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Mim Shaikh’s ‘Finding Dad’ and Absentee Fathers in South Asian Families

A new documentary puts an immigrant spin on a classic genre of films in which children attempt to track down the fathers who abandoned them

For all of 27-year-old Mim Shaikh’s accomplishments — his resume boasts a collection of high-profile BBC radio and TV gigs — a dark question has haunted his entire life: Who was the father that abandoned him when Shaikh was less than a year old?

With his father gone and his mother too sick to look after him full time, Shaikh was mainly raised by his grandmother. It was an unconventional family environment, he says, especially in Pakistani culture, where fathers are highly revered and respected. Indeed, fathers in South Asian communities are often considered to be both heads of their household and custodians of their faith and traditions. So when a father is absent, “it has a heavy impact on the rest of the family,” Shaikh says.

Growing up, the only thing Shaikh heard about his father was that his parents met when his mother’s family responded to an ad his dad had placed in a newspaper looking for a wife, and that his mother and father came from the same village in Pakistan. “It felt like there was a part of myself that was absent,” Shaikh says in his new BBC documentary Finding Dad.

On the surface, the documentary follows tropes similar to other coming-of-age stories in which children seek out their estranged fathers and come to terms with their own anger, sadness and betrayal — a la The Spectacular Now or Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, both of which focus on how young men are impacted by the absence of a father figure, as well as the risk of not being accepted by their father upon being reunited.

At the same time, Shaikh says that Finding Dad is part of a much larger story, one that champions the resolve of immigrant communities at a time when the future of the U.K.’s immigrant population hangs in the balance. Most people only know about South Asian families like Shaikh’s arriving into the U.K. in the 1960s to fill the post-war labor shortage. What they don’t know, Shaikh says, is “how strong the women in my family and these communities are — they went through tough times, survived and built homes that allowed people like me to be successful.”

Shaikh goes through several defining moments over the course of the doc. He sees pictures of his father as a young man for the first time, and travels back to Birmingham to visit the mosque his father helped build in the 1960s, one of the first in the city.  Eventually, he follows a tip from his father’s old housemate and travels to Pakistan to meet him. “It was this whirlwind of emotions that I’m still processing,” Shaikh says. “You can see it [in the film] — from the time I see the photographs for the first time and I’m shocked at how some of the expressions are so similar to mine, to finding out my dad’s side of the story about his marriage to my mum.”

“I needed to ask these hard questions, honestly,” he continues. “I needed to find out where the truth really lies.” Finding balance in a story with so much personal investment was difficult, especially when he had to confront claims that his father physically abused his mother, and that his grandmother had no choice but to remove her from Shaikh’s childhood home. Shaikh’s father — a thin, frail man who wears a white turban and shalwar kameez (or traditional Pakistani dress) — denies these claims, saying instead that his mother’s family had deliberately separated him from Shaikh to undermine his authority as a husband and father, and to ensure that he had no connection with his son.

“Hearing about the abuse was hard for a number of reasons,” Shaikh says. “Obviously it’s hard to hear about those things happening to your mum. At the same time, I also questioned how other people — both my family and viewers — would respond to him. Would they understand him, or how he experienced what happened? Would they understand why he decided to go back to Pakistan instead of staying [in the U.K.]?”

Overall, they’re a study in two very different kind of men. Shaikh describes himself as “in tune with my emotions,” while his father adheres to the stoic standards of rural Pakistani society. Even when the two meet for the first time, Shaikh is visibly in shock and somewhat disorientated. His father, meanwhile, is calm, slow and forma, as if he was meeting any person on a normal day.

“My dad isn’t a person who openly shows his emotions, which is completely different to me. There are parts of the film where he might seem to defensive, or brush away my attempts to connect with him. But then there are moments when he’s commemorating my visit to his house with a big sign with mine and his name on it, which took me by surprise,” Shaikh says.

So, in the end, did Shaikh get the answers he wanted?

As the documentary closes, he says he’s content having met the man who “makes up the other half of me,” the person “whose blood runs through my arteries.” But of course, Shaikh tells me that there are still questions he has about the relationship between his parents. And if anything, the experience helped him “appreciate my grandmother, my aunties — all the women in my family — so much more, and how strong they all were.” Moreover, finally meeting his father allowed him to figure out what kind of husband and (eventually) father, he wants to be. “It’s not going to happen for a while, but I do know that I don’t want any of my kids to go through what I did, to have these questions in their mind as they grow up,” he says. “I know that I want to be there for them, and make sure they never have to worry about me.”

Will his father be a part of their lives? Shaikh isn’t sure yet, but he talks to him a few times a week — and just before the documentary came out, his father called to wish him luck. “It’s a different experience now,” Shaikh says. “I know that he’s far away, that he lives a different life to me or the rest of my family, but I can at least picture him.”