Caught between tradition and progress, Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist turns Mohsin Hamid’s bestselling novel into a cat and mouse thriller.
Eastern Promises by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Dedicating the film to her father, “a true Lahori”, Indian-born director Mira Nair shares many preoccupations with Mohsin Hamid, the novelist behind The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Both grew up in the Indian subcontinent and were educated in some of the States’ finest schools before making names for themselves straddling eastern and western cultures. And if The Reluctant Fundamentalist resembles Hamid’s autobiography more precisely, its themes of progress, expatriation and polarisation are already familiar from Mira Nair’s previous films The Namesake and Mississippi Masala. And yet there’s a fundamental difference to The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Gone the gentle fish-out-of-water cultural awkwardness. Instead, set in the aftermath of 9/11, this is no time for faltering, fractured identity, but a time for taking sides.
While Professor Changez (Riz Ahmed) presides over a family celebration, an American colleague from the University of Lahore, Pakistan is killed in the street. Suspecting Changez of radicalising students and instigating his murder, the CIA dispatch Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), a reporter in their pay, to meet him in a teahouse and expose him. And so begins a narrative power struggle as Changez outlines his autobiography (repeatedly interrupted by spy games and fomenting student dissent) from studying at Princeton, being recruited by Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) for top financial analysts Underwood Samson and falling in love with traumatised photographer Erica (Kate Hudson). But following the bombing of the World Trade Center and in the name of homeland security, Changez is repeatedly scrutinised, interrogated and humiliated. Falling out of love with his adopted motherland, he lands on the wrong side of the American dream and is forced to pick a side.
From its opening credits of a world map of human portraits shifting into a crescent moon, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an intelligent thriller exposing the universality of fundamentalism in the post 9/11 world. Fundamentals are everywhere, picked out in the script with crystal sharp clarity, from the banner of profit the soldiers of Wall Street’s economic army flock to, or the opposing fundamentals both journalist and professor are reluctantly drawn into, withdrawing from multicultural acceptance in favour of a firm national identity. The war on terror is merciless, steeling every foot soldier into a kind of extremism, every death another clarion call to fundamentalism. And so too, with his home and office ransacked, Changez undergoes the irrevocable transition from upper-class Lahori and well-educated migrant living the American dream to disenfranchised second-class citizen, cut off from both his native roots and the country he adopted. Suddenly, no longer from anywhere, Changez is stateless and dangerous.
In a beard, traditional kaftan and inside a Pakistani teahouse, Changez has taken sides, not so much chosen but chosen for him. And his story, designed to challenge preconceived notions, is a kind of Arabian Nights backstory interspliced with contemporary CIA rooftop manoeuvres and a student uprising threatening to swell into violence. It’s a tense and thrilling cat-and-mouse war of words, but it’s Changez’s story that provides the film’s richest seam, Riz Ahmed mastering brilliantly both ambitious clean-cut associate and inscrutable high priest. His epiphany finally comes in Istanbul, with the emotional conflict of closing down the profitless Turkish publisher who printed his father’s poetry. And it’s here in the shadow of the Blue Mosque that colour returns to Changez’s world, as he decides to quit his job, sending his fragile house of cards – visa, Manhattan home and girlfriend – flying. Instead of moving people in and out of binary columns of profit and loss, he chooses to shape hearts and minds as a teacher, challenging his students to think about Pakistan’s future and to imagine a Pakistani dream that doesn’t involve emigrating.
Looks can be deceiving and the genre thrills of Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist dissolve somewhat disappointingly into an almost reluctant tolerance, building up walls of suspicion only to knock them down again. Like the Janissary soldiers, a blue-ribbon guard made up of Christian boys captured to serve in the (Muslim) Ottoman army, The Reluctant Fundamentalist highlights the extremism of outsiders inside, willing to succeed and abandon roots (and ethics) at the altar of the American dream. Changez’s refusal – “I don’t want this kingdom, all I want is a grain of respect” – blurs the lines further, a man who loves America living as an Eastern preacher, unjustly courting suspicion. A warning against lazy reductionism, Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist draws a line beneath the blood and tears of violent extremism, reluctantly suggesting a new world order beyond the fundamentals of egotism and profit.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is released on 10th May 2013 in the UK