The pains of Sajid Khan in middle school are pains that we can all relate to – well unless you were one of the popular kids. Fortunately, I never got my head flushed in the toilet like Sajid did. He talked back to his teachers – his teachers (this being England) are remarkably patronizing. Of course, his father George (like my parents certainly) overreacts. Clearly, the kid has lost his way and it’s time to take him to the old country.
And thus we dive into Andy DeEmmony’s West is West. The film comes billed as a comedy – a sequel to a movie unseen by me (East is East) – but that in some senses sells it short. Well, that’s not exactly right. Comedies have always been good places to seek truth in art and film and what have you – and DeEmmony (Sleeping with DeEmmony???) is able to use the form to get a bit more truth about immigrant experience than I was expecting. And yes, like all comedies need to be – it’s funny.
When we left Sajid, Jahang … ahem, George had endeavored to take Sajid back to George’s native Pakistan to try to get him on the right track. Sajid needs to get in touch with who he is, and where his pops came from. This makes sense, as we learn that Sajid known no urdu, and and is a proper British lad in most ways, including his creative obscenities. George’s English wife is none too pleased by this development. As a viewer, and frankly – as someone who lives on the planet earth – one can tell that George is totally out to lunch with his diagnosis. Sajid’s phase would pass – and perhaps DeEmmony recognizes this, and sends this as a cue that more is at hand.
We get a hint in an early letter that George has left much family at home in his sojourn – including a son who had been in England. When we arrive in Pakistan, we see just how much Jehan … er, George left behind, and we learn about the backstory that got him to leave, including the first wife he left to go to England in the first place. What is most astonishing is the fact that George had essentially had no contact with these folks other than letter writing – no interim visits, no introduction with the new kid. Of course, when you have the wife you ditched (however statutorily just), I suppose that becomes awkward.
This frankly serious level of the fish out of water is counterpointed with Sajid’s own lighter story. Sajid is very funny in the early scenes in Pakistan insisting on wearing his suit in conditions where a suit is decidedly not welcome. We hear his curses and jokes, and the attempts of his extended family to communicate. This stuff resonated with me and the interesting crossing of cultural divide while still dealing with flesh and blood. Of course, Sajid was going to be fine, and so when he starts developing his friendships and starts to get along – it is hardly a spoiler at all to discuss it.
But the story of Sajid’s benign triumph gives added poignancy and sadness to George’s own discoveries about what he left and his real ability to reclaim his throne. In particular the scenes with his first wife are heartbreaking, both in her own feelings as well as her fierce devotion to her role in the home. There is some conflict here in a movie sense, especially when his English wife makes a surprise appearance, but largely George has a lot of questions to ask about his decisions and what they have wrought. DeEmmony to his infinite credit, does not shortchange the answers and provide a neat resolution. Sometimes you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube.
What can be said is that West is West offers a true, loving portrayal of life with a family spread across oceans. My cousins and extended family largely existed as intellectual facts growing up. I visited them regularly enough, and my folks were vigilant about keeping the connections, but it was hard to have an emotional stake in their outcomes. It’s not callous, it’s not “not caring”, but the battles of their lives are seen from afar with third person narration. It is not tragic so much as a fact of life, but it does cause wonder. That a comedy could elicit thought says something.
* The film was shown as part of Filmest DC. Hopefully it gets the distribution it deserves.