How we made East Is East: ‘At Cannes, they only gave us one hotel room so we all slept on the floor’

·4 min read

Ayub Khan Din, writer

My Pakistani father came over from India in the merchant navy, jumped ship in London in 1927 and moved to Manchester where he met my Irish/English mum, who worked as a clippie – a ticket-taker on the buses. They married in 1947, opened a chip shop in the slums of Salford, and had 10 children – eight boys and two girls. I’m eighth.

I’d always wondered how my parents coped in their mixed-race relationship, bringing up so many children, and when I came to drama school in London, I started writing down little incidents from my childhood. The play sat in a drawer for years until the Tamasha Theatre Company – formed in 1989 with a mission to bring more Asian drama to the British stage – used it in a workshop for young actors before staging the whole play at the Birmingham Rep in 1996. It was such a personal piece I didn’t know if it would relate to an audience. But we sold out by word-of-mouth before we’d even got to London.

Everyone kept saying: “We haven’t seen Asians behave like this before.” It was a massive shock to see so many brown faces on stage, selling out the West End. It was the first time people saw that such theatre can be commercially successful. A producer friend at the BBC said: “This will transfer really well to film.” But then they said Brothers in Trouble, a 1995 film about an illegal Pakistani immigrant, hadn’t made its money back, and dropped out. So Film4 put up the whole budget. I desperately wanted to cast everyone straight from the play. Luckily, the director agreed and we got almost everyone.

The film got a standing ovation at Cannes film festival and then just snowballed. Now, the play is back on a fresh tour. People ask me: “Why now?” But we’re not dusting off the cobwebs: it’s never stopped being performed. The play is more political than the film, but it still crosses cultures. It’s a story about family relationships, a patriarchal father, and identity within a family. I think all the arguments are as relevant today. Because of Black Lives Matter, we’re all questioning our identity, where we belong and what our place is within the history of this country.

Linda Bassett and Om Puri in East Is East.
Patriarchy and politics … Linda Bassett and Om Puri in East Is East. Photograph: Allstar Picture Library/Alamy

Jimi Mistry, played Tariq

I left drama school in Birmingham in 1995 and moved to London. My agent sent me to the Royal Court theatre where the Tamasha Theatre Company were workshopping a series of plays. The next thing I knew, I was asked to audition for East Is East. Back in the mid-90s, there were very few British Asian actors. They must have auditioned from a very small pool. My father is from India, my mother from Northern Ireland and I have two younger sisters, so I was bang on for Tariq. I had had exposure to the Indian side of my family, but I considered myself very British. My mum would say I was quite strong-minded and rebellious. I don’t think a part has ever fitted me so perfectly.

When I walked on to the EastEnders set after Cannes, everyone gave me a standing ovation

As my first theatre job, it was amazing. We knew that Ayub was hoping to turn it into a film. Film4 had done Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, and every young actor wanted to work for them, but we had no idea if the director would cast us just because we’d been in the play. For two years, we knew they were auditioning, but were saying to each other: “Have you had a call?” “No, I haven’t had a call. Have you?” When we thought it was too late, we finally got invited to audition.

The budget wasn’t ginormous but there was already this huge bond between myself and the other actors. We knew we were using sensitive, racist language and didn’t know if people were going to get offended or find it funny, or even if such a bittersweet tale would translate to film.

Related: East Is East review – magnificent revival of culture-clash classic

The first time we saw it was at Cannes. They only gave us one hotel room, so everyone slept on my floor. I had just started on EastEnders, playing Dr Fred Fonseca, so I flew back on Sunday night and walked on to the EastEnders set on Monday. The Guardian had run the headline “East is best at Cannes” with a picture of me in the film. Everyone gave me a standing ovation. I had no idea what was going on.

• East Is East is at Birmingham Rep until 25 September, then the National Theatre, London, 7-30 October.

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