Ayub Khan-Din has discovered it’s more exciting to be a playwright than an actor— particularly for someone with South Asian ancestry. Khan-Din’s first play, East Is East, about growing up in a British-Pakistani household, is currently running at the Manhattan Theater Club, directed by the New Group’s Scott Elliott. Following its 1997 London premiere at the Royal Court (presented in a season of new plays that included Mojo, Shopping and Fucking, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane), Khan-Din was hailed Best New Writer by Britain’s Writer’s Guild and dubbed the “Asian Joe Orton” in the English press.
Twelve years ago, Khan-Din was a different kind of new discovery— he played the male lead in the Hanif Kureishiscripted Stephen Frears movie Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Khan-Din’s breakthrough role ought to have generated a few more attractive acting offers, but afterward it was “back to square one.” Commenting on a similar all-too-brief spell in the limelight experienced by fellow British-Asian actor Naveen Andrews, Khan-Din wryly adds, “Who remembers the Indian in The English Patient?” Post Sammy and Rosie, Khan-Din settled into a mundane, if lucrative, career playing the obligatory Asian roles in British television— doctor, lawyer, shopkeeper— until East Is East came along and changed everything. “You get so much more respect when you write something,” says the 38-year-old.
East Is East is set in 1970s Salford, the North of England working-class area where Khan-Din was raised. Drawing heavily on his personal experience, Khan-Din creates a poignant but often hilarious family portrait of five boys and a girl at loggerheads with their autocratic Pakistani father and their harried English mother. (Sajit, the youngest kid, who like Linus refuses to relinquish a fetid parka, is a self-portrait.) “It’s a human comedy,” says director Elliott, who previously scored hits for the New Group with Mike Leigh’s slice-of-life plays. “There are no punch lines, but it’s funny because we relate to it.”
For Khan-Din, writing East Is East was a way to remember the sense of community he felt growing up. Life at home, however, was eccentric to say the least. His tradition-bound father, whose English remained fractured even after 40 years in Britain, ran a fish-and-chips shop but wanted his children to learn skills like engineering that could translate into successful business back in Pakistan. In his own youth, however, Khan-Din’s father left his village in Kashmir, joined the merchant navy, then jumped ship in London to start a new life. “He failed to recognize that same spark in his own kids,” says Khan-Din without resentment. His parents’ relationship was often rocky, and Khan-Din doesn’t shy away from presenting scenes of domestic violence. His mother married at a time when white women who went with South Asians were regarded as prostitutes, and his father abandoned a wife and two daughters back in Kashmir. “They had huge arguments, usually over the children, but they also laughed a lot,” says Khan-Din. “They had a very solid relationship.”
His transition to full-time writing is nearly complete. A film version of East Is East, based on his screenplay, recently unspooled at Cannes and will be distributed in the U.S. by Miramax. He’s now working on commissions from the Royal National Theater and the Royal Court, and writing a new screenplay for Film Four. In July, his new play, Last Dance at Dum-Dum, set in a Calcutta Anglo-Indian retirement home, opens in London’s West End. Khan-Din describes it as another black comedy, or, he jokes, “another Pak comedy.”