I wrote the first draft of my autobiographical stage play East Is East fifteen years ago when I was at drama school. I started to write it for various reasons, the main one being that my mother had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and suddenly, as the disease progressed, it felt like whole sections of my life began to disappear with her
memory. At the same time the neighbourhood I grew up in in Salford, a suburb of Manchester, was being demolished and the whole community was about to be broken up.
I wanted to capture the spirit of the area and the people I had grown up with; to discover how that world had influenced the way my mother and father brought us up. One other important consideration, particular to me at the time, was that I wanted to create a decent part for myself. I was fed up of seeing the crap stereotypical roles dished out to Asian actors: you either ran the corner shop or were a victim of skinheads. I had no idea after leaving drama school that I would suddenly be stamped with an invisible mark that said BLACK ACTOR! So, while most of my contemporaries went off into rep, I had the added disadvantage of trying to find a company that enforced integrated casting—I didn’t work for a year! So it was for all these reasons that I sat down and started to write East Is East.
Whenever I wasn’t working as an actor, I’d get it out and do a little more work on it. I think there must have been six drafts of the play over the years and one early attempt at a screenplay, which was the draft I turned back into the final stage version for the Tamasha/Royal Court production in 1996.
It was important to me from the early stages that this shouldn’t be just one son’s story but the story of a whole family, and not just an excuse for Paki-bashing my father (although this would have been easy to do as he did behave monstrously at times). But the more I looked at my parents and their relationship, especially considering the times they lived in, the more
admiration I felt for their bravery. This was not a time of mixed-race marriages, which were barely acceptable in the middle-class salons of London. Anywhere else in Britain a white woman with a black man would be considered a prostitute. It must have been very hard for them, the hatred and bigotry they would have faced. But what I realised after looking at
them from an adult perspective is what an incredibly strong relationship it created.
So why did this man who was married with a first wife and two daughters in Pakistan, who settled here in the early 1930s and married an English woman, who proceeded to have ten children whom he allowed to celebrate Christmas and Easter, why then did he decide that they could only marry Pakistanis? We never confronted him with his hypocrisy; we were too
scared of him. You just didn’t question him about anything; you did what he told you to do.
I remember him when I was younger being playful with us, but all that changed by the age of ten. You were his son and you obeyed him, you suddenly lost all freedom of choice in any important life decisions. His relationship with my mother varied with whatever problem he was having with any of the kids and, as there were ten of us, there was always someone
he was having a problem with. She always seemed to be right in the middle of it, her loyalty torn between her husband and her kids. Always trying to take our side when she could, but knowing she would inevitably bear the brunt of his anger and in the end lose another child as they were banished from the house for not towing the party line. There would then be a short separation with my father living over the chip shop and us in the house across the road. He wouldn’t be completely cut off: we still went in for fish and chips, knowing after a couple of weeks he would be feeling contrite and would assuage his guilt by giving us money—which we took willingly. We knew he was back when he dropped by with a chicken or a big pot of curry and then it would start all over again until the next son decided he wanted a life. The more I looked at the life we led, the more it made me question my father’s motives.
Why was he so insistent about stamping out any spark of independence he saw in his children? I think part of his problem was that he always seemed slightly embarrassed by us in the company of his family, who had settled over here. Perhaps it was a sense of shame and guilt that this was what he’d left his first wife and daughters for. I fear we didn’t come up to scratch and were a constant disappointment. In many ways he must have felt extremely isolated and would have liked to have lived in a large Pakistani community like Bradford, a town in the north east of England. But that was one thing my mother was quite adamant about: we were staying in Manchester.
