Friday, December 5, 2014

Neglected Gem #65: My Son the Fanatic (1997)

Om Puri in My Son the Fanatic

Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay for My Son the Fanatic (which he adapted from one of his stories) takes you right back to the glory days of Cinema Four, in the mid-eighties, when he and Stephen Frears turned out My Beautiful Laundrette and Neil Jordan made Mona Lisa and five or six times a year something fresh and provocative came out of England or Ireland. It has the kind of complicated humor you find in Kureishi’s best novels, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album.

In fact, one of the big influences on Kureishi and his collaborator, the director Udayan Prasad – like Kureishi, a gifted Anglo-Pakistani with an eye for the mixed pleasures of the cultural mix – is Mona Lisa; the other is Taxi Driver. The irresistibly warm, larger-than-life actor Om Puri, who’s sort of a Pakistani equivalent to Topol (the star of the screen version of Fiddler on the Roof), plays Parvez, a London taxi driver who revels in the joys of assimilation. He listens to Sarah Vaughan and Louis Armstrong – though his wife Minoo (Gopi Desai), who’s more traditional, complains that the music he loves is “too trumpety.” Parvez finds himself drawn, sexually and emotionally, to one of his customers, a white whore named Bettina (Rachel Griffiths). His best friend, Fizzy (Harish Patel, in a merry performance), runs a successful restaurant; he’s a very model of the immigrant whose new life has turned out to be a triumph. And Parvez’s son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) is engaged to a young white woman, the daughter of a police chief. But whereas Parvez hears a welcoming note in his new in-laws’ reception of Farid’s family, Farid hears condescension and implicit resentment (and he’s probably correct). So he walks out on his fiancée, who seems to love him very much, and embraces fundamentalist Islam. He gets involved with a group of young Muslims whose loyalties are to a rather dim leader; they elect Parvez’s home as the guru’s guest house during his visit to England. They also cook up some trouble: a violent attack on the local prostitutes, whom they see as an embodiment of Anglo vice.

Akbar Kurtha as Farid, in My Son the Fanatic
The script is very cleverly laid out – perhaps too cleverly (i.e., schematically). At one end of the spectrum is Farid, who denounces illicit sexual pleasure, and at the other is the German tourist Schitz (Stellan Skarsgård), a hedonist who hires Parvez as his personal driver and Bettina as his temporary companion. Both these extremes turn out to be perilous: the pleasure principle that guides Schitz’s existence masks both brutality and subtle racism, and Farid’s puritanical fanaticism permits him to unleash a raging hatred. Prasad isn’t at his best handling either of these characters, but you can see why – neither ventures very far off his single note. (Kurtha and Skarsgård are the only actors in the ensemble I didn’t care for.) But when the movie focuses on Parvez’s relationships with the two women in his life, the sexually frank and emotionally vulnerable Bettina and the delicate, observant Minoo, or on his friendship with Fizzy, it’s layered and crackling. Parvez believes he’s brought his family into the modern West, but the arrival of the guru (an entertaining caricature of a man, who delights in watching cartoons and contemplates moving to England permanently) brings out the conservative in Minoo. Out of respect for her visitor, she reverts to wearing a veil around the house and absenting herself from meals with the men, and her choice to reduce her presence in the house agonizes her husband. She senses that he’s growing away from her and at the end of the movie she returns, for a while at least, to her family in Pakistan. Parvez clearly gets something from Bettina he can’t get from Minoo: a messy rush of emotions, openly expressed. “When I think of you,” she tells him, “I get a warm feeling in my stomach. I have to close my eyes.” But the movie is conscious of what Parvez loses when he turns away from his wife; in their different ways, both these women are jewels. (And both actresses are superb.)

When Parvez shows up at the restaurant with Bettina, Fizzy pretends to be full up and hustles him to an unoccupied side room. It looks like snobbery – he doesn’t want a hooker in the midst of his fancy clientele – and maybe it is, partly. But mostly Fizzy is concerned for Parvez and his family. This kind of gossip spreads like wildfire through the intimate Pakistani community. Fizzy is a good friend to Parvez; when he receives a whopper of a phone bill following the guru’s visit and can’t afford to pay it, Fizzy offers a check without a moment’s hesitation (though Parvez tears it up indignantly when Fizzy accosts him about his relationship with Bettina). Harish Patel’s Fizzy would fit right into My Beautiful Laundrette; he’s a jollier version of the uncle (played by Saeed Jaffrey) who teaches the hero how to “squeeze the tits of the system” so that he can gain a financial foothold that lifts him above English racism. Here the only racism Kureishi’s concerned with, besides Schitz’s casual put-downs of his driver, is that of Farid, who is virulently anti-white and anti-Semitic. I wish Kureishi and Prasad had found a more varied tone for the Farid scenes – some humor to leaven the boy’s awfulness – but they seem to be so appalled by him that they can’t crack jokes when he’s around. (They save their jokes for the guru.) But if My Son the Fanatic is flawed, still it bristles with life, and it has a glorious jazz soundtrack that reflects its protagonist’s love of the best the west has to offer.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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