My Son the Fanatic
directed by Udayan Prasad
A remnant from the 80s when multiculti was chic, international smart aleck Hanif Kureishi grows up with My Son the Fanatic. He has finally found a sober, wise use for that spark of intelligence and humor first seen in his screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette but later squandered in the movies Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and his own directorial debut London Kills Me. They were all intellectual Hellzapoppins with varied degrees of dramatic coherence. Since Laundrette, each subsequent Kureishi film wore on your tolerance for sarcastic social critique.
It’s surprising Kureishi could get over the youthful effrontery that seemed to fuel his stories of ethnic, sexual and political outrage and sustain his talent. His interest in immigrant experience as a vision of the century’s great social changes and spiritual confusion is still vital, but this new story of Parvez, a middle-aged Pakistan-born cabby, ambivalent about his new home in Northern England, resolves effrontery for ardency. My Son the Fanatic combines Parvez’s passions (his Western cultural fascination, his traditional tribal ties and his inbred regret) into an essential, aching love story: As Parvez wrestles with his experience of Western decline his beloved son grows away from him.
There were sketches of this generational agony in the subplot of Sammy and Rosie (really its only interesting scenes, richly performed by Shashi Kapoor as Sammy’s magnanimous father). And
the subplot here, of Parvez’s romance with Bettina, one of his white British prostitute-clients, recalls the cross-cultural affair between the uncle and a white woman (Saeed Jaffrey and Shirley Ann Field) in Laundrette. But Parvez’s dilemma feels more deeply etched. He’s stretched between family obligation and personal desire; his work life in a sordid social world and his ethical quandary; then he’s tantalized by the pop expression of dreams that minister to his daily fatigue. After 12-hour taxi shifts, Parvez returns to his homemaker wife and college-age son and then retreats to his basement lair for a scotch
and his collection of vinyl records (Brook Benton and Dinah Washington’s “A Rockin’ Good Way,” Louis Armstrong’s “Back O’ Town Blues,” Jimmy Witherspoon’s “T’aint Nobody’s Business”)—a treasury as nostalgic as it is poignant. “What’s wrong with Louis Armstrong?” Parvez asks. His wife Minoo (Gopi Desai), feeling neglected, can only grouse, “It’s too trumpety!”
Parvez’s life, an existential juggling act, contains the emotional tumult and political anxiety of the multicultural era without seeming merely trendy. India-born actor Om Puri (City of Joy, In Custody) fully embodies the dilemma—the constant, trenchant fact of multiculturalism. It’s in Puri’s dark, shining eyes; the tireless desire projecting out of his pockmarked face defines human aspiration. Puri’s expressive efficiency and the tensile strength apparent in his Pakistani-turned-British singsong are true to the held-in intelligence of those Asian newsstand-workers and merchants who act reserved from the new world they’ve “embraced.” Parvez’s inner life is not fully expressed in the driver’s seat of his cab. He’s made a voyeur of the West that attracts him, the liberated intellectual and sexual life that has colonized then betrayed him.
This universal voyeur is, ironically, rarely seen onscreen. But Puri enacts Parvez’s dignity so that we recognize in him the figure of the sharp, ironical British black that Salman Rushdie used to represent in his mid-80s lectures on racism and imperialism, and that Kureishi himself simultaneously embodied in a younger, flippant mode. But Parvez aptly dramatizes that ambivalence precisely because he isn’t a pontificator; he’s stifled, exploited yet always, uncomfortably conscious. On the road, he’s hired to round up a group of prostitutes for business conventions by German entrepreneur Schitz (Stellan Skarsgard in another shrewdly conceived portrait of white political hypocrisy as in Amistad). Pimping for others is a cruder version of the marriage Parvez attempts to arrange for his son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) to the daughter of the town’s top white policeman.
Kureishi sketches the economic and cultural reasons for Parvez’s pandering. Angling to move forward seems the only choice in a debased culture. It portrays an immigrant’s uneasy, unavoidable exchange of values. When Parvez gets stoned while playing his r&b records, the film suggests the broad, international range of personal suffering—and survival—from social exploitation. Parvez’s efforts to secure an empowered life for his son make pathetic the spectacle of a man attempting to redeem his own idealism. And Kureishi takes it further: Young Farid is also pushed to extremes; he joins an Islamic fundamentalist cult to oppose the culture that has duped his father and corrupted the only world he knows. Both these impotent dreams clash wittily when Parvez ups the volume on his stereo to irritate Farid’s listening to an Islamic instruction record. But the father-son confrontation climaxes when Farid
invites a Maulvi, the sect’s leader, to bivouac in the home (replacing Parvez’s authority) and direct a religious purge of the town’s red-light district.
