After 9/11, the big question was why: Why do they hate us? In the days following 7/7, everyone seems to be asking how: How could apparently assimilated, British-born Muslims end up stuffing bombs into their backpacks and murdering dozens of their compatriots in the Tube and on a London double-decker bus?
Some possible answers are offered in Udayan Prasad’s 1997 movie My Son the Fanatic. Written by Hanif Kureishi (based on a skeletal short story he first published in The New Yorker), the film shows how the British-born son of Pakistani immigrants morphs from a clothes-obsessed, cricket-playing, music-loving accountancy student into a devout Muslim who rails against the corruption and emptiness of Western society, much to the uncomprehending consternation of his father.
From the very beginning, the Pakistani father, Parvez (played with immense dignity and subtlety by Om Puri), blames his son’s behavior on his own decision to immigrate to Britain. When Parvez first notices that his son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) is changing—arguing with his white girlfriend and giving away his previously prized possessions—he suspects that Farid is on drugs. As he heads home to check his son’s arms for needle tracks, Parvez sighs, “I never before cursed the day I brought us to this country.”
Farid has started to reject his father’s melting-pot aspirations. When Parvez asks him why he has broken off his engagement to the white daughter of a senior police officer, Farid replies, “In the end, our cultures … cannot be mixed.” Parvez believes otherwise—his son’s marriage to a girl from an upper-middle-class English family was his assimilationist fantasy—and he insists that “everything is already mingling together.” But Farid asserts, “Some of us are wanting summat more besides muddle. … Belief, purity, belonging to the past. I won’t bring up my children in this country.”
My Son the Fanatic is too subtle a creation to fall into a simplistic religious-belief-bad/Western-assimilation-good dichotomy. As Parvez says at the end of the film, “There are many ways of being a good man.” And Parvez isn’t all good. Although he is sensitive and hard-working, he is also selfish and prideful. He takes his wife, Minoo, for granted; he is unfaithful with Bettina, an English prostitute (Rachel Griffiths with a convincing Northern English accent); and he has forced his son to abandon art and music and pushed him into the practical field of accountancy. There is also something admirable in the film’s presentation of young Muslims, who refuse to submit to the everyday humiliations that Parvez and his generation are subjected to. After much provocation, Farid tells his father why he broke off his engagement to Madelaine Fingerhut: “Couldn’t you see how much Fingerhut hated his daughter being with me, and how repellent he found you?” As one of his contemporaries tells Parvez, the youngsters may be stirring things up at the mosque by constantly arguing with the elders, but at least they’re standing up for something. “We never did that.”
Parvez, who drives a taxi, lives with his family in a seedy, formerly industrial Northern town (not unlike the hometowns of the alleged bombers). The white population is mostly absent from the action of the film, except when a German client insists that Parvez join Bettina and him at the local night club to enjoy “the celebrated Northern English culture.” The evening’s star entertainer—a comedian of astonishing crudeness—stops his act and, with a spotlight trained on the uncomfortable Parvez, subjects him to racist abuse: “Hey, it’s Salman Rushdie himself. What you’re smelling here, folks, is a Satanic Arsehole. If there’s any of Rafsanjani’s mates in here, slip me a tenner, and I’ll shoot the bastard for you. If you fuckers all left town on the same day, we’d have two hours extra bleeding daylight.” As they exit, the German vows to inform the police. Bettina scoffs, “They were sitting at the next table.” Despite Parvez’s integrationist bluster, this harrowing scene explains why some young British Asians might well seek a separate existence.
For Parvez, immigration to Britain represented a decision to prioritize materialism over spirituality. He tells Bettina that his experiences with religion back in Pakistan—a brutal teacher who could not explain why Parvez’s best friend, a Hindu, would go to hell even though “he was such a good chap”—led him to turn his back on his faith: “After such treatment, I said goodbye permanently to the next life, and said hello to work.” Bettina convinces Parvez he must offer Farid his own philosophy—something to believe in “besides money.” But when Parvez finally talks to his son, he realizes that he has focused on work for too long.
As in an earlier Kureishi screenplay, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, the showdown between generations takes place in an Indian restaurant—the one element of subcontinental culture that mainstream Britain has wholeheartedly embraced. “They say ‘integrate,’ ” Farid snarls at his father, “But they live in pornography and filth—and tell us how backward we are.” Farid admits he has abandoned his accountancy studies so that he can minister to Muslims in prison who are “sincere and thirsty for the spirit. Accountancy is just capitalism and taking advantage.” Parvez begs his son, “Please don’t go too far in this.” But it’s too late. Farid responds: “No, it is you that have swallowed the white and Jewish propaganda that there is nothing to our lives but the empty accountancy for things.”
Parvez eventually realizes that while he might have relentlessly pushed Farid to be a financial success, his own embrace of Western values has led to a lack of domestic discipline. When Farid arranges for a religious instructor from Pakistan to stay in the family home, the moulvi turns out to be the stern father the young men crave. The young Muslims become even more zealous, and Parvez becomes even more appalled when the holy man banishes Minoo to the kitchen at mealtimes and runs up huge household bills. Parvez goes to his prosperous friend Fizzy for financial help, and Fizzy tells him, “You’ve lost control.”
At the moulvi’s prompting, the young Muslims start to attack the town’s prostitutes—the only people over whom they can claim some social superiority. When the skirmishes turn into a physical confrontation, Parvez chooses family over commerce or romance. Driving by and seeing the ruckus, he throws his best customer out of the cab and, after ensuring that Bettina is safe, takes Farid home and prepares to evict the moulvi. Farid confronts his father about his relationship with Bettina, asking, “Why are you so interested in dirty whores?” Parvez snaps, striking Farid in anger, until his son screams, “So who’s the fanatic now?”
Kureishi’s short story ends on those words, but in the movie, Farid leaves home, stalking off with suitcases in hand and an overstuffed backpack on his shoulders. It’s an image that is all the more haunting after the events of July 7.