x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Om Puri talks about West Is West

The West Is West star Om Puri talks about stepping back into a role he last played more than a decade ago.

West is West focuses its action in the Pakistani Punjab.
West is West focuses its action in the Pakistani Punjab.

Om Puri is talking about being George Khan again. The sequel to the British comedy hit East Is East is called West Is West and this time most of the action takes place in Pakistan rather than Salford, Greater Manchester.

The actor, who was born in Ambala, in the Indian state of Haryana, first played the Pakistani father raising his troupe of seven children in Salford in 1999. East Is East was an enormous success in the UK, grossing more than £10 million (Dh58m) at the box office and kick-starting a wave of Asian comedies. Bend It Like Beckham scored a hit in the same culture-clash territory.

Given the success of this sub-genre, the big surprise is that it has taken so long for someone to come up with the idea of making a sequel to East Is East. The downside of the interval is that West Is West has arrived at a time when the genre seems to have run its course, encountering considerable audience lethargy. Gurinder Chadha's It's a Wonderful Afterlife was a recent box-office disappointment. The question is whether George Khan will buck this trend and show that for the right story, people will still flock to the cinemas.

As with the original, the sequel is set in the 1970s. George is worried about his youngest son, so, determined to teach him something about his Pakistani heritage, he takes him on a trip to the homeland. There, George is surprised to discover that his family and friends are not awaiting his return after almost 40 years with open arms. An outsider in Salford, he now finds himself an outsider in Pakistan.

The movie had it's world premiere in Toronto and its eagerly awaited Middle Eastern premiere last night at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which has another screening scheduled on Wednesday. Speaking in a hotel in Toronto, Puri says: "I was very curious when they told me that they would be making a sequel. I was wondering from what point they would take off and which direction they would head towards. I didn't expect that the story would involve him visiting his family and going back to Pakistan. It's a wonderful idea and it works very well."

After a decade away from the character, the actor admits that he needed a bit of a refresher course on George Khan. He explains: "The only thing I did when I got the script and I knew that I would be playing the character again was to go back and watch East IsEast again, just to know and have a feel again for the accent."

Happily, it was an experience that gave him a lot of pleasure: "I was trying to look for flaws. But it was a successful film and I was pleased that it was still a good film."

Both East Is East and West Is West make a lot out of the culture clashes that come when a person moves from one country and background to another. It is even more pronounced in George's case, as he's a Pakistani who has set up home with an Irish Catholic. He seems to meet the disapproval of everybody. The fact that the action takes place in the 1970s means that more can be made of the conflicts than would be the case if the movie were set in the present day, and Puri admits that the issues we see in West Is West might seem like old hat to people growing up in Britain today.

"I remember when I came to England for the first time there was a lot of discrimination against Asians," he says. "I could sense that in restaurants or when I was waiting for a tube, on a train, at a cinema hall, or watching a football match, I could feel that discrimination. Now visiting England in the past 10 to 12 years, that thing doesn't exist. The assimilation is much better and there is an acceptance of Asians in the mainstream."

This has coincided with the arrival of more British Asians directing films, although East IsEast and West IsWest were directed by different, non-Asian directors, Damien O' Donnell and Andy DeEmmony.

Puri does not believe that movies have had anything to do with the positive changes in British society. "It's not because of the films," he states. "It's because the next generation that came now has become local, born in Britain, brought up there. They are familiar with the culture, they are not threatening mainstream culture, so that is why the assimilation happened and it helps that they are educated."

Doing sequels to hit British films must have seemed a pipe dream for Puri when his career began. A drama student and graduate of the Film and Television School of India, he made his screen debut in 1976 in a film based on the Marathi play Ghashiram Kotwai. His early career saw him act in a number of art-house pictures. In Aakrosh ("Cry of the Wounded") his character is traumatised by a crime committed against his wife, something of which he is falsely accused, with the result that he utters not a word for the rest of the film. The strength of his performance comes from the expression of shock on his face and he carries the movie.

In the 1990s Puri started to play more roles in popular Hindi and English-language films. A role in City of Joy saw Puri befriend Patrick Swayze on screen in 1992. He played a doctor in Mike Nichols's 1994 horror Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, and he was in The Ghost and the Darkness with Val Kilmer in 1996. His turns caught the eye of British producers and he appeared in the Hanif Kureshi-scripted My Son the Fanatic in 1997 before his most famous English-language role playing George Khan in East IsEast.

The continual dividing of his time between English language films and Hindi cinema has continued today. He recently starred in the box-office smash Singh Is King and is currently working on two projects in Mumbai. "There is one with Shahrukh Khan called Don 2 and there is also a comedy called Society."

Just out in India and the winner of two national awards is Khap… A Story of Honour Killing in which the actor - a passionate opponent of so-called "honour" killings - plays a village elder in favour of the practice. The film starts with his character furious about a marriage that has taken place in northern India. "I do play a believer in honour killing, who justifies it, but the movie is about the change of heart that takes place within him," he says.

In West Is West, George tries to arrange a marriage for his youngest son, and Puri feels that, done in the right way, the tradition of arranged marriages can and should be upheld: "There is nothing wrong with arranged marriages just as there is nothing wrong with love marriages," he says. "The idea of elders trying to organise arranged marriages is to look for compatibility and in most cases they just want their son or their daughter to be happy." That's something all parents can identify with.