My Son the Fanatic
Director: Udayan Prasad. Cast: Om Puri, Rachel Griffiths, Akbar Kurtha, Gopi Desai, Stellan Skarsgård. Screenplay: Hanif Kureishi (based on his short story).
Almost never in the contemporary cinema, even outside the studio system, is a film's screenwriter pushed as its major marquee attraction. The origin of a film's script only receives attention when it springs from the mind of well-known or marketable cast members, like Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility or the Damon/Affleck duo behind Good Will Hunting; when the author is equally famous as a director, like Woody Allen or John Sayles; or when, as with Secrets & Lies or The Blair Witch Project, debate arises over how much of a script ever actually existed. Occasionally, a maverick writer earns some marginal notoriety for pushing hot political buttons (Thelma & Louise) or devising plot twists that either are ingenious (The Crying Game) or merely seem that way (The Usual Suspects).
The case of Hanif Kureishi, who penned this summer's much-trumpeted "thinking person's film" My Son the Fanatic, is therefore quite exceptional. Kureishi, a Pakistani who has lived for many years in Great Britain, achieved what international fame he has as the Oscar-nominated writer of 1986's My Beautiful Laundrette. Kureishi deserved the praise he received for that film's generous embrace of racial demographics, sophisticated sexual vectors, and unapologetically political examination of Thatcher-era British society. At the same time, Laundrette would likely have been lost at sea without its charismatic leads (including then-unknown Daniel Day-Lewis) or the eccentric but sure-handed direction of Stephen Frears, who had not yet begun indulging in the bombastic stylistics of films like last year's The Hi-Lo Country.
Now, Kureishi's name provides the improbable buoy to which Miramax has desperately lashed all publicity for the starless, itty-bitty-by-any-scale My Son the Fanatic. I am grateful to see literate dialogue and unexpected protagonists be recognized as valuable restorations to the 1999 multiplex. At the same time, I find it hard to ignore that My Son the Fanatic does not really come together. Director Udayan Prasad, most of whose work has been done in television, seems smitten enough by Kurieshi's reputation and the worthy credentials of his cast that he does not sufficiently shape the material into anything like a film. What results is still satisfactory entertainment and enlightenment, if for no other reason than American culture's limited attention to the racial diversities and conflicts present in other parts of the world. Still, My Son the Fanatic is more of a literary exercise than a cinematic one, a trait which ultimately stunts the film's impact.
Parvez (Om Puri), a Pakistani taxi-driver trying to support a comfortable middle-class existence for his family, is the hero of Kureishi's screenplay, based on one of his own short stories. His eager efforts at assimilation into British society do not always please his college-age son Farid (Akbar Kurtha), mostly because the young man cannot tolerate the willful blindness to his family's racial and economic difference required for his father's own pretensions as a British bourgeois.
Farid ends an engagement to be married to a young, white British woman after Parvez embarrasses his son at the first meeting of the lovers' families. Puri, all smiles, chuckles, and too-vociferous handshakes during this scene, effectively portrays both Parvez's sweet intentions and the social awkwardness that so shames Farid. Unlike much of Kureishi's work, including My Beautiful Laundrette, My Son the Fanatic actually develops from this early crisis as the story of the hard-working, socially bewildered father, rather than the young radical Farid, who increasingly resorts to a strict Muslim fundamentalism as a way to announce firmlyboth to his community and his fatherhis own racial and political difference. Parvez's home suddenly becomes the grounds of protracted fasts, examinations of scripture, and other rigorous religious immersions that make Parvez increasingly uncomfortable. His wife Minoo (Gopi Desai) watches quietly as her husband and son grow further apart, not sure on whose side she belongs.
The widening of the gulf between Parvez and Farid constitutes the central action of My Son the Fanatic, but Kureishi counterposes that narrative with another story in which Parvez actually grows closer to a person with whom, on the surface, he has little in common. Bettina, played by Hilary and Jackie's Rachel Griffiths, is a prostitute whom Parvez first meets when she hails his cab. The two continue to meet and, predictably, develop a certain affinity; they are both treated as outcasts in their community, as social hangers-on relegated to undignified "professions," and the filmmakers squeeze some rather obvious tension from the delicate question of whether the two are erotically attracted or else just unlikely friends.
My Son the Fanatic asks several interesting questions. Is Farid's sudden devotion to Islamic law frightening to Parvez because of its severe force or because he views such behavior as conspicuously retrograde within their Western environment? Could his interest in Bettina be motivated by his own wish to "belong" to white society when she herself, regardless of her race, is an outcast in her community? Mainstream movies, as everyone knows, typically eschew these kinds of cultural and intellectual riddles, and so My Son the Fanatic affords the rare and sincere pleasure of stimulation. In a film where difference is often characterized as unpalatable, even damning, the uniqueness of the film itself and that of its characters are undeniable pluses.
And yet, what interested me in My Son the Fanatic was located entirely in the screenplay. Prasad's film has no visual verve beyond a surprisingly frank (though stylized) love scene and mundanely predictable (though still powerful) quick cuts and jagged angles during a climactic riot scene. Also, in a film whose narrative structure tends toward the schematic, the performances also seem a bit chilly. The film's press releases have tagged Puri as "the Pakistani answer to Anthony Hopkins," and Griffiths, particularly since her Hilary and Jackie Oscar nod, has drawn comparison to all sorts of cinematic dramediennes from Emma Thompson to Vanessa Redgrave.
Actors would donate limbs for those kinds of write-ups, but in both cases the hype attests to the technical craftsmanship of Puri and Griffiths' work without acknowledging the emotional remove at which they tend to stand from the audience. Griffiths in particular seems sterner and more awkward than the role of Bettina requires. Like Kate Nelligan, Griffiths is a spry character actress who is well served by roles (like Jackie du Pré) that depend on her intellectual vividness, understated beauty, and emotional reticence, but she sometimes stands at risk of abrading the screen with rigid intellect when a supple availability to the viewer seems more appropriate.
Though Kureishi and his script are clearly the film's raison d'être, I do not want to relieve him from any guilt for the film's remote, clockwork quality. Had we more experience of Farid's temperament before his transformation begins, or had religious fundamentalism received a more textured treatment than the monolithic near-perversity as which we view it here, the conflict among Kureishi's characters might have seemed more real, more inviting of audience investment.
Some of these omissions are the necessary casualties of endowing My Son the Fanatic with Parvez's point of view, a decision which pays its own high rewards. My Son the Fanatic doesn't do much wrong; it's just that the picture doesn't ultimately do much at all besides throwing its hands up at the fascinating problems raised by its story. The summer of 1998 stands in great need of a "thinking person's film," and My Son the Fanatic comes close enough to filling that niche that its own shortcomings are all the more frustrating. All sorts of social, racial, and generational tensions ignite before the movie is over, but the movie itself never quite catches fire. B