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My Son the Fanatic

Bland and gloomy

By Zarminae Ansari

Directed by Udayan Prasad

Written by Hanif Kureishi

With Om Puri, Akbar Kurtha, Rachel Griffiths

I am a huge fan of Hanif Kureishi, who wrote the screenplay of this movie based on one of his short stories. He also wrote the screenplay for the award-winning My Beautiful Laundrette. You can probably guess that I am heading towards a big “but” -- and you’re right. This movie is a disappointment. While Kureishi usually makes keen observations about the South Asian immigrant experience in Great Britain, My Son the Fanatic simply isn’t such an enjoyable movie.

It is set in a one-time booming industrial town, now derelict, having suffered the same fate as many others in the UK. The town’s main employer, the textile mill, shut down and left unemployment in its wake, as well as gaping holes in the urban and psychological landscape along with multitudes of immigrants from the British colonies who had been brought in as cheap labor. Racism is rampant and blatant against the immigrants.

The gloomy backdrop of an economically depressed English town in My Beautiful Laundrette was enlivened by the sparkling dialogue and an array of interesting, unconventional, and unpredictable characters, but this movie simply doesn’t lift one out of the gloom and despair.

Its redeeming quality is the performance of the main character. The acclaimed Indian actor Om Puri (City of Joy), who is best known for his performances in Indian art films, carries the whole movie. Possessing a strikingly expressive, heavily pockmarked face, Puri is an unforgettable actor, whose performances have earned him accolades.

Puri plays Pervez, a Pakistani immigrant who becomes a cab driver when the textile mill he worked in closes down -- and he continues doing that for 25 years. Desperate for his son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) to be truly assimilated, he tries to arrange Farid’s marriage with the local Police Chief’s daughter. Then comes turmoil in the form of his son’s conversion to Islam and his own growing friendship with a local prostitute Bettina (Rachel Griffiths).

Disillusioned by both the society he was born in and the one that refuses to accept him, Farid finds the higher purpose and sense of belonging he craves with a group of other young men who have turned to the religion of their forefathers. Whiskey-drinking Pervez has long since given up any outward allegiance to the faith, so when he discovers his son’s obsession with “a return to purity,” he has no idea what to do.

Kureishi is known for turning stereotypes on their head. Here the conservative is the son, not the father. Pervez is an upright family man, yet he befriends a prostitute and eventually falls in love with her. Sounds interesting. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Far from being uplifting, the romance is doomed, almost pathetic, and as miserable as the surrounding town and society -- and we need to endure that for an hour and a half.

It is all same old, same old. In fact, Kureishi, who usually creates rather nuanced characters, seems to speckle the landscape of this depressingly bland movie with cardboard characters; he also resorts to stereotypes which are unworthy of him. Not that there is no truth to them (after all, stereotypes happen because of a recurrence or the perception of recurrence of certain traits), but they are stereotypes nonetheless.

Frankly, I can’t decide whether Kureishi is patronizing in his implication that tradition, culture, and religion can only be manifested in extremes and are “backward” -- or that it is the natural result of the failure of modern society. It seems to be the former, because Kureishi’s anti-religious bias becomes obvious in his caricatured treatment of a religious sentiment. The movie lacks an effective middle ground.

Then there is the seemingly gratuitous nudity. If the movie was trying to convey a sense of revulsion to reflect Pervez’s son’s revulsion with the society -- he succeeded. At times, the director seemed more interested in providing titillating glimpses of prostitutes than artistic cinematography.

At the end of the movie, I almost wished I had gone to see something like Wild Wild West. Almost.