x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The path of Ayub Khan-Din from East to West

The playwright and screenwriter talks about his unique upbringing and his circuitous path to becoming a writer.

The West Is West and East Is East playwright and screenwriter Ayub Khan-Din.
The West Is West and East Is East playwright and screenwriter Ayub Khan-Din.

A talent for writing and storytelling can sometimes flourish in the most unlikely circumstances - and few are more unlikely than those in which Ayub Khan-Din, the hugely successful Anglo-Pakistani playwright and screenwriter, grew up.

He was the eighth of 10 children born in Salford, then an unlovely part of Manchester, to an English Catholic mother and a Pakistani Muslim father who ran a fish-and-chip shop. The huge family was packed into a tiny terraced house, and fierce arguments were common. His domineering father, wanting his sons to be more Pakistani and Muslim, tried to arrange marriages for them; the boys, who felt British, rebelled.

After leaving home and working unhappily for two years in a hairdressing salon run by three of his siblings, Khan-Din went off to drama school, became an actor and gradually started writing. It seemed only natural to him to devise a play about an Anglo-Pakistani family very like his own.

That play, East Is East, first saw the light of day in a well-received production at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1997. Two years later, the film version was released and became a phenomenal hit - at the time, it was the most successful wholly British-funded film.

Khan-Din insists that East Is East is an accurate portrayal of his parents, and that the youngest boy in the film is essentially a version of himself. But he finds an odd aspect to the film's success: "Everyone thinks East Is East was a comedy, but it wasn't just that. There were funny things in it, though it was actually a rather dark film. It was the same with the play."

He cites the character of the father, George "Genghis" Khan, played by the legendary Indian actor Om Puri, a tyrannical patriarch who can resort to physical violence when family members displease him. It is also made clear that George had a previous wife and children he abruptly left behind in Pakistan. "But in the film world it has to be one thing or the other," Khan-Din adds, "so it was pushed as a comedy."

Still, it's commonly agreed that in East Is East (he took the title from a Rudyard Kipling poem) he did a brilliant job of mining his family's history during his formative years, and adapting it into a compelling story. Astonishingly, a dozen years on, he has done it again with a sequel: West Is West again draws directly on his experiences as a young boy.

This time, though, the setting changes. It begins in 1975 in Salford, where the family's youngest boy, 15-year-old Sajid (again, a thinly disguised younger version of Khan-Din), struggles with his life. He swears, indulges in petty theft, suffers bullying and racial abuse at school, and is generally impossible to handle. His father, George (played again by Puri), decides to take him to Pakistan to show him traditional values and to give the boy a sharper sense of his identity.

George accompanies him, and while he is there, comes face to face with the Pakistani wife and daughters he deserted three decades before when he left for England. And then they are all joined in Pakistan by his English wife, Ella (Linda Bassett), who is puzzled that her husband has extended his stay.

Last October, West Is West won the Audience Choice award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival; viewers from the UAE's sizeable Pakistani population were particularly enthusiastic.

It turns out that Khan-Din was himself shipped off to Pakistan when he was 12 years old, though in real life his father did not accompany him.

"I can see why he sent me," he says. "I was a real problem. I was playing truant from school. Suddenly, the fact I was half-Pakistani, a lot was made of that in school. I was in my pre-teens and a pain in the backside. I was a horrible kid. Any excuse not to go to school was fine by me.

"My brother had gone out there a year before and he was going to go on to India. But he ended up staying in Pakistan and decided he wanted to get married there. So my dad looked at me and said: 'Let him go to Pakistan, too. It might work - and we don't want him here'." Khan-Din ended up staying there for a year.

Khan-Din lives in a remote spot in Spain's Sierra Nevada near Granada, with his actress wife, Buki Armstrong, and their two young daughters. He is now a hugely successful screenwriter and playwright by any measure. But he agrees that a writing career would have seemed unlikely to anyone who knew him when he was young.

It took years for Khan-Din to emerge as a writer; first he had a successful spell as a handsome, popular young actor. Yet acting gradually lost its appeal. "I think I became jaded," he recalls. "The work wasn't so great. It became all about getting jobs to pay the big mortgage off."

While he was still at drama school, around 1982, he had written early drafts of the play that would become East Is East. But only when he decided to quit acting and concentrate full time on writing did the work make real progress. After its successful Royal Court production, it was only a matter of time before he adapted it for film.

Yet it has taken 12 years for West Is West to emerge. Why the long wait? It wasn't because of a lack of demand. "There was an immediate clamour for a sequel. East Is East was a complete work, but so many questions were left unresolved. George's first family (in Pakistan) were this dark shadow in the background. So many people wanted to know their story, and what happened next."

He has plans to round off the Khan family saga by making it a trilogy; a third film, he says, would advance the action to 1978.

"In real life, I was leaving school, the dimension of the family was changing, and my dad wasn't doing anything anymore," he says. "I think death has got to come into it - and also Sajid moving away, coming of age, breaking away from the mold and going off to drama school."

There's no longer any vestige of his family's life in Salford. The terraced house fell victim to a slum clearance programme in the mid-1970s, and the chip shop was demolished. His parents died some 20 years ago. He is on amiable terms with his siblings, but Spain is far from all of them. He is aware that he is chronicling a way of life that is no more.

"You only get one childhood, so you have nothing to compare it with," he says, smiling. "But even I can see it was an extraordinary upbringing."

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