Meet Mira Nair’s Reluctant Fundamentalist
You’re in the comfortable upper middle-class home of Changez Khan’s parents in Lahore where a qawwalli concert is in full swing and the mesmerizing sounds of Sufi devotional music pervade the room. The camera zones in on the red paan-stained mouths of the performers, then cuts to the kidnapping of an American academic on the dark streets of Lahore, then back to the musical energy, the total civility of Urdu poetry in bloom. Paan stains and blood. Ethereal music, gun shots and screams. The crescendo rises and you are totally hooked.
Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a taut thriller, moving fast from the very first frame and carrying you along on the edge of your seat. Changez Khan, the young protagonist, came to America from Pakistan, chasing the American Dream – an Ivy League education, a high-powered corporate job on Wall Street, and an American girl-friend. 9/11 changed all that. The downing of the twin towers transformed him into The Other, a man with a difficult name and a person of interest to the FBI. He is the man who is stopped at airports, strip-searched, who is asked “Have you ever been to Afghanistan?”
Sneak Peek at The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Meeting The Other
Mohsin Hamid’s novel ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ from which the movie is inspired, was an engrossing read – the entire book was in the form of a monologue by Changez in an open air bazaar in Lahore, as he sits with an American reporter, talking about his life and changing values.
Transforming the monologue into a fast moving script peopled with many characters is the challenge for Hamid, William Wheeler and Ami Boghani. The screenplay puts on the lights, etches in the details and shows the love, families, dreams on the other side of the world, the world which exists outside America.
Nair’s accomplishment is that she has relentlessly followed The Other and filling in the blanks, given him a life and a past. Jumping between three continents and several cities, The Reluctant Fundamentalist populates the vacuum, the ignorance that exists in America about The Other, with real flesh and blood people and shows that if art, love, poetry and dreams exist in America, so do they exist in Pakistan. It is a very human tale, a look at the collateral damage that happens on both sides.
The action doesn’t let up and each character takes the story further until you realize where Changez is coming from. Nair’s two great strengths are her empathy – and her ability to transform that instinct into powerful cinema. Her direction is taut, the editing is crisp and Declan Quinn’s camera catches the beauty of each place. Some of the exterior shots of NYC are breathtaking and you can understand how New York can overwhelm newcomers and become the center of their world.
(In an aside, one has to mention that this sleek, beautiful film was created on a budget and just as in the movie people are not who they seem to be, so too the locales have doubled up and are not what they seem. The pulsating city of Lahore, except for a few exterior shots, was largely created in Old Delhi; Atlanta doubled up in many shots for New York. The book had action taking place in Chile but Nair has taken it to Istanbul. The exterior shots were shot there but the perfect interiors were recreated in Delhi. Just shows how far resourceful thinking can take filmmakers.)
The soul of the movie is the amazing music – almost like oxygen in the film. From the first frame to the last, music is vital to the film, adding to what you see and feel. Be it ancient qawallis, shairis, pop and funk, all of it melds together, setting the mood and pulling us into the lives of the characters.
(The music from the opening sequence has been generating lots of buzz. Here you can listen to Kangana, sung by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad)
Riz Ahmed is Changez Khan
No piece about The Reluctant Fundamentalist would be complete without mentioning the superb performance by Riz Ahmed, the British-Asian actor/rapper. He carries the movie on his shoulders and is almost in every frame of the film, embodying the role with an intelligence and sensitivity that is nuanced, showing the gradual awakening of Changez. Kate Hudson plays the psychologically fragile, hip artist Erica. Her past love is a ghostly presence in their lives and their confrontation at the art exhibition is a powerful scene.
Nair has a fine team of actors from all over including the flawless Liev Schreiber, Keifer Sutherland, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri, as well as Meesha Shafi from Pakistan. They give depth and flesh to their portrayals. A powerful scene is when father and son have a showdown during the sister’s wedding. In a few words the whole Asian concept of sharam – shame and izzat – honor is explored, concepts few Americans would have understood.
It is a coming of age story but also a story of how other people live and their dreams. Who’s a terrorist and who’s a freedom-fighter? Names, labels and identities pigeon-hole people and Nair tells the other side of the story. “I am a lover of America” says Changez Khan in the film – and you can believe him for ours is not a black or white world but one of many shades of gray, of many truths.