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Metro Pulse East vs. West

Hanif Kureishi's My Son the Fanatic underscores (and underdevelops) cultural clashes.

By Coury Turczyn

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  I don't know anyone who doesn't want to change their life. Whether it be job, spouse, or home (or the lack of any of those), most people seem sadly disappointed when they reach a certain age. They ought to be living more, or seeing more, or loving more than they are right now, as if everything they've become accustomed to is not quite what they imagined for themselves years before. And this doesn't apply just to wistful writers, but also to the everyday sorts we take for granted: the guy who picks up your garbage, the cashier ringing up your donuts, the driver of the taxi taking you to the airport...

Such is the main character of writer Hanif Kureishi's My Son the Fanatic, a middle-aged Pakistani cab driver in Britain who faces several dilemmas all at once: cultural strictures vs. personal desires, religious fundamentalism vs. Western mores, father vs. son. It's just the kind of melting pot of topics that has marked much of Kureishi's short stories and movie scripts, such as My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Kureishi blends social and sexual clashes into storylines that seemingly flit around until, suddenly, you see how they all fit together; even more memorable are his uncommon characters, distinctive figures that seem much more true to life than the usual movie caricatures. With My Son the Fanatic, Kureishi revisits some of his favorite themes, but with perhaps less finesse than usual.

Om Puri stars as Parvez, the humble, hard-working taxi driver who immigrated to England years ago to feed his wife and son. He is enthusiastically Westernized, often playing American jazz LPs in his basement while drinking whiskey; furthermore, he has arranged for his son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) to marry the local (and very English) police chief's daughter. Parvez is an open-minded fellow, and not very religious—in fact, he often transports prostitutes without judgment and befriends one of them, Bettina (the wonderful Rachel Griffiths of Muriel's Wedding). He seems like a happy-go-lucky sort, with his weather-beaten face, knowing eyes, and ready smile—but he proceeds to destroy his family in a quest to live up (or down) to his new definitions of Western-style happiness.

First, his son calls off the wedding after seeing his prospective father-in-law's reaction to meeting his own father ("Couldn't you see how they looked at you?" Farid asks with disgust). Farid decides that he must reject Western ideas and return to the purity of Islam; he soon begins his tutelage in a fundamentalist sect. Meanwhile, Parvez finds himself falling in love with Bettina, threatening not only his marriage but also his son's loyalty as well as his place in the Pakastani community. When Farid joins his sect's attack on Bettina's brothel (to "cleanse" the community), the conflict comes to a head. Will Parvez stay true to his original culture's precepts of family and religion, or will he plunge ahead into the Western ideals of personal satisfaction at all costs?

So often, we are accustomed to our movie characters choosing the "right" path, the moral one—and through Western eyes, Parvez's choices are probably the ones most of us would approve of. He is outraged by his son's newfound racism and hatred of those he believes are "unclean"—so to hell with the son! Likewise, Bettina offers Parvez true love and affection whereas his wife is formal and remote—so to hell with the wife! On to a new life... But these choices are so antithetical to Parvez's original culture, I wonder how easy they'd be for him to make. Parvez is stuck between East and West, but Kureishi doesn't make it much of a personal conflict for the character; it's as if Kureishi is saying the choice is so obvious that the only real struggle is how to shed one's old life.

By doing so, I wonder if Kureishi is really giving us the whole story. What is it about the Islamic faith that so transfixes the previously Westernized Farid? All we see is its most hateful side, which is certainly not the whole of everyday Muslim faith. Likewise, we never really see many sides to Parvez's wife; did they ever really love each other, or was it a marriage of duty? By not including the other characters' viewpoints, Kureishi stacks the deck—we practically cheer Parvez on as he reacts to his circumstances by beating up his son and dumping his wife. But even by Western standards, these aren't the most responsible actions, and Parvez doesn't seem to learn anything from them (though he does appear exhausted during the final credits).

Thankfully, though, Om Puri is such a likable, natural actor that he manages to make Parvez's desire to change his life an empathetic struggle. And Griffiths—as (surprise!) a hooker with a heart of gold—creates an offbeat chemistry between the two. As a movie audience, we want to see them live happily ever after regardless of the costs to other characters; as a movie critic, I have to wonder if Kureishi hasn't committed a cliché in the name of sewing up what's really a much more complex issue.

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