Religion lingers even in the most urbane immigrant condition (an issue Charles Burnett also addressed in To Sleep With Anger). For Kureishi it’s part of the identity that sustains and arms England’s transplanted—and native-born—blacks. He doesn’t advocate beyond suggesting religion’s significance to the experience of difference and integration. Farid’s rhetoric against “The white and Jewish propaganda that there is nothing to our lives but the empty accountancy of things!” states the urgency of the dilemma with the factionalism (and bigotry) made clear and the desperation, too. It’s been a long time (maybe since Laundrette?) that a movie has so positively examined these antagonisms.
In The Black Album, his 1995 novel about immigrant intellectuals, Kureishi described how a young man’s brother ”had loaned him Mean Streets and Taxi Driver as preparation. But they were eventful films that hadn’t steadied him for such mundane poverty.” And though My Son the Fanatic‘s action is primarily in character conflict (well suited to director Udayan Prasad’s tactful pace and staging) it is very
much an extension of Scorsese’s social issues. If Travis Bickle lacked white privilege, his story would be like Parvez’s. Kureishi and Prasad are aware of the privileges of passage denied Parvez, that influence his isolation. It also gives him special identification with the prostitutes on his routes.
Bettina tells Parvez, “You’ve got to give Farid a better philosophy.” The hooker and the cabby become
allies in the film’s brief, unusual depiction of friendship. It becomes sexual but it’s primarily platonic; they couple through their need for understanding. (This white love-interest, featuring Rachel Griffiths as Bettina, may be a commercial ploy as much as it is Kureishi’s sincere social expression.) It adds another layer to Parvez’s dilemma in which appetite conflicts with proper faith and custom. When a friend, a successful yet groveling restaurateur, complains about Bettina’s profession (“Thousands of dicks!”) Parvez answers, “You are too certain what other people should do.” Protesting a life “sitting
behind the wheel without having a human touch,” Om Puri makes Parvez’s longings soulful.
The film’s title is still one of those Kureishi wisecracks; it’s meant to be surly and sarcastic but, above all, to be taken seriously. It suggests satirical impudence, outsider’s threat and strange affection. Parvez looks at the anger stirred up in his son, feels the distance between their stressed manhoods and recalls, “When you were an infant I would get up in the middle of the night just to look at your face.
For you it was just growing up and for me it is the best of life itself.”
All Kureishi’s previous smart work seems to have led up to the richness of Parvez’s complication. Kureishi had not, previously, evoked such individual yearning and yet it’s got good wide-ranging
pertinence, too. He even reprises a scene from Truffaut’s The Soft Skin: Parvez, alone in his house, missing his wife and child, walks from room to room turning on the lights—and Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” Kureishi turns vintage movies and vintage r&b into politically adept introspection. Not a bad way for a trendy to mature.
When Love Comes
directed by Garth Maxwell
If Rena Owen were as identifiably white as Gwyneth Paltrow or Cate Blanchett, she would by now be acclaimed as a great actress. Her performance in the 1994 Once Were Warriors as a Maori woman contending with her lot in a traditional masculinist culture (as cook, bottle-washer, babymaker and punching bag) was multileveled. Rugged, tender, sexy and frantically intelligent, she was a woman improvising her way through life. But Owen’s red hair and ruddy complexion never garnered the Third World condescension accorded actress Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station. Owen must have seemed too other. (Reaching for hyperbole, the New Yorker critic compared Montenegro to Giulietta Masina, Jeanne Moreau and Bette Davis, then ended up blatantly praising her “aristocratic” standing in Brazilian theater. All that, just to deny that Oprah Winfrey in Beloved was the year’s most commanding lead female performance.)
In the new multi-sex comedy-drama When Love Comes, Owen has another good role as Katie Keen, a 70s disco queen still working that one-hit-wonder in Las Vegas nightclubs. She comes back home to New Zealand with a “killer hangover from all those bars, motels and stages.” Love-weary herself, she watches her oldest friend Stephen (Simon Prast) anguish over a bisexual young songwriter, Mark (Dean O’Gorman, a Matthew McConaughey type, but young and comely). The disco-diva muse fits
a film about unisex confusion. And the subplot of Mark’s lesbian friends singing his songs in their own rock act may give the film a coy framing device, but it widens the view of romantic behavior. Mark, the riot boy, authors the girl punks’ expressions of sexual anxiety. Katie Keen doesn’t merely look on; her songs (like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love,” Alison Limerick’s “Where Love Lives” or Billie Ray Martin’s “Your Loving Arms”) have inspired this transgendered, universal sophistication.
Owen’s Katie, like Om Puri’s Parvez, is the kind of credible, empathetic role serious actors would kill for. In a sensible heart-to-heart with Stephen, Katie advises patience and sincerity about the wild youth: “He’s just trying to work it out like we are.” Wisdom from the mouth of an old babe. Think of the story behind the story of the Pet Shop Boys-Dusty Springfield single “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”
Owen’s hard yet sympathetic face has strange tranny suggestions, but mostly she’s striking, an emblem of female struggle still respected in Third World cultures because Hollywood has never undertaken to glamorize, falsify or notice.