East West 101: articles

Don Hany

Right on target ... Don Hany believes there is an audience out there that wants to be challenged.

A cultural resolution

Six months into brainstorming and researching the second series of local cop drama East West 101, producers Steve Knapman and Kris Wyld were ready to throw in the towel.

Struggling to find an overarching storyline to top that of season one, the pair decided to call SBS and say there would be no sequel.

"Suddenly, at that point, being released from that pressure, the creativity flow was opened again and the ideas started coming," Wyld says.

"We thought: what if we focused on the [Patricia] Wright character and the [Zane] Malik character and really explore that east-west and male-female dichotomy? And then it all fell into place."

In the first season of East West 101, Don Hany, best known for his role as Detective Theo Rahme in White Collar Blue, played Zane Malik, a young Muslim detective in the Major Crime Squad who struggled both personally and professionally in a post-9/11 world.

He struggled with being a Muslim and a cop and clashed constantly with his partner, the conservative, old-fashioned Detective Crowley (William McInnes). Crowley and Malik battled each other across six episodes as, from Lakemba to Chinatown, they investigated the murders and crimes of a big city.

"In season one there was this backdrop of bigotry," says Hany, who was nominated for a Logie for his portrayal of the zealous detective. "Malik was in a world of racial tensions, exploring the nature of being a good father, a good son, a good husband, a good cop, a good Muslim and a good partner. There were so many obstacles that stood in the way of him seeking justice. The second series is much more an investigation into the challenges Muslims face today."

Season two, which comprises seven episodes, sees Detective Malik trying to uncover the truth behind a car bomb attack that kills two men. He knows he must solve the crime to stop the circle of hate in the community but as he pursues the truth he, too, becomes a target.

Meanwhile, season two also examines in depth the personal and professional life of Inspector Patricia Wright, played brilliantly by Susie Porter.

"Wright is a woman who is in the command position but when she realises her brother is under threat from criminal figures, she has to deal with a personal and professional predicament," Wyld says. "That overarching story looks at a female commander with a personal vulnerability. What does a cop in command do?"

The first series earned many accolades, including the Australian Film Institute Award for best miniseries, and was well received by viewers, despite dealing with such raw and sensitive cultural issues.

"A lot of non-Muslims don't know what it's like to be Muslim and I think we caught that post-9/11 wave of people wanting to know what was really going on," Wyld says.

He says the writing, direction by Peter Andrikidis and superb cast added to the show's popularity.

"Steve and I are not really interested in making superficial drama. And I think people are thirsty for something fresh and for a new angle on their world."

With season two, Knapman and Wyld again demonstrate their ability to intertwine personal lives, political issues and police drama seamlessly and intelligently. This was what attracted Hany and his new co-star, Gerald Lepkowski, who plays intelligence agent Skerritt.

"The appeal of the show was the very mature way that [the producers] threaded all those multiple stories together and how intelligent it is and dense at times," Lepkowski says. "It really does pay off if you hang in there. The show might ruffle feathers but we're not afraid of that; it's kind of exciting that you're doing something a little bit different from the run-of-the-mill TV cop show."

Hany describes the sheer volume of topics — from terrorist attacks to ice epidemics — and ground-breaking subject matter as overwhelming at times but pulled together brilliantly.

"It's important that TV provides avenues for people to forget how hard life is but I also think there's a big audience out there that wants to be challenged and treated with objectivity," he says. "It's good that we have avenues to talk about issues that affect new Australians and I believe that unless we use the medium responsibly, we're just wasting time. We should have been doing this years ago."

Another thing 34-year-old Hany admits he should have done years ago was confront his own east-west dichotomy. He's the son of an Iraqi violinist-turned-restaurateur and a Hungarian doctor of economics — a self-described "milkshake of cultures" — and he identified with Malik's issues with cultural identity immediately. He says that during the 1990s, in the wake of the Gulf War, he did not feel comfortable flaunting his Iraqi identity.

He says East West 101 gave him greater insight into his heritage and brought him closer to his father, Taffy Hany, who plays his onscreen father. "I relearnt a lot of who my dad was and who I am because of him through doing the show. It was kind of like therapy."

Cultural tensions and personal lives are dealt with in an honest and gripping way both off-screen and on, he says.

"On top of all the people-smuggling and ice epidemics . . . every episode is filled with the personal drama and local crimes," he says. "It's a massive job for the writers. I'm completely in awe of how this was achieved."

East West 101 returns to SBS One on Tuesday at 8.30pm.

By Rachel Olding
October 12, 2009
Sydney Morning Herald