Hanif Kureishi was once the man who told the world what it's like to be young and Asian in London.
He has built a career writing about identity and youth--films and books set in the '60s, '70s and '80s, a time when young Asians faced racist insults almost daily, when Britain was so determined to ignore its rising nonwhite population that the government didn't even bother to count how many there were. His tales were a fizzy cocktail of race, drugs, pop culture and sexual experimentation.
Now London is nearly one-quarter nonwhite. Curry is the country's most popular dish, the unofficial theme song of the World Cup soccer team was "Vindaloo," and Kureishi has taken his place among the leading figures in British literature. The nation is finally, grudgingly, coming to terms with being a multicultural society.
And Kureishi is coming to terms with being a 44-year-old father of three who no longer knows what kids are listening to on the radio. When he sat down to write the screenplay for his newest movie, "My Son the Fanatic," he decided it was time to look for a new theme.
"I wrote it . . . quite soon after my children were born. My father had died and then I had kids, twins," he says, pausing thoughtfully as he talks. "So I'd become a different kind of person, and I suddenly saw that there was another perspective, which was my becoming a father and becoming middle-aged. I found that it was easier for me to get inside the father's head than inside the son's head."
"My Son the Fanatic," which opens in Washington today, is told from the point of view of Parvez (Om Puri), an immigrant from Pakistan who drives a taxi in an industrial city in northern England. He is enthusiastically preparing for the wedding of his son Farid (Akbar Kurtha), who is engaged to a young white woman, the daughter of the local police chief.
Farid abruptly calls off the wedding, denouncing the racism and loose morals of British society. He joins a group of fundamentalist Muslims and criticizes his father's eagerness to adopt Western values and culture. Farid's mother, Minoo (Gopi Desai), whose marriage to Parvez has grown distant and mechanical, increasingly sides with her son.
As his relationship with his family deteriorates, Parvez develops a friendship with a white prostitute, Bettina (Rachel Griffiths), who often rides in his cab. She is the only person he can talk to about his family problems.
Kureishi often writes about fathers and sons. "My Son the Fanatic" is the first time he's taken the dad's point of view. His first movie, "My Beautiful Laundrette" (1986), and first novel, "The Buddha of Suburbia" (1990)--the two works for which he is probably best known--both dealt with the thorny question of identity: What does it mean to be Asian and British? How can those disparate experiences coexist in a racist society?
Now, he says, sitting in the conference room of Zephyr Films, the company that produced "My Son," he's not sure what questions he is trying to answer in his work. That's something, he adds, perhaps better understood in hindsight.
Zephyr's offices are on the top floor of a Victorian town house above some apartments. An open window, which lets in a small breeze, offers a view of the pastel houses of Notting Hill, a trendy neighborhood in West London that was once home to many of London's Caribbean immigrants and is now being gentrified by Britain's chic and artsy upper class.
The conference room, if you could call it that, is a bit cramped, accommodating little more than a wobbly, scratched wooden table surrounded by a collection of mismatched chairs. Kureishi is leaning on the armrest of the biggest one. His thin frame is covered by a dark blue long-sleeved shirt, black pants and black loafers, no socks. Short, unruly salt-and-pepper hair stands up on top of his head. His demeanor is cool and contemplative, and he barely cracks a smile during the entire interview.
Much of his work has traced the trajectory of his own life. Kureishi, son of an upper-class Indian father and a lower-middle-class white mother, grew up in the burbs and moved to London as a young adult to become a playwright. The main character of "The Buddha of Suburbia" is the son of an Indian father and a white mother. He grew up in the burbs, moved to London and became an actor.
When "Intimacy," his most recent novel, was published here last year, his family publicly complained that it hit a little too close to home.
"Intimacy" is about Jay, an Oscar-nominated writer who leaves his partner (who works in publishing) and their two kids for a younger woman. A crude, callous and self-absorbed man, Jay spends most of the novel justifying his decision. He muses, "There are some [expletives] for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a freezing sea."
Kureishi is also an Oscar-nominated writer who left his partner (who works in publishing) and their two kids for a younger woman. It didn't take long for critics to notice the similarity. And his ex-partner, Tracey Scoffield, began to vent her fury in public.
"He says it's a novel, but that's an absolute abdication of responsibility--you may as well call it a fish," she was quoted as saying.
His mother and sister were equally miffed. They didn't have a problem with the book itself. But they were furious about an interview he gave to a national newspaper promoting it. They said he demeaned his family and distorted his upbringing to sell books.
At the time he insisted on the artist's absolute right to creative freedom. And a year later he remains unrepentant. "I think probably it's the writer's job to be irresponsible," he says. "That's what we're paid to do. In a sense writers have to say what isn't supposed to be said."
The controversy over "Intimacy" overshadowed "My Son the Fanatic," which was released here at about the same time. It has taken more than a year for the film, which had a modest budget of $3 million, to make it to the United States.
Kureishi says that's the kind of movie he likes to do.
"It's just a little film," he says. "You keep it small, and then you have more control. You don't have a lot of pressure. There's not a lot of money involved. There's not a lot of expectations, so then you can work much more freely."
Miramax, which is distributing the picture in the United States, wanted a happy ending, he says, but he refused to change the film's ambiguous conclusion. Eventually the company relented, but the argument helped delay the movie's U.S. release.
Kureishi probably could have had a Hollywood-style career if he had pursued it. "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "The Buddha of Suburbia," in addition to the kudos they won, were both unexpected hits. "Laundrette" won him his Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, and "Buddha" took the Whitbread award for best first novel.
Nothing he has done since then has gotten that level of attention and acclaim. But at the time he was exploring virgin literary territory. There were few British Asian authors then, and none who portrayed the London youth culture with such assurance. Now Kureishi is left searching for new turf to settle.
By the end of the interview he still can't say where he fits into a new, race-conscious Britain. But that's the way he likes it, he says: He's not a fan of clean-cut conclusions. His is a story about race and class and growing up, a story with a bit of sex, a bit of scandal--and, quite possibly, an ambiguous ending.
CAPTION: "Probably it's the writer's job to be irresponsible," Hanif Kureishi says.
CAPTION: Gordon Warnecke, Shirley Anne Field and Saeed Jaffrey in Hanif Kureishi's acclaimed film "My Beautiful Laundrette."