My Son the Fanatic (1997)


(director: Udayan Prasad; screenwriter: based on the novel by Hanif Kureishi; cinematographer: Alan Almond; editor: David Gamble; cast: Om Puri (Parvez), Rachel Griffiths (Bettina), Stellan Skarsgård (Schitz), Akbar Kurtha (Farid), Gopi Desai (Minoo), Harish Patel (Fizzy), Bhasker Patel (The Maulvi), Sarah-Jane Potts (Madelaine), Geoffrey Bateman (Chief Inspector); Runtime: 87; Miramax Films; 1998-UK)

“It is so bland and unexciting that it is hard to tell what all the fuss is about.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This social conscience film is based on the short story by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette/Sammy and Rosie get Laid), and is about an émigré family who came 25 years ago from Pakistan to the economically depressed industrial city of Bradford, in the north of England. The father is the pock-marked, leathery faced, middle-aged taxi driver Parvez (Om Puri), who has assimilated into the English culture, snobbishly looking down his nose at those who don’t behave properly. His wife Minoo (Gopi Desai) is subservient but not respectful of him, never having fully adjusted to her adopted country, saving all her love for her spoiled son Farid (Akbar Kurtha). Her husband works long hours but does not advance and to her seems to be without ambition, as their relationship grows distant. At the start of the story Farid is a seemingly typical self-satisfied second generation son of an immigrant, who is a studious accountant college student and a fun loving guitar player. He is engaged to an English girl Madelaine (Sarah-Jane Potts), who works as a bank teller–her father is the local police chief (Bateman). This pumps Parvez up with pride that the son of a dark-skinned immigrant could be going out with a local white girl, who comes from a family with such prestige in town. In an unconvincing manner Farid breaks off the relationship because of his sudden new interest in Islamic fundamentalism. He observes how the local population disrespects the dark-skinned Pakistanis and look down at his father because of his lowly status. His new stance in life brings displeasure to his father, though it brings happiness to the police chief, who by his tight facial expression when in the presence of the Pakistani family, displays his subtle racial prejudice.

This very predictable social drama will have every character be a walking cliché, every major event be a contrived one, and it will do everything it could do to convince the audience that assimilation is the way to go but get out on the pulpit and preach against racial hatred. It is good to have such tolerant beliefs–don’t get me wrong–but to make such a boring and muddled picture about it, is not a good thing.

The naive but indulgent father is hard-working, though he is not always as ethical as he should be (he drinks too much, stays out late with another woman, and is a pimp to a local prostitute). While his reactionary son is someone who spouts fundamental diatribes against white people and especially the Jews. Parvez spends most of the film railing against his son’s beliefs and his ingratitude for how hard he had to work to support the family, rationalizing his own worldly beliefs; while, his son grows disappointed with his father’s Western ways, until it gives way to a hatred for his father. He rejects him and goes marching off with his militant fundamentalist group.

The film’s themes about religious fanatics, family problems, prostitution, hypocrisy, jealousy over a friend’s success, the immigration problem, bigotry, the problems a young man has in growing up, a father-son in a frictional relationship, social hierarchy, male abuse towards women, the tribulations of a workaholic, love, loneliness, the need for warmth, and cultural clashes, are just too many themes for one film to have. The filmmaker is all over the cricket field with these problems, but just can’t make this long list of problems have any lasting interest for the filmgoer. And, as if these weren’t enough problems, some more come up when the taxi driver takes as his fare a German industrialist, Stellan Skarsgård, who goes by the name of Schitz (you can see for yourself what goes for humor here, as you try to pronounce his name). He comes here on business and as a diversion, Parvez supplies him with women and one in particular, Parvez’s dear prostitute friend, Bettina (Rachel Griffiths). As a way of incrementing his salary, Parvez arranges places for the sexually masochistic industrialist to have orgies and pays off the girls with the industrialist’s cash. But Puri develops a serious relationship with the prostitute, who has a heart of gold (Did you ever hear of any other kind of a prostitute in a cliché movie?). She gives him the warmth he can’t get at home.

When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, this unmoving film can’t make up its mind on how it stands on some of the major issues it brings to the table. By the film’s end I don’t know how to feel about Parvez’s romance with the prostitute, as it certainly breaks up his family life but gives him a renewed self-respect and hope. But there is no resolution to what all the fuss was about over her being a prostitute and what will come of their relationship. Is the filmmaker for or against prostitution? And the question remains, what was that final scene all about, of angry Moslems stoning and bombing a whorehouse in the neighborhood of the Mosque while the father pulls his son away from Bettina and then throws the German industrialist out of his cab! For me, it was just an unbelievable scene, and to boot, it didn’t clear up anything about the mainstream Moslem official position on their negativity toward prostitution. In fact I didn’t learn anything new about Moslems, except to see them as the stereotypes they are usually depicted in mainstream films.

Om Puri (In Custody/City of Joy/Target) is an accomplished actor from India, whose trademark leathery face and ability to be very expressive and exuberant, engages the film with his sense of what it is to be a decent person. He looks at his adopted country like an exile–with one foot planted back to his native Pakistan but his other foot firmly planted in the new country. There is something about him that identifies with those who are outsiders, as long as they are not fanatics or troublemakers.

But the filmmaker doesn’t even attempt to play fair. The story is told totally from Puri’s point of view, all the others around him are one-dimensional characters who are not only uninteresting but they are for the most part made to appear annoying; such as, his fanatical son, his old-fashioned wife, his vulnerable prostitute friend, the industrialist (his part was the most undeveloped one in the film), and the moralizing friend he came here with from Pakistan, Fizzy (Harish Patel).

In the closing credits we see how isolated the exiled father is (meaning-he will always be an exile in his adopted England). This is pointed out as he goes from room to room in his empty house and a jazz song plays “There is no peace till hatred passes.”

That Parvez is depicted as a decent guy, with a good attitude, is probably not as true as the filmmaker thinks. Didn’t he treat his wife unfairly and fail to communicate with his troubled son? The worst thing about this film is that it is a snoozer, not able to make its story about the virtues of being faithful to your culture and your wife come to life. It is mired down in one cliché after another. The best thing to say about this middle-brow art-house film, is that it should upset no one: it is so bland and unexciting that it is hard to tell what all the fuss is about. I can’t get too worked up over a father who is the rebel in the household instead of the son, or if the father falls for the heavenly prostitute who is so human (she even snorts cocaine), or about a bunch of intolerant religious fanatics who are hypocrites, who descry the West but nevertheless want to live there. There was just nothing to get worked up about. I just assume people immigrate to Western countries to earn a better living, there is no big deal in exposing that.