If visions of subtitles and impenetrable tribal histories have kept you from attending the South Asian Film Festival, this year's program at Enzian Theater is ready to meet you halfway. The 1999 showcase boasts production values and story lines that are more accessible than previous offerings. The emphasis is on universal tales with ethnic elements that enrich the emotional power rather than define it.
Witty memoir "Sixth Happiness" is a "My Left Foot" for the rupee set, tracing a frail man's lifelong progression toward spiritual stature. Even those unaware of the area's importance as a film community should enjoy the hilarious "Bombay Boys," a biting satire of the seedier side of the Indian cinematic economy.
The most successful movie is one that's not even a product of Bombay cinema but a British-made film that shows how Indian culture exists and is assimilated outside of Asia, in the same way that this entire festival brings that culture to the Western world. Building on themes he explored so successfully in 1986's "My Beautiful Launderette," screenwriter Hanif Kureishi revisits the British culture wars in "My Son the Fanatic," a tragicomic portrait of a Pakistani caught in the middle of the country's ongoing battle between integration and isolationism.
The terrific Om Puri is Parvez, a perpetually taxed taxi driver whose open mind and kindly nature put him at odds with England's racial ideologues. When he isn't viciously taunted as "Salman Rushdie" by a spiteful nightclub comic, he's shunned by his own offspring. Son Farid's (Akbar Kurtha) turn towards Islamic fundamentalism leads him to reject every Western pleasure his father has worked for, from Louis Armstrong records to a nighttime nip of booze.
The friction escalates into dramatic fireworks when Farid invites a Muslim holy man and his followers into his home. Parvez's neighborhood becomes the stage for a violent clash between the religious militants and the drug dealers and prostitutes they accuse of "polluting" a community that's not theirs to defend. The crusade hits a little too close to home for Parvez, who's begun a sweet but dangerous love affair with Bettina (Rachel Griffiths), a British hooker whom he ferries from one midnight john to another.
Udayan Prasad's direction perfectly matches the meter of Kureishi's script as it proceeds from the lighthearted to the sinister. A final street confrontation is a particularly taut episode, underscored by an imposing soundtrack of ominous string passages and shouted epithets.
But the story belongs to Parvez, who's our cab-driving tour guide through the morally confusing terrain. As a result, some of the other characters remain less than fully fleshed out, existing largely as foils for Parvez's sympathetic soul-searching. Most of the time this is a minor distraction, but it's troubling in the case of Bettina, who really deserves better than the clichéd monologue of broken dreams Griffiths delivers. Parvez takes care never to treat Bettina as a whore; it stands to reason, then, that his creators should handle her with at least as much respect.