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When topical issues get deep treatment

Good films can provide a service. The time may be right now for 1999's `My Son the Fanatic'

March 09, 2007|Michael Sragow | Baltimore Sun

Movies on the big screen can touch on tinderbox issues with a resonance and intensity impossible even in a home theater. They can operate like large-scale visual lie detectors for public personalities such as the Rev. Ted Haggard, who melted down in a sex-and-drugs scandal just months after he appeared in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Jesus Camp." But they can also illuminate the ambiguities behind front-page stories, even if they first come out years or decades before the headlines. Works of documentary fiction like "The Right Stuff" and even character studies like "My Son the Fanatic" function as public art by revealing perpetual ironies beneath topical stories.

When news broke of astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak driving from Houston to Florida to confront a rival, allegedly with weapons stashed in her car and a diaper on her person to avoid rest-stop delays, the conventional wisdom snickered that she'd devalued "the right stuff." But Tom Wolfe's book and Philip Kaufman's movie "The Right Stuff" made the point that the first wave of astronauts, following the tradition of the World War II and Korean War "fighter jocks" who became leading test pilots, lived a heady, high-speed, sex-charged life beyond NASA's control.

Those extracurricular exploits never made it into the carefully orchestrated Life magazine spreads that minted the image of the astronauts as clean-cut All-Americans. These days their unruly conduct would be plastered all over the tabloids and celebrity weeklies.

Watching "The Right Stuff" in the wake of the Nowak affair might help Americans reconsider their sometimes impossible notions of 24/7 valor. The movie's clear-eyed blend of humor, satire and unsentimental heroism gives the lie to the bogus notion, so beloved by columnists and commentators, of America's "lost innocence." And it might provoke some viewers to reevaluate the double standards that still come into play when we celebrate the feckless randiness of red-blooded American males and sneer at the romantic obsession of an accomplished American woman.

Even movies that seem arcane or limited at first can show their true breadth and profundity over time. That's the case with screenwriter Hanif Kureishi's "My Son the Fanatic." When it premiered in the United States in 1999, the ads proclaimed: "A new comedy from the Oscar-nominated writer of 'My Beautiful Laundrette'!" If it opened today, they might substitute his current art-house hit "Venus" for "Laundrette." Although "My Son the Fanatic" has never attained the fame of either, this potent, heart-rending script about a confused Pakistani taxi driver in a northern England city is ripe for rediscovery as a tale of a secular man confronting the conversion of his son to Islamic fundamentalism.

The movie takes off from the hero's pivotal outburst in Kureishi's 1994 New Yorker short story of the same name: "I can't understand it!" the cabby explains when he feels he's lost his son. "Everything is going from his room. I can't talk to him anymore. We were not father and son -- we were brothers! Where has he gone? Why is he torturing me?" Under the guidance of Udayan Prasad, the Indian-born, British-bred director, the lead actor, Om Puri, transforms the flailing taxi driver into a gut-level liberal who refuses to accept yawning cultural gaps. He's a stumbling yet innately sympathetic figure who can't face the realizations that his marriage has become stagnant and his son (Akbar Kurtha) will never find happiness with the local police chief's daughter.

Even at the time of its American release eight years ago, Prasad was conscious of how special the movie was for examining religious and cultural crisis on an intimate level. "Fundamentalism affects every major country and religion in the world, whether with fundamentalist Christians in the United States or fundamentalist Hindus in India," he told me. What excited him about "My Son the Fanatic" was that Kureishi "was depicting how it affected a really humble man -- a taxi driver, a cabby, an ordinary guy who doesn't expect to spend too much time mulling over this particular problem."

When the protagonist tells his son that there are many ways to be a good man, the statement is stirring and heartbreaking. "That's his journey, really, to arrive at that position, which is not a position he held earlier," Prasad said at the time. "His son is looking for a prescriptive lifestyle, which tells people how they should live their lives. But he discovers that he is being dictatorial by trying to turn his son into a liberal."

At one point, the cabby hits his son and his son asks, "Who's the fanatic now?"

A few weeks ago, Kureishi told me he hoped this film would be revived because it focuses specifically on the challenges that fundamentalists pose to liberals -- tests of sympathy, as well as strength. As Prasad said, what the cabby tries to communicate to his son is, "If you want to go, go; I'm not going to stop you anymore, you live your life. But you can always come back, the door is always open."

Michael Sragow is a film critic at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.

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