A Fond Kiss (2003)

2004-11-26 (Limited release)

At the end of A Fond Kiss, Ken Loach’s latest film, we are left with a lingering anxiety about the viability of interracial relationships. Casim (Atta Yaqub) is a second-generation Pakistani who has lived in Glasgow his entire life; his father Tariq (Ahmad Riaz), who runs a “Paki” (the equivalent of a bodega), emigrated to Scotland over 40 years ago. Like many immigrants, particularly those from Muslim countries, Casim’s parents have maintained their religious and cultural traditions. This is due in part to the racism and intolerance they face in their adopted country. With their mosques and tight-knit families, Muslims create their own self-sustaining community. Arranged marriages allow them to strengthen ties within this community and maintain relations with their past.

Casim’s parents have arranged for him to marry a cousin he has never met. His conservative father is even building an extension to his house for Casim and his fiancée. But Casim’s dreams don’t jibe with the future his parents envision. As a DJ in one of Glasgow’s most popular nightclubs, Casim is also about to open his own nightclub. He’s resigned to marrying his cousin until he meets the beautiful and magnetic Roisin (Eva Birthistle), a white woman who teaches music at his sister Tahara’s (Shabana Bakhsh) high school. Besides their obvious sexual attraction, Casim and Roisin are naturally curious about each other’s culture and religion. Raised as a Catholic in a predominantly white Scottish city, Roisin knows little about Islam or Pakistanis. Wisely avoiding the tendency to be didactic, this cultural exchange is realized unassumingly as they poke fun at the quirks of their religions.

After a rendezvous in Barcelona, where he tells the hitherto unwitting Roisin that he is to be married, Casim calls off the wedding and leaves home, devastating his father. His oldest sister Rukhsana’s (Ghizala Avan) arranged marriage is now in jeopardy because Casim’s flouting of tradition has brought opprobrium upon the entire family. The scene where Rukhsana meets her prospective husband provides a window on arranged-marriage etiquette and protocol. Casim’s mother, Sadia (Shamshad Akhtar) essentially markets his sister like some kind of product by listing the young lady’s personal and matrimonial bone fides, her master’s degree in psychology and her domestic virtues, like cooking and cleaning. Sadia lists her son’s qualifications, including his PhD in chemistry and his bread-winning prowess. To a Westerner, this comes across as something of a crude business transaction. What about love?

This is the question that Roisin puts to Rukhsana, hell-bent on rescuing her own marriage prospects. But Rukhsana has her own question: can Roisin guarantee she will love Casim a week or a month from now? This question reveals a fear of uncertainty. No, Roisin answers candidly, she can’t guarantee her love for Casim, her sad eyes and furrowed brow making an irresistible demand on our sympathy. Also facing pressure from her own community to give up her relationship with Casim, Roisin must obtain a signature from her parish priest testifying that she has not been living in sin in order to keep her teaching job. The conservative priest, who actually reckons himself “modern” in his thinking, demands that she leave Casim. Sandwiched between the oppressive strictures of two uncompromising religions, Roisin’s situation reminds us that Islam does not have an exclusive purchase on fundamentalism.

Inevitably, the cultural forces bearing down Roisin and Casim expose the precariousness of their relationship. When she calls his father a “bigot,” Casim defends him by detailing the abuses his father has suffered at the hands of whites, including being almost stabbed to death. In the film’s opening scene, Tahara is also the subject of hateful acts. In France, Germany, England, and the Netherlands, Muslim populations have had to endure what has been dubbed “Islamophobia.” In recent months, we have seen the banning of Muslim headscarves in French schools and the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam by Muslim extremists, underscoring the increasing enmity between immigrant Muslims and white Europeans. And so we worry for Roisin and Casim. Relationships are hard enough without the added baggage of an increasingly vitriolic culture war.