“But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth.” – Rudyard Kipling
Perusing through the vast rang of movies from 1999 is in itself an enduring, compelling journey. Getting to revisit some fine films from the end of the century. A time for the movie world to change in many ways, as did the realities of the very world we live in. While embarking on a rather nostalgic trip to 1999, two films paralleled into my filmic conscious like magnets. Both A Room for Romeo Brass and East is East find the candid wit, ground-level realism, and contrasting conflicts of the lower class systems and race tensions in the United Kingdom. A seemingly perfect double-bill.
Shane Meadows was no stranger to the grit of the British social scene, with TwentyFourSeven before A Room for Romeo Brass, and would later make This is England – grabbing the race issues by the throat. Written with Paul Fraser, Meadows and Romeo Brass were a hit at the 1999 British Independent Film Awards, the Nottingham-estate-set drama-comedy focusing on two kids, Romeo and Gavin (Andrew Shim and Ben Marshall are terrific). Their early interactions provide much of the film’s honest humor, as well as depicting what appears to be a solid friendship. Their distinguishing personas? Romeo is a black kid, and we later realize he has a white father and white sister. Gavin has a slightly disfigured back, meaning he walks with a limp. Oh, and he’s white.
Such definitions of characters still stand out today. Meadows’ film is not really about the color of skin or disability, though. Whether any differed treatment of Romeo by others is partly on account of his ethnicity is neither here nor there. And we learn early on that Gavin is bullied because of his ailment. The film’s moral conflicts arise more from why a disturbed young man would hang out with two kids. Sure, both Gavin and Romeo are somewhat alienated from their families, but there’s a tight-knit between the boys, and the arrival of Morrell (a creepily good Paddy Considine in his first feature) drives a wedge between them – whether they realize it or not at first.
The divide in Damien O’Donnell’s East Is East is far more significant in terms of the cultural family values, and how many are affected. Set in Salford, Lancashire, in 1971, the screenplay by Ayub Khan-Din, based on his own play, is a revelation. Signposting many of the racial stereotypes of the British views on Pakistanis in the 1970s and 80s, but doing so in a manner that utilizes the discourse of drama and of comedy. Neither rubbing faces in it nor taking the piss out of minorities. The Khans are what they are. And although there is a racist neighbor across the street, his role is restricted to frowns from his doorway. The real conflict comes from within the household.
The Pakistani father, George (the great Om Puri), has been in Britain for decades, and now has seven children to white, English mother Ella (brass, brilliant Linda Bassett). Most of the children just about adults now, George’s demons to maintain his heritage and thrust upon them his values is causing a huge rift. One of his sons has already been banished for not partaking in an arranged marriage. When some of his siblings later go visit him, we, and they, discover he is living in a homosexual relationship. That sub-theme is offered, but not forced. There’s humor in watching family members figure out why he is so friendly with another man. And there’s drama in the son’s fear of returning home – it is left to our imagination as to whether the homosexuality played a part in his father’s rejection of him.
In A Room for Romeo Brass, it is Romeo’s father, Joe, in the estranged role. A hot-tempered beef-head, who has left a bitter, angry taste in the mouths of his two kids and their mother. They curse freely at him, their disgust at his re-arrival only has us guessing as to what bedlam he caused prior. Though, in a late moment of dramatic irony, Joe turns kind of hero when Morrell is about to take a hammer to Gavin’s dad’s head, but instead is floored by a right hook. Much of the verbal violence in Romeo Brass is through Morrell’s sneaky threats. He beats a customer of Ladine’s after he spots her flirting with him. The hum of potential brutality is terrifying, given the sense of realism Meadows has long-since established.
The domestic violence depicted in East is East does manifest to physical as George’s tensions build. Not just in the film’s plot, but through years and years of trying to uphold his culture. Not that I am excusing him. But he is responding to his grown-up children’s natural quest for their own identity. He sees it as rebellion and a betrayal to his name. The film is not so cruel as to split the family apart further, but rather harbor towards a kind of resolution for all parties. Over a cup of tea of course. A fine sentiment.
Romeo and Gavin’s reconciliation is as playfully aggressive as their bond allows. Romeo might come across cocky and self-sufficient, but it was he that was lead astray by Morrell, and it was he that dropped his best friend like old shoes. Gavin, the more timid for sure, was also relying on Romeo to be around when he had his operation. In an early scene when Gavin is being taunted by other kids, Romeo jumps in to defend him, taking a beating himself. Their relationship clearly not based on disability or ethnicity, then.
The mixed-ethnicity of the Khan household is a status that comes with some baggage. George talks about the war between East and West Pakistan, tries to arrange marriages for his children, even going so far as to offering his greater respect to those potential adjoining families over his own. It takes quite a bit of gusto from his family for George to truly see how his actions have pushed them against him. The most out-spoken of the sons, Tariq, declares he is British, that he was born and bred here, and thus rejects Pakistani customs – “You can both fuck off if you think I’m getting married to a fucking Paki.”
Rudyard Kipling said in his poem The Ballad of East and West, “Oh East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. East is East portrays a family that have already joined two nations together, in a marriage based on love. An enduring one at that. There’s no way George can be retaliate when Tariq angrily tells him he is going to marry a white girl like his dad did. Many a true word spoken in jest, East of East’s layered, cultural conflicts are almost built on the perfect blend of what is serious and what is funny. Something Miramax shamefully missed the boat on when their US poster obscured a prominent Pakistani character with a blonde woman. Not that I have anything against blonde women.
The almost sitcom-style of both films make for crowd-pleasing results. The acute observations of real life, the candid struggles of adulthood, and the coming of age across the diverse cultures of British life are all depicted with the raw, sarcastic nature of such a nation. Such issues of race, and class, and family values, have been a staple in Britain for decades. Much of the improvised performances in A Room for Romeo Brass and East is East go a long way to capturing such realism.
And not just in those moments of squabbling and defiance and neglect. There’s a certain romance and rich humor to resonate with. “He’s a bloody gizoid” is pretty tame to describe the misfit Morrell. Where Ella’s response to Mrs. Shah claiming she will never allow her daughters to marry into “this jungly family of half-breeds” hits the nail on the head: “Well they may be half-bred, but at least they’re not frigging inbred like those two monstrosities.” – if that’s not loyalty to your family I don’t know what is.
Having grown up in England myself, I have been a part of this way-of-life. And there’s a certain pride in being made to feel so close to home, even through such turbulent stories as these. Ordinary people in everyday situations, brought to life with such familiar quirks and friction. A Room for Romeo Brass and East is East remind us, even going back to 1999, that there is home-grown films of this high quality firmly on the map – wherever that may be.