enter into the world. A radical condition? It does seem to have the potential to challenge the invention of an exclusively white Britain, and racist ideas of cultural origins and national belonging. Cultural movements which transgress fixed boundaries and have the potential to re-draw a nationalist and exclusionary Englishness do need to be embraced. The disruption of cultural fixity allows us ethnically defined Others into the game of the politics of presence as well as recognition. Hybridity, nevertheless, has more than one politics and trajectory, and it is the hegemonic project of liberal cultural diversity which renders its utopian gestures rather suspect.

Hybridity can be considered to be the master signifier of East is East. It provides the means through which we comprehend and empathize with the cultural anxieties of the Khan family. In particular, hybridity is the representational strategy which encodes the cultural condition of the miscegenated Khan children. How do they deal with their father’s Pakistani Muslim cultural background in relation to their own white ‘cultural heritage’? The film’s dramatic ending shows the children physically defending the mother from their father’s rage, and demanding that they should have individual freedom which is not be governed by the dictates of an alien traditional Muslim culture. George Khan concedes and returns to working in his chip shop with his wife once again at his side. Things return to normal, but no longer is there any room for his Muslim cultural background to be articulated. The fact that in the final analysis his children ostensibly reject ‘Muslim culture’ isn’t really the problem, but on what basis does this rejection take place is. The cultural premise of East is East embodies a form of hybridity which fails to address the grounds on which the dissonances of cultural difference are played out in Britain. More disturbingly, through the figure of George Khan, it sets up a dichotomy which can only but represent and situate Asian (Muslim) culture as something traditional, ossified and pre-modern.

George Khan played by the talented Om Puri is characterized as affectionate, yet a tyrannical flawed man unable to reconcile his own marriage to a white woman while insisting his children are brought up as proper Muslims. Puri’s wavering northern working-class Pakistani-inflected accent indicates his discomfiture. While running a chip shop – ironically a central site of working-class northern culture – he is unable to negotiate his cultural background with the demands of white Britain. Constantly seeking advice from the local Mosque – undoubtedly the site of a preserved Islamic culture – he tragically tries to instill and reproduce a Muslim way of life which is oblivious to dominant cultural conditions. More significantly, it fails to be negotiated with the hybrid lives of his children. Most of his children secretly eat pork sausages in his absence and Tariq, one of the brothers set up to have an arranged marriage, possesses a white girlfriend and covertly sneaks off to go to the local disco where he is known as ‘Tony’ by racist bouncers.

The children’s condition of their hybridity doesn’t mean there is an intentional or outright rejection of Asian culture. One scene shows all the family enjoying watching an Indian film during a trip to Bradford, and in another, the tough football playing daughter, Meenah dances exquisitely to the music of the classic South Asian film Pakeezah whilst sweeping up fish bones. These few scenes do capture something of the nuances and negotiations of being British working-class Asians. Nevertheless, the film’s hybridity is founded upon a dichotomy which constructs that which is mixed, fused and dynamic as culturally progressive, and in contrast, that which is ethnically fixed, authentic and bounded as culturally backward and almost primordial. You can guess where Muslim culture fits in.

The hybridity on offer means those Asians which cling to their ossified cultures cannot seek entry into the modern world, being unable to negotiate the spaces of progressive multi-culture. To put it another way, the only good Asian is a ‘hybrid Asian’. Note that there’s still no room for ‘hybrid Pakis’. It is an insidious liberal notion of cultural diversity which is increasingly becoming pervasive in representations of hybridity. As the cultural critic Homi Bhabha highlights, in this construction of diversity, an invisible white centre still persists which measures and locates other ‘minority’ cultures. Asian or Muslim culture has no grounds to be hybrid in itself, (as it comes ready formed by thousands of years of primitivism and religion). We could say that the hybridity of East is East is ultimately one of cultural assimilation which leaves whiteness intact. At best the Khan children are ‘caught between two cultures’ in which there is little space for negotiating elements of Asian culture, or exploring how this ‘culture’ historically emerges and changes. Just think about the title of the film, East is East – it gives the game away. It’s only those transferable and translatable Asian elements which are acceptable to this form of assimilative hybridity.

To elaborate, we can turn to the example of the style media created ‘2nd Generation’ Asians, those represented as fashionably and effortlessly fusing all that is best from the East with the modern Western way of being. They represent a kind of (usually middle-class) avant-garde, at the cutting edge of cultural innovation while leaving elements of their traditional and unassimilatable parental culture behind. How ever much they may resist, talented folk such as Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney, Meera Sayal and Hanif Kureshi are caught up in this discourse of hybridity. (The uncool and unknowable ethnic ‘Otherness’ of the rest of Asian culture is jettisoned and left to the anthropologists to decipher).

Perhaps I’m burdening East is East too much with a demand for a politically correct form of hybridity. This however misses the point. My problem with the film is not with its content or negative depictions of Asian culture. In fact, there is a need to develop artistic languages which explore the constant negotiations and ambivalences of British Asian culture. The cleavages of class, gender and ethnicity have only really begun to be addressed over the last decade in Asian cultural productions. These explorations haven’t been carried out in isolation from a dominant racist culture, but nor has it prevented our cultural conditions of emergence from being interrogated. Nevertheless, if we embrace the language of a liberal hybridity, one that fails to address its own hegemonic formation and assimilative trajectory, cultural Otherness will remain marginalized. East is East is symptomatic of a hybridity that seeks to make knowable and representable elements of Asian culture and ethnic difference in a form which remains selective and exclusionary. A new racism – same old story.

Notes

1. A version of this article was originally published in Black Media Journal, 2000, vol 1, no.2, p.32-4.  [↑]

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Sanjay Sharma is a Co-Editor of darkmatter and responsible for the site admin. Currently teaches in the School of Social Sciences, Brunel University, UK. Twitter: @sanjay_digital
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