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Solace in the Backseat

London-born novelist-screenwriter Hanif Kureishi doesn't have Margaret Thatcher to kick around anymore, as he did so incisively and effectively in My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, but his concerns have not wandered too far afield. Rather, he's softened the hard edges. Universal issues still inspire him, but instead of relentless racism, violence, class conflict, sexuality and politics, he now addresses the less semantically abrasive themes of alienation, the clash of cultures, conflicts between parents and children, love, loyalty and religion.

The title of his new film, which was directed by Indian-born British filmmaker Udayan Prasad (Kureishi has directed only one of his screenplays, 1991's London Kills Me), suggests an out-and-out comedy. In fact, while My Son the Fanatic presents numerous humorous situations, its underlying sensibility might more accurately be described as bittersweet. Not surprisingly, the story is set in the author's favorite cultural setting: the Pakistani community in Britain.

The movie unfolds from the perspective of its central character, Parvez (esteemed Indian actor Om Puri), a reserved Pakistani taxi driver who moved to the industrial north of Britain 25 years earlier. Well-meaning but not overly ambitious, Parvez believes he has provided a secure and respectable life for his family. Although it is not the life his dutiful but disapproving wife, Minoo (Gopi Desai, a well-known actress and director in her native India), would have chosen, she has accepted the situation. Parvez is proud of his only child, a teenager named Farid (Akbar Kurtha), but actually knows very little about the person his son has become.

So oblivious is Parvez that he doesn't recognize Farid's obsession with Islamic fundamentalism until the boy breaks off his engagement to his white fiancee and begins selling off all of his worldly possessions. As Farid's ideological fervor grows, Parvez's own life spins increasingly out of control. He begins confiding his woes to one of his regular passengers, a prostitute named Bettina (Australian actress Rachel Griffiths, recently seen in Hilary and Jackie and Among Giants), whom he ferries from assignation to assignation. It slowly dawns on Parvez that he is falling in love with Bettina. That realization, plus an encounter with a hedonistic German businessman (Stellan SkarsgŒrd of Breaking the Waves and Good Will Hunting), throws his assumptions about the world completely off-kilter.

The film's primary focus is Parvez, and Puri brings a nice combination of confusion, earnestness and warmth to the role. Overall, the characters prove fairly engaging; there are some very funny lines of dialogue, and director Prasad keeps events moving at a healthy clip. Admirers of Kureishi's work will want to see the picture; those unfamiliar with his previous writing will find an amiable, if slight, effort. The film's biggest surprise is its evocative look, courtesy of director of photography Alan Almond. Blue shafts of light pierce the darkness, and fragments of faces, half in light, half in darkness, are caught in the taxi's rearview mirror. The cinematography lends an edginess that helps take the picture out of the realm of straight comedy and into the more complex universe its characters inhabit.

My Son the Fanatic.
Directed by Udayan Prasad. Written by Hanif Kureishi. Starring Om Puri, Rachel Griffiths and Stellan SkarsgŒrd.

 
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