A genial Pakistani cab driver in the north of England finds his dream of assimilation and Western freedoms suddenly trashed by an ungrateful son in "My Son the Fanatic," a deeply felt yet comic look at secular-vs.-orthodox culture clash. The humanely witty script is by that great chronicler of Pakistani life in England, Hanif Kureishi ("My Beautiful Laundrette," "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," "The Buddha of Suburbia"), adapted from his own short story.

Indian actor Om Puri ("City of Joy") burns up the screen as Parvez, the likable, Scotch-sipping cabby whose life begins to unravel with tragicomic speed. Puri heads a crackerjack Asian and Anglo cast, all directed in an intimate, cinema verite style by Udayan Prasad, who works in English television and film.

Parvez's beloved son, Farid (Akbar Kurtha), speaks with the thick working-class accent of England's industrial north--the film was shot in the city of Bradford. Yet with a sudden, sulky shift in behavior that scares Parvez into thinking his son might be on drugs, Farid breaks his engagement to the English girl Dad picked out for him. (Her parents weren't too thrilled anyway, as we note in the film's priceless opening scene when they grimly clench their teeth at the formal engagement.) Farid, it turns out, has decided to become an Islamic fundamentalist.

Their life in England, he tells Parvez, is hollow and immoral. He wants "belief, purity, and belonging to the past. I won't bring up my child in this country," he snarls in a slam at his dad's entire adult life. The taxi driver is hurt and furious. His more traditional, sari-clad wife, Minoo (Gopi Desai), still gives their son the benefit of the doubt--even after he brings an imam from Pakistan to live with them so he can study night and day; even after he demands that she eat in the kitchen, apart from the men.

Parvez confides in one of his regular fares, a prostitute named Bettina (Rachel Griffiths). Their friendship grows into a hungry affair, giving Farid even more ammunition against his father. Torn by his family woes, Parvez makes a few Scotch-inspired gaffes while procuring girls for a hedonistic German businessman named, unfortunately, Schitz (Stellan Skarsgard). Parvez's drinking, ranting and philandering even concern his supportive best friend, Fizzy (Harish Patel), owner of the gaudiest Pakistani restaurant in town.

While the amoral Mr. Schitz may represent that nugget of truth in Farid's argument against his father's godless Western values, Kureishi's smart screenplay clearly finds the fundamentalists creepy. Parvez has a telling speech, remembering how much he hated the strict religious education he received as a child in Pakistan. He came to England to escape that sort of life. Now his son wants it back.

Though it is a gritty and local tale, "My Son the Fanatic" can't help but be universal. Any parents who've made a point of raising children with relatively secular Western values and freedoms, and who then find their offspring reverting to orthodoxy as if to magnetic north, will understand. At least in "My Son the Fanatic," there's laughter as well as heartbreak.

My Son the Fanatic (87 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle 3) is rated R for sexual situations, semi-nudity, profanity and strong sexual language, and shows characters using drugs and liquor.

CAPTION: Om Puri and Akbar Kurtha as father and fundamentalist in "My Son the Fanatic."