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My Son The Fanatic  

My Son The Fanatic is a British film, from 1998, which deals mainly with the lives of Middle Eastern immigrants living in London, and while it is not a classic, the film contains a very interesting portrait of a culture which may be unfamiliar to some of us.

The story is of a family, of Indian descent, headed by a father who makes a living as a cab driver and who is happily anticipating the marriage of his son to the daughter of the local police chief. In short, the father feels quite comfortable and tolerant of the Western culture. He is certainly not a stereotypical uptight old man from a strange (to us) culture, but is an average joe like the rest of us. As a cab driver, he often serves people who represent the underbelly of British urban society, namely, prostitutes and their customers. And he also finds himself a friend to one of the streetwalkers, played by Rachel Griffiths. Unlike the prostitute`s men, however, their relationship extends only to conversation. These two find genuine solace in each other`s company. Also in the scope of this man`s life is the presence of a sleazy German executive, played by Stellen Skarsgard, who soon becomes a frequent customer of the prostitute`s.

The seeming order of the father`s life soon comes crashing down on him. Suddenly, mysteriously, the son rejects the fiancee, and everything she stands for, which is the depravity of Western culture. The father finds this peculiar, if not downright offensive, and tries to find out what is going on. In a funny scene, he checks the son out to see if perhaps he is on drugs. But later on, he realizes that his son has been swept up in a Islamic fundamentalist group. The son now pleas with his father to allow regular prayer meetings, and then later, a visit by the leader of the group, to occur at the house.

The character of the father is quite interesting. He is of an older generation, but, unlike most films of this kind, he is the average guy, while the son is the strict, unyielding fundamentalist. The father is like many of us; a working stiff, trying to make a decent living and support his family, whose simple pleasures consist of drink and Louis Armstrong, yet, in the autumn of his years, asks himself if this is all there is, if he is allowed to be happy and have dreams again. The prostitute is the only person whom he can have a real conversation with, and the happiness he feels with her is what makes him able to feel again. He does not care that she has slept with many men for money, because he has something which none of the sleazebags who pay her have, which is the knowledge of the real person beneath the fantasy. The problem is that the other Indian immigrants frown upon such a relationship, in varying ways. While the son is simply a narrow-minded zealot, who sees women as a whole as poisonous, and his father as shameful for even talking to a whore, there are also other fairly normal people who also see the prostitute as a bad presence in the old man`s life. I could really feel the conflict between the need for the man to actually find a more fulfilling relationship and the possibility that he is threatening his family and reputation. After all, he is having an extramarital affair, and does not attempt very much to add fire to his loveless marriage.

There is also a sense that the son may very well be correct about British society, and that the father is merely going through the motions, trying hard not to be offended, and putting a brave and tolerant face on the proceedings. It is clear to us as an audience that the man is not part of, in actions or mind, the mirth and debauchery which the German and assorted associates engage in. Yet he does not try to do anything about this, and instead drives everyone to their destinations, few questions asked. There is a lot of ambiguities about the themes in this film, which make the explosive ending work even more. The son is a narrow-minded, and possibly brainwashed, individual, yet the father also might have some explaining to do, as well as decisions to make.

Right-wing Christian conservatives who think that the arts never criticise other religions besides Catholicism should look at this film, as it certainly does not paint a pretty picture of Islamic fundamentalism. The group in which the son joins is seen as misogynist and violent, and the leader is seen, very subtly, as a goof and a bit of a fraud, as he eats too much, and watches cartoons while he`s at the house. The violence and hatred of women come most strongly in a wicked scene in which the father witnesses in horror the groups` arson attack of a brothel. A few members, including the son, actually beat up prostitutes, and this climatic event is what sets up the ending of the film. Of course, all this may offend right-wing Islamic conservatives, so it`s not as if we`ve made things any easier by picking on a different group!

This was a decent movie to watch, but I thought it was a bit flat at times, and, actually, a bit too short. The last portion of the film is where the real fire of the film exists, and I wished there was more energy like that. But the story itself is certainly worthy, and Om Puri, as the father, contains enough humour and feeling to carry this film all the way to the closing credits.

David Macdonald

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