My Son the Fanatic (1997)

reviewed by
Murali Krishnan


People emigrate from the Indian subcontinent to the West for a variety of reasons, but the most common is to just make a living, because for many that is easier in the foreign land than it is at home. The sacrifice that is made, often unknowingly, is a way of life, and often the scorn of the Westerners who see the newcomers as threats. Some people are able to retain the value system of their old culture, but many also assimilate into the new surroundings. Some do this because they know their existence in the foreign land is more than temporary, so they try to be less foreign. Others do it simply because they want to fit in more easily, and be accepted by the locals so they can live their lives without disturbance.

Hanif Kureishi has written many stories centered around Pakistanis who have settled in England. Some have been produced as films, most notably My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie get Laid. My Son the Fanatic is an adaptation of one of his short stories. Usually his main characters are highly assimilated members of the second generation. These people often identify themselves mainly as British, but are still influenced by the Eastern culture of their parents. The roles are reversed in this story, because it is the parent who has assimilated, while his son is driven into a zealous pursuit of religion and culture in an attempt to fill his self-realizational needs.

Parvez (Om Puri) is a taxi driver in an economically depressed English city. Although it once had a thriving textile industry, the factories have gone and the population has faced hard times. Parvez often sees the dark underside of the town as his job takes him through all parts at all times. Parvez's friend Fizzy (Harish Patel) arrived in England the same time as Parvez, twenty five years prior, but the two men's fortunes followed different paths. The enterprising Fizzy has worked hard and become a restaurant owner. The unambitious Parvez has been driving a cab for a quarter century. Although Parvez barely makes a living, he is fully content with his lot in life. However, his self-satisfaction contrasts with the attitude of his family. His wife, Minoo (Gopi Desai), resents the fact that Parvez has not risen to a more respectable profession and become a better provider. Besides the fact that driving a taxi pays minimally, it keeps Parvez occupied and outside the house, leaving him little time with his family. Over time, the relationship between Parvez and Minoo has become distant, but a deeper split emerges between Parvez and his son, Farid (Akbar Kurtha).

Farid has grown up in England, is studying accounting, plays guitar, and has gotten engaged to an English girl. At the start of the story, Farid is cast as a typical second generation immigrant--he is aware of his culture, but has apparently assimilated. However, there are barriers to his assimilation that anger Farid. He sees that people look down on his family because not only are they dark-skinned "Pakis", but also because his father is a lowly taxi driver. Farid reacts by rejecting the Western culture that rejects him. He breaks off his engagement and joins a group of devout Muslims who decry the immorality of Western culture. He is also angry that his father accepts the place in society that they are forced into. Such concerns really do not register to Parvez. His whole approach to life is mellow and accepting. Although he does face bigotry, he is not affected by it. He accepts it as one of the facets of his world.

Parvez finds a kindred spirit in Bettina (Rachel Griffiths), one of the many prostitutes who ply their trade on the streets that Parvez drives. In fact, they have almost become business associates because their occupations bring them in contact so often. Over time they have developed a friendship. Bettina is grounded and self respecting, and Parvez is a rare man who treats her with kindness. Bettina a is caring listener who has learned quite a lot about Parvez's feelings and concerns from the time they have spent together. Parvez finds and acceptance and admiration from Bettina that he does not get from others. Although he does not care any less for his wife and son, he has developed a tender relationship with Bettina.

The story takes on several serious issues and is engaging. However, it does appear weak in one place--the character of Bettina. The character of a sympathetic prostitute is hardly original. Although Griffiths gives a capable performance, she is limited by the stereotype. In contrast, Puri gives an exceptional performance as Parvez. There is nothing extreme about Parvez, but Puri molds a character that the viewer fully understands, appreciates, and admires by the end of the film. Parvez's strength, his fairness and sensibility, are not extruded at discrete moments, but rather the character builds with all he does and says. He is written with depth, and portrayed effectively. No one else is developed as thoroughly as Parvez. Farid is given relatively little depth. At the beginning of the story his is on the cusp of his rejection of Western values and his immersion into fundamentalism. After that he is given little development, but this is because as a character, he is not important. He represents an antagonistic view to Parvez's general outlook. This conflict is intelligently portrayed because Parvez does not directly represent the values opposed by his son. The conflict is not between Parvez and Farid, but rather it is between the many components of Parvez's world.

Highly recommended. It is a very ambitious film, but the story does take shortcuts. This is easily forgivable because it also takes on serious subjects and does not feel the need to preach.

(c) 1999 Murali Krishnan
The Art House Squatter

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