My Son The Fanatic (1997)

D: Udayan Prasad
S: Om Puri, Rachael Griffiths, Stellan Skarsgard

A middle aged Anglo-Asian taxi driver strikes up a friendship with a young white prostitute he ferries from job to job as his relationship with his uncommunicative wife and increasingly hostile son gradually decays. When the young man then becomes involved with Islamic fundamentalists and invites a holy man to live in their house, it causes a crisis which not only threatens his concept of family, but has repercussions for the Asian community on the whole.

Based on a short story and written for the screen by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette), this low key art house drama operates in the familiar mould of European drama: muted, character centred and conscious of the social and political implications of a simple human tale. There is not really enough material for a full feature, but as with all work of this type, its pleasures are in its particular focus, and this film is unlikely to appeal to anyone without predisposition to its pace and tone.

Kureishi's ever-trenchant observations are bolstered by a sympathetic and layered performance by Indian actor Om Puri. The film is strongly centred on his character, and the title, in a sense, is misleading. Young Akbar Kurtha's rediscovery of his religious heritage serves as the catalyst for the internal and external drama which defines his father's life, but their relationship is not really the focus of the action and features in relatively few scenes. It is closer in spirit to Taxi Driver and Mona Lisa as a portrait of a lonely man who becomes obsessed with his idea of the woman beneath the prostitute (Rachael Griffiths), and whose view of the world is particular and self-defining. The challenge to his illusions and preconceptions is less apocalyptic though, and the film resolves itself on a much more cheerful note than its predecessors despite the implied social unease behind it.

There are questions to be raised regarding the state of contemporary Anglo-Asian community relations, internal and external, and they are present in the tapestry of character here. There are even comic asides and moments of whimsical hostility between Puri and the holy man which are as telling about a particular set of relations between people as they are about attitudes to religion in general. Larger questions of social class are also raised, with Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting) turning in a peculiar performance as a wealthy German businessman eager to use and exploit anyone who will take his money in a kind of dark symbol of a particular brand of capitalism (and its excesses). The film also addresses questions of middle age and of marriage and relationships in general, and with each of these areas providing conflicts and confrontations, there is plenty to discuss and analyse if you choose to do so.

But as entertainment the film has the limitations of its genre, and it will not appeal to a wide audience. Not that we would have expected anything else, but it is disappointing that it lacks the balance of elements which made My Beautiful Laundrette such a success and which has kept Kureishi adaptations on television screens ever since. It is more internal and discursive than it is a true film drama, but of course, there are those for whom this will inevitably be all the more interesting.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.