That was more or less the sum total of our Pakistani life: trips to Bradford every first Sunday in the month visiting relations, being dragged in and out of people’s houses, eating curry, going to another house and eating more curry. Being given money and my dad making us give it back—which we, ever so reluctantly, did. We were never allowed to accept it My dad’s relatives had only just settled over here and didn’t have the money to give (so he said), so he, as head of the family in England, thought it fell to him to hand out the cash to all and sundry—which didn’t make my mother too happy. So as the money he’d refused on our behalf was put back into their pockets, he’d start handing out the pound notes to
their kids, which their parents, after the usual protestations, allowed them to keep. Luckily we managed to convince them to part with it: their lack of English and maths was a godsend to our coffers. We couldn’t communicate with them nor they with us, though it never seemed to matter as there was a mutual acceptance in our joint ignorance. The climax of these visits would be a trip to my cousin’s cinema. He looked and dressed like a film star with perfectly Brylcreamed hair and a suit, cut to perfection, which had a sheen to it that you could see your face in. Added to this, he had a charming personality and loads of money, which meant our coffers flowed again with his goodwill. Not only that, but we were allowed freedom of the city of ‘Kiosk’! A city overflowing with milk and honey, Caramac, Rolos and Kia-ora. We took as much as we could stuff into our pockets before my mother would swoop in with the back of her hand. Then into the cinema: the best seats in the house and whatever Bombay film we wanted to watch. Later it was back to Manchester with the usual stop for my brother to throw up on the Snake Pass; chicken curry, kebabs and chocolate never mixed. This was our Pakistani life; this was how we existed outside of Manchester. A life none of my friends knew or could understand. I think in the film I came as close as possible to understanding my father’s motivation in the way he tried to bring us up. I may even have made him too eloquent in his arguments, but the one thing I didn’t want to do was short change him: the character was too important for that to happen. I’m sure some Pakistanis will find the character offensive, but it is a fairly accurate portrayal of the man, and the times we lived in. He was not a Pakistani ‘Everyman’; he was my father, and
these were the choices, right or wrong, that he made. On the other hand, perhaps he was just a complete bastard and I’ve given him an easy time of it: one has to leave it up to an audience to judge. The first draft of the play was the hardest, I suppose because I was looking at aspects of my life I’d never even contemplated before. My main problem after writing the first draft was depersonalising it, making it more available to an outside audience. I found I was able to do this by standing back and seeing what the themes of the piece were and where the narrative drive was going. This was basically what I did when I adapted the play into the screenplay. One of the other problems I came across here was getting rid of dialogue. No writer likes doing this, especially when it has been tried and tested in the theatre. But this wasn’t the theatre. It was a scary moment. In the end I thought ‘fuck it’, and threw the play away. I had to start seeing the story in pictures. It was only then that it came alive again as a different beast: it was completely liberating. The parameters had changed and I realized I could let my imagination run riot, and put all the stories I’d wanted to put in the stage play into the screenplay. I’d be able to show in even more detail the strange eccentric world that this family inhabited.
Once I’d made this decision, the words and images spewed out, and only then could I steal back to the stage play and pillage dialogue. I also had input from the director and producer, which had to be taken into account. I agreed with some of it, and some I didn’t. Some scenes and characters I felt passionate about fell by the wayside, but ultimately I don’t
think their loss has been detrimental to the film in any way. All the arguments in the play and the film are my own, formulated over the period of time between the first draft of the stage play and the final draft of the screenplay. This is one area no committee, no matter how well-intentioned their motives may be, can get involved in. These had to be my
choices as a black writer writing about deeply personal issues. Luckily I had a director and producer who believed in the script. Yes, there was tension, but it was a creative tension, a positive tension. We’d be liars if we said we knew this at the time, but looking back I can sort of see it, especially when I remember what I came up with after going through some
of that ‘creative tension’. I’ve never regretted the night my wife Buki saw Damien O’Donnell’s award-winning short film Thirty-five a Side and recommended it to me. After seeing that I knew he would be perfect for East Is East. His visual eye for comedy and my script married perfectly and he’s done a brilliant job of capturing everything I wrote and adding to it with his own unique style of filming.
Introduction by Ayub Khan Din to East is East: Screenplay by Ayub Khan Din, Pan Macmillan, London, UK.
The project Mucho (+) que cine seems to me to be an excellent way to expose young people to good European cinema and help them develop a critical perspective, particularly since the films are being shown in original version. Although the story of East Is East was inspired by my personal experience growing up in a mixed-race family in Manchester, the
success of the film suggests that others have been able to identify with some of the themes and issues it evokes such as integration and immigration, identity and inclusion. I know that these issues are central to the work of the British Council and hope that they are relevant in contemporary Spain. Enjoy the film!”
Ayub Khan-Din, Screenwriter