The key concept of culture and the Khan family’s identity in the film "East is East"

Academic Paper, 2022

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The key concept of culture in East is East

3 The Khan family’s identity in East is East

4 About Britishness and identity construction in East is East

5 The Ballad of East and West

6 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Rudyard Kipling’s The Ballad of East and West suggests a notion of transcultural competence; although the East and the West will never meet nor unite. His argumentation follows the principle that the two above-mentioned entities manifest in distinct ways but are on par with one another, which can be typified by the ensuing lines from the ballad1:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth! (The Kipling Society n. d.)

With the ballad providing the backbone for Khan-Din’s play (1996) and Damien O’Donnell’s film (1999), it is to be discussed in further detail alongside my elucidations on the Khan family’s cultural identity and affiliation throughout the course of the film. The paper will concentrate on the Khan family and their - what I deem - a bitter struggle with their cultural identity and belonging, which is also suggested by Delanoy (2022) and Zapata (2010). Both argue with me in unison that the film displays various manifestations of identity conflicts, proceeding from the pursuit of affiliating to the concept of Britishness. Based on these and other additional scientific texts, the paper will present findings on the Khan family’s search for identity and their evolution over the course of the movie. Since the research questions amounts to “How does the Khan family evolve throughout the film and in which ways does the concept of East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet apply to their demeanor”, the Ballad of East and West will be referenced oftentimes in the paper. By virtue of the relevance for the film, the paper will also provide a brief elucidation on key concepts such as culture and identity construction. To refer to quotes and scenes from the film, the paper will consistently provide textualization and indicate the respective time frame; still, the paper requires the reader to be acquainted with the movie and its milieu.

2 The key concept of culture in East is East

It is to be acknowledged that culture and identity construction present as complex and “untraceable” phenomena which ought to be explained in further detail. Culture turns out to be a multifariously used terminology to cover certain ulterior motives; Delanoy argues that the far right uses culture to justify and hide their racism behind this very concept, whilst it can also include myriads of other aspects such as behavioral dos and don’ts in a business context (Delanoy 2020, 20-21). In East is East, culture functions rather as an umbrella term for the beliefs, traditions, and social milieu of a certain group of people; this principle is to be contemplated critically and tentatively in order to anticipate any drifts towards subtle racism. The film provides a distinct picture of the cumulative hazards of the globalized world which expedites ethical, cultural and identity issues in a worrisome manner. Regarding this matter, culture and identity must not be viewed or even understood as a “homogenous and closed entity” (Delanoy 2020, 24); yet, transculturality and cultural heterogeneity manifest as lucrative opportunities to promote global and intercultural/transcultural collaboration. Still, East is East - despite arguing in favor of transculturality and cultural heterogeneity - pinpoints society’s shortcomings when it comes to being (inter)culturally competent: the film illustrates both George’s dogged adherence to Pakistani traditions and his unavailing attempts to impose his beliefs on his children; however, the film never provides a notion of acceptance from the British community towards George and his immediate kin (Zapata 2010, 179). During the 60’s and 70’s Great Britain manifested as a frighteningly racist country, featuring an exorbitant notion of white supremacy and a general sense of superiority towards immigrants; migrants were demanded to unconditionally adapt to the cultural and identity concept of “Britishness”, having to leave their cultural heritage entirely behind (Zapata 2010, 182).

3 The Kh an family’s identity in East is East

Originating from Pakistan, Zahir Khan - commonly known as George in the film - is presented as the authoritarian head of the family, featuring a strict parenting style. His strict and profound attachment to Muslim beliefs is - almost stereotypically - displayed by his polygamy as he is married both to Ella in Salford an another yet-unnamed wife in Pakistan, who he left behind in his country of origin. George happens to be the character in the film who exhibits various symptoms of an exorbitant cultural and identity conflict; on the one hand he strives to become an entirely accepted member of the British community, but on the other hand attempts to impose his Muslim and Pakistani beliefs on his children, who are - for the most part - reluctant. To that effect, Ayub Khan-Din applied his own experiences to the first and second generation of the Khan family and displayed the conflict between the father’s expectations and his children’s aspirations, as is presented in the following quote:

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 [...]. 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 the bigotry that they would have faced. (quoted in Zapata 2010, 178)

The opening scene of the film provides a notion that the identity and cultural conflict within the family is of an exorbitant dimension, since the children actively participate in a Catholic procession (Zapata 2010, 178): Meena is spotted bearing a crucifix (East is East, 01:19 to 01:21) whilst her brothers are holding up the Blessed Virgin Mary (East is East, 01:21 to 01:30), until they are being warned about their father’s early return from the mosque which is why they have to hide in a side street2. Throughout the scene of the Catholic procession, the children appeared satisfied and even beaming which is to be interpreted as the advent of their rebellion against the father’s strict and uncompromising imposition of his own beliefs and ideas3.

