Om Puri, Diaspora, and Radicalization: A Father Losing His Son…

Curator's Note

This scene from My Son The Fanatic (1997) takes place quite late in the film, at the moment when the son, Farid, has broken ties with his father and angrily leaves home, joining with other similarly angry youths, in pursuit of the utopia of Islamic righteousness.

The father, Parvez (Om Puri), a Pakistani-born man who now drives a taxi around a northern town in England and, as a secular Muslim, is trying to communicate his last important messages through the car’s window: ‘There are many ways to be a good man’; ‘I will be at home’.

Both messages are heard by the son, but are unlikely to be received.

There are not many ways of being a good man in the son’s mind. He cannot forgive his father for his drinking, for his cavorting with a younger British woman, and most of all, for his putting up with the marginal position that Western society has allotted to him and his likes. The only way to be a good man, the son thinks, is to spurn the declining West and go back to the source, to the Quran and the Sunnah. The father’s complex life may have thought him to be accepting and flexible and may have turned him into a secular Muslim. The son’s life, materially sheltered but socially isolated, has made him a zealot.

The father may shout he ‘will be at home’, but the young man this ‘home’ is where vice and corruption dwell. He would rather leave it behind and rush to a new imaginary homeland, one of eternal devotion and decency. Udayan Prasad’s My Son the Fanatic, based on Hanif Kureshi’s astute work, is one of the most important films to tackle a subject matter that is of even bigger relevance today, twenty years after its premiere. It was ‘an early bird’ kind of a film that wanted to alert about the raising radicalization among Muslim youth in the West already in 1997. Had Britons cared more about British cinema, its ominous message would have sunk deeper. Alas, this is not a particularly widely known film as far as Britain is concerned. But I am pleased to see that American critic A.O. Scott acknowledges its importance in this 2010 video tribute.

I have not had the chance to see many of the Indian films where Om Puri is said to have delivered amazing performances. However, I have seen him in enough international films – over forty, of his lengthy filmography of 300+ roles — to know that his transnational versatility is unmatched. Even if of Hindu origins and from India, he would not hesitate to portray secular Muslim characters and would play Pakistani immigrants also in East is East (1999) and West is West (2010). One of his last roles was in a Pakistani film, Actor in Law (2016). He always kept an open mind and thought that recognising other people’s beliefs was important and that, indeed, ‘there are many ways to be a good man.’

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