My Son the Fanatic is a story about a stable family man whose life comes unraveled all at once. It doesn’t matter that these things rarely happen in reality because it’s so tantalizing to wonder what it would be like to wake up to a new life – to wake up as a new person.
Directed by Udayan Prasad and written by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), My Son focuses on the marginal world of Parvez (Om Puri), a Pakistani living in a grimy English city. Though he has been in England for 25 years, Parvez has risen no higher than a cab driver. But his son, Farid (Akbar Kurtha), is engaged to the daughter of the local police chief, much to the delight of Parvez and his traditional wife Minoo (Gopai Desai). They believe the union will signal their final acceptance into English culture.
But Farid unaccountably breaks off the engagement, and in dismay Parvez confides in one of his regular fares, a prostitute named Bettina (Rachel Griffiths). It is only by degrees that Parvez realizes that his son has joined a fundamentalist Islamic sect. Farid invites an exploitative priest and his entourage to live in the family’s house, and it is not long before the group has taken control of the household, forcing Minoo to take refuge in the kitchen and swamping Parvez with debts.
In the meantime, a visiting German businessman (Stellan Skarsgard) with a taste for cocaine and call girls is hiring Parvez’s services not only as driver but also as procurer – and his favorite partner, as it turns out, is Bettina. In the course of sharing confidences, Parvez and Bettina are surprised to find that they have enough in common to form the foundation for a relationship. But Farid’s sect has begun a campaign to drive the prostitutes, including Bettina, out of the neighborhood.
My Son uses this claustrophobic chain of events to trace Parvez’s "fall" from straight-arrow to a man who has only his future in front of him. The movie’s droll style is occasionally reminiscent of V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, and Parvez resembles that character in his essential good-naturedness and resilience. He is both agonized and relieved by the changes that are shredding his life, and he is wise enough to throw up the reins once he realizes that it is out of his control. Om Puri’s performance as Parvez is detailed and pure – you can see the contradictory emotions crossing his face in alternating waves – and, with his rough complexioned but stoic face, he makes a convincing survivor. The sight of him sleeping spoon fashion with Bettina – she marble white and slim, he paunchy and brown – may seem like a conceit in the telling, but by the end of the film we know exactly what it was that drew the English prostitute to this man.
My Son the Fanatic is an ambivalent mixture of drama and genteel satire that doesn’t always work; at times I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but not in a good way. Despite the busy story line and occasional rowdy scene, the film’s tone grows muffled and heavy, which winds up diluting what otherwise would be potent scenes. The climactic set piece, a riot in which the stray ends of Parvez’s life curl around and touch each other, conveyed no more menace than a staged media event; it seemed like an utterly safe place to walk through, with none of the crazed volatility of, say, the gymnasium riot in The Boxer.
But Om Puri’s portrait of a middle-aged man who realizes that he has been leading someone else’s life is a wonderful thing to behold. And the film’s final shot – a rapturous image of contented uncertainty – may make us yearn for a new life ourselves, with all the heartbreak that may bring.
– Tom Block