Bringing in a non-essentialist perspective on identity, the film thematizes and reveals the children’s continuous struggle to live out their very own identities. George brings along a perspicuous notion of an essentialist perspective, as - in his opinion - the children must adhere to the Muslim and Pakistani traditions and beliefs, which are essential to the formation of identity. Henceforth, t he film provides a distinct outline of George’s conception of the static and homogenous paradigm of Essentialism, which is of no subject to change (Cerulo 1997, 386-88). In dependence on Zapata’s elucidations (2010, 178-179), the children have developed an alternating appearance of their cultural identity, contingent on the respective setting and milieu they are in. Especially the scenes of the preparation for the wedding and the ceremony itself follow this line of argumentation and provide a clear picture of the children’s disinterest; Nazir even flees the wedding, with the scenery switching to George talking to a Muslim preacher in a Mosque (East is East, 09:55-10:05). Provoking even more dichotomy, O’Donnell illustrates George in his renowned Fish and Chips shop, a typical British Dish: Even further, he responds to the reverend’s “God Bless” with “Allah go with you” (East is East, 12:00-12:10)

In addition, George’s obsession with the military conflicts in his country-of-origin tips his mitt, as Ella anticipates his aspirations to bring his family to Britain. The whole scene transmits a certain vivid feeling that Ella is strongly averse to George’s idea of bringing his family to Britain, which is why another identity crisis is to be spotted: George’s family represents the phenomenon of the unprogressive East, whilst Ella stands for the modern and advanced West (East is East, 13:26-14:06); but not only Ella suffers from the crossfire of this perpetual conflict between the West and the East, since also the children encounter various dichotomies, preventing them from relishing - what can be deemed as - the best from both worlds. The film suggests the perfect paradigm to underline the above-elucidated divergences, since Tariq’s fervidness for nightclubs and the “European way of living” is portrayed as an antagonism to his father’s strict Muslim upbringing4. Especially that immaculate Muslim behavior of George is fundamentally challenged when the mullah finds out about Sajid’s pending circumcision (East is East, 16:55-17:20). In addition, the whole scene of the procedure draws a clear picture of the family’s identity and the respective character’s standpoints on culture and religion: Maneer proves to be rather religious and resembles his father’s Muslim notion, since he thinks of the foreskin as dirty and denies his brother’s arguments of a loss of sentiment. Saleem, who pretends to be an Engineering student to pleasure his father, even draws a precise reproduction of the penis and provokes curiosity amongst his sister Meenah (East is East, 19:00-19:28).

Throughout the film’s course, a clear picture of the family’s non-existent clannishness is provided, mainly based on multiculturality-related issues. George’s missing realization of his personal shortcomings has led to a gradually aggravating situation, which ultimately resulted in domestic violence and an exorbitant abyss between him and the rest of his family. Even those few examples have provided a clear overview of the perpetual conflicts within the family, which - to a great extent - can be traced back to George’s very own struggle with his identity and the desire of finally settling in the British society.


1 Further information on the ballad is provided in chapter 5.

2 cf. (Zapata 2010,178-79).

3 Even more striking is Damien O’Donnell’s choice of the score, which happens to be the song The Banner Man, which definitely stands out as a rather cheerful and atmospheric song.

4 There are also some other paradigms which ought to be used to portray the dichotomies between the West and the East; such as Nazir’s homosexuality or Tariq, who later opts for the name “Tony”.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The key concept of culture and the Khan family’s identity in the film "East is East"
Klagenfurt University
Catalog Number
khan, east
Quote paper
Lucca Ventre (Author), 2022, The key concept of culture and the Khan family’s identity in the film "East is East", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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