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June 21, 1999
Om Puri's Double Impact
Arthur J Pais
In a rare happening for an Indian actor, Om Puri leads the cast in two English-language films that are being released the same year in America.
First to be released is My Son the Fanatic, in which Puri plays Parvez, a reserved but friendly Pakistani cab driver without a religion in an English town whose life is suddenly challenged by his son's embrace of fundamentalist Islam and a friendship with a local prostitute that turns into a romance.
Rachel Griffiths, nominated for an Oscar this year for her performance in Hillary and Jackie, directed by Anand Tucker, is the prostitute. Puri says she is one of the most accomplished artists he has worked with in a long time.
The film is being distributed by Miramax Films, whose Academy Award winning hits include Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient. And then in East is East, Puri plays a Pakistani immigrant, who is worried about an impending war involving his birth country but cannot see the flames of revolt in his own family.
Puri chuckles when he says he had not planned that way; he also adds that he is not sure if he is going to play a Pakistani in another movie soon.
My Son the Fanatic was released in Europe last year, and though Miramax Films acquired it at the Cannes film festival, the distributor decided to wait till an appropriate time to release it in America.
My Son the Fanatic, directed by Udayan Prasad, opens on June 25 in New York at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza and in Los Angeles at the Laemmie Sunset 5 and Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas, and at the South Coast Village in Orange County. The film will be expanding on a weekly basis, gaining from reviews and moviegoers' recommendation.
East Is East, also from Miramax, would be released at the end of the year. This was the second time he was working for Prasad, the previous film being Brothers in Trouble.
"This has been one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in a long time," says Puri who has acted in over 125 films, including several mainstream English-language films such as City of Joy.
"This was an excellent author-backed role, and with Udayan directing, the film and the performances had to be good."
Puri says he loved writer Hanif Kureishi's observations of human relationships "really wonderful".
"I think the script is very relevant today when people from different cultures are living together in close proximity to each other, but we are frequently intolerant of each other," he continues. "Parvez realizes that we cannot afford to be so possessive of our own selves and culture."
As the film's conflicts become more acute, Puri notes, his character "understands that to get respect for your own culture you have to embrace that of others." The film is not just about fundamentalism, he says. "It is about looking for roots in a multicultural country," he adds. "It is about finding out who we really are."
He did not see it as a political film.
"I agree with the writer that this film is a contemporary love story, and it has a lot of comedy in it, though tragic things happen all the time."
Even though Parvez's family crumbles, and his wife and son leave him, the film ends on an optimistic note, Puri points out.
"I was particularly impressed by the way the script didn't pass judgment on any of the individuals and their way of life," he adds.
On the other hand, in East Is East, he plays an utterly judgmental and rigid father consumed by his anger and frustration.
"Unlike Parvez, my character in East Is East is all bad," he says. "And yet the director did not want the character to be portrayed in all negativity. He wanted me to convey some warmth, some humanity. It was not an easy thing to do, though."
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