Three teenaged British schoolgirls boarded a flight to Turkey last month and disappeared, presumably to join ISIS, the most deadly terrorist organisation on the planet.Grainy screen grabs of them at the airport in Turkey show a carefree trio on an all girls trip.But they are about to join a holy war in which they are prepared to kill and die.What made these young girls take this extreme step? That is a question on everyones mind to which there are no easy answers. I mention this at the beginning of a review of My Son the Fanatic because this headline made me revisit this film for the third time.
While reasons for the radicalization of educated western youth and the lure of Islamic fundamentalism to them is being discussed threadbare, a film like Udayan Prasads My Son the Fanatic, made 18 years ago can be a nuanced addition to that dialogue.Om Puri plays Parvez, a Pakistani taxi driver who often ferries prostitutes and their customers at odd hours.He works back-breaking hours to make ends meet, but his wife Minoo(Gopi Desai) considers him a failure.She compares him to their friend Fizzy(Harish Patel), a fellow immigrant like them, who now owns a posh restaurant, where the engagement party of their son Farid (Akbar Kurtha), to a white girl is to be held. For Parvez this marriage is his much delayed coming out party in British society as the girl is the daughter of the local police chief. But Farids head is beginning to turn, he breaks off his engagement abruptly as he comes under the heady influence of a neo-Islamist group.
The maulvi who arrives from Pakistan and stays at Parvezs home at the insistence of Farid, is a small cartoonish man who enjoys watching Tom and Jerry but in the eyes of Farid and his friends he is the embodiment of all the Islamic values that their elders have betrayed. Parvez is immediately able to see through the maulvi and points him out to be a hypocrite trying to migrate to England while denouncing every aspect of Western culture.Recruiters for terrorist organisations are only infinitely more brutal and selfish versions of this man, for whom impressionable and discontented youth is fodder for an unholy war.
As the distance between him and his beloved son grows, Parvez is drawn into a relationship with Bettina(Rachel Griffiths) a prostitute who he regularly transports and solicits for at times.While Bettina could easily have been an archetype of a hooker with a heart of gold, it is the sublime quality of the acting that makes the on-screen relationship between them work.It helps that Parvez does not treat her as a white woman, their friendship which soon becomes an affair, does not follow the dynamic of the hierarchy of race in the developed world.In a sense both of them are fallen creatures, survivors at the fringes of society and find the racial divide very easy to surmount.
Om Puri gives an absolutely stellar performance, this is surely one of his best performances ever. He plays a very complex character who comes dangerously close to loosing our sympathy at several points but we stay with him till the brilliant last shot.Parvez speaks a wonderfully stilted English, and this dialogue and way it is delivered is one of the precious charms of My Son the Fanatic.Om Puri and Udayan Prasad create a very complex and conflicted character by painting Parvez as a warm, charming man blindsided by life at his finest hour.When Bettina asks him the big questions about the meaning of life and how should people treat each other, Parvez has no profound speech to deliver.He merely says “Good, when possible”.
The film is tightly edited and juggles its multiple themes and twin narrative arcs with ease and fluidity.That the film feels so fresh after 18 years and is so relevant today proves how much ahead of its time it was in 1997, in a relatively innocent pre 9/11 world.This is a very ambitious screenplay by Hanif Kuresihi based on his own short story and Udayan Prasad directs with a masterful touch. Sticking to the father son narrative as the title of the film suggests would have made it a lesser film, only by creating a contrast with the relationship between Parvez and Bettina does the film realise it full potential.This is one of the finest films I have seen about the immigrant experience apart from the fact that in todays dangerously polarised world it appears to be to be uncannily prophetic and urgent.It deserves our full attention today, which it was denied when it was first released.
#Om Puri won Best Actor Award at Brussels International Film Festival in 1998 for this film.