Om Puri has taken up his role again as the over-bearing British Pakistani father and Bradford chippy-owner in West is West but with a few big differences.
HeyUGuys caught up with the actor in the chambers of The Courthouse Hotel where he told us all about George’s guilty past as we delved into a few of the secrets to be unveiled in West Is West.
What made you want to come back to the project?
Well, it’s a fascinating and relevant story. East Is East was a successful film and there was no reason why there should not be a sequel. And there was money in it from a producer’s point of view, although I’m not a producer on the film. I wish I was! George is a fascinating character and you see a growth in him in West Is West which was not there in East Is East. In East Is East I found him one-dimensional but in West Is West he’s a three-dimensional character.
How well do you relate to George as a character, comparatively? Do you relate better to him in West Is West?
Yes, well, he’s very different from me. But it is the job of an actor to own a character and try and be that character. He’s identifiable – you can believe that such people exist in society and are capable of what George does. I mean, there could be people who are authoritarian towards their children but may not use filthy language – they may use more civilized language but are just as strict as George Khan.
Did you not enjoy using the language then, the swearing?
No, that’s fine. My father used to use language like it so it’s not that I’m not familiar with it – a lot of parents use that kinds of language.
What did it feel like when you were presented with the totally unknown, untried young actor Aqib Khan? He told us you used to clip him round the ear occasionally…
Out of sheer fun, because he used to be cheeky at times, you know? For example, this morning he disappeared from the interview and he kept us waiting for five minutes and when he finally came in I told them to roll the camera straight away. So the moment he entered, I gave him one [mimes a clip round the ear], I said [George’s voice], “Where have you been, bastard?”
What was it like working with Aqib instead of Jordan, who played the character as a young boy in the first film?
Aqib was wonderful. I mean it’s unbelievable that this is his first film. Like Linda surprised all of us with her performance in East Is East. She was absolutely marvellous and that was her first film. Similarly this boy, it was his first film and he was brilliant. I mean he was very focused, very receptive and quick to grasp, you know? His concentration was amazing for a young boy like that – he could have been easily distracted, but he wasn’t.
Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
Well, there are a number of scenes. The funniest scene for me is when the British women visit Pakistan. George’s second wife Ella and her best friend Auntie Annie show up in this dusty village of Punjab, they open the doors of the taxi and come out, they move the dust around [mimes shooing away dust] and Auntie Annie fumbles and hurts her ankle and you see George in close-up, completely dumbfounded and thinking, ‘My God, I mean, what do I do now? Where do I hide?’ That was a very funny moment. And when the women start sunbathing on top of the roof with the funny goggles on. That made me laugh!
Which scene did you find most challenging to film?
For me, the challenging scene was when George breaks down with Ella and he confesses his love, again, to her.
Is George a good man at heart?
Yes! And you do get to see that in this film. Even in East Is East you could tell that a bit about George. I consider the script a Bible. No matter how many thousands of times you read your script, every time you find new layers. Why would an educated white woman like Ella – who is not an uneducated village woman from Punjab – why would she stick with him and why would they have six children? She could have left him long ago so she’s not mad, she’s not crazy, she’s not physically dependent on him, so why is he the way he is? At that time in the 70s his children didn’t feel independent, so they rebelled and therefore George had to take control of his family. He was not educated, he couldn’t argue with his children because they were brighter than he was – they would be able to answer back, they would defy him, they would use logic he couldn’t. So the only language he knew was physical control. He wanted to take physical control of the children and strongly force his beliefs on them. George Khan fears his children won’t respect the traditional values passed on through their Indian heritage because they are so involved in British culture and family ties are very strong and important in India.
Do you think that George grows up a little in West Is West?
Yes, he grows as a human being which is why he will be able to move people. You will be able to see him as a whole, whereas you only saw one aspect of him in East Is East. It probably left people a little confused about whether to like him or hate him. And that ambiguity was deliberate on my part – I mean, I tried to make sure that ambiguity was there.
Do you think that George deserves Ella?
Nice question. Let me think about it. She could have had better men, definitely. She’s been very generous. Ella is an intelligent woman who must have found something vulnerable and sensitive in George. Apparently the story is that Ayub’s [writer Ayub Khan-Din] father used to travel by bus and he fell in love with the bus conductor. That’s how it was because he used to see her every day. I think Ella is generous to her husband considering she could have had a much better man than him.
You’ve had an amazing career. Have you kept count of how many films you’ve made?
I’d say I’ve made roughly 200-250 films in 35 years.
Will you carry on acting for the next 20 years? Maybe go for the 500?
Well, I’m a bit disappointed at the moment. You see, my brilliant period in India was from 1980 to 1990. I did a lot of good work. Good films with meaty roles. From 1990 onwards, fortunately, the west opened its doors for me with City of Joy. Britain came next and for a good six or seven years I did a lot of great work here. But recently things have been quiet. I haven’t done much except for an American film which was shot here called Shoot On Sight. In India the movement died in my opinion, the brilliant cinema movement died. So there are very few films lately which I’ve found really meaningful and satisfying. Perhaps in the future I’ll try my hand at directing.
West is West hits UK cinemas on Friday February 25th 2011