Growing up is never easy, but when mum's a loud-mouth from Lancashire and dad's a devout Pakistani Muslim, being a kid is even harder than usual. The seven Khan children - - gay rebel Nazir, Tariq-the-lad, art student Saleem, daddy's boy Maneer, timid Abdul, tomboy Meenah and Parka-clad Sajid - - have all lived through the end of the Sixties and most are not heavily into the Koran. So, when Dad decides that Abdul and Tariq must marry two fantastically ugly Pakistani girls from Bradford, the family comes to the verge of collapse.
In less gentle hands, East Is East might have hit crassor preachy notes, but first-time director Damien O'Donnell has an enviable lightness of touch. The choice of an irreverent Irishman to direct a movie about Pakistanis in Manchester was whip-smart: instead of a dissection of a Muslim household in the kitchen-sink mode, what we get is a film with the power to move anyone who has ever been part of a family.
On paper it almost sounds like two different movies: we've East Is East: The Riotous Comedy (cue the "tickle-tackle" knob gags, the prosthetic vagina, the mustachioed Shah sisters, the orange Spacehopper, and the Khan kids spraying air freshener around the kitchen to get rid of the smell of sausages) and East Is East: The Anatomy Of A Marriage, which looks at the love affair between the kids' parents, George and Ella.
In practice, thanks to Khan-Din's spotless script and O'Donnell's skill at stitching it all together, what we see is a multi-layered whole. There's no standing on soap boxes or thumping of tubs: any tolerance message is delivered wittily, by sleight of hand, such as when Meenah kicks a football through a window that sports a big poster of Enoch Powell.
The cast are uniformly excellent, but East Is East is primarily George's story, with Indian actor Om Puri (My Son The Fanatic) delivering an outstanding performance. It's easy to laugh at George, but Khan-Din's script also shows us the world from his point of view. We find ourselves grinning indulgently at the childish joy with which he presents his wife with the dentist's chair he's found for their over-crowded lounge, and we look right into his heart as he tenderly arranges the wedding paraphernalia for his sons. The last directorial choice is a masterstroke: once we've grown to care for George, we're then complicit when he loses his rag and beats his wife.
East Is East mixes broad comedy and more subtle visual gags with beautifully drawn performances and moments of real pain. What makes the film work is the vision with which it was made: somehow all these strands become a piece of cinema that is as comfortable breaking your heart as it is having you watch a Great Dane try to fuck a fat girl in a flowery frock.