Prior to watching The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I had no idea that it was originally a novel or that it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a literary prize that has gone to such novels as Life of Pi and The English Patient. But I was certain of one thing after finishing it: The timing of its arrival in theaters couldn’t have been more perfect.
The subject matter hits on so many emotions felt on, during and shortly thereafter 9/11 and again more recently in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. As we begin to analyze why people who studied in our universities and colleges, and were members of our communities, would resort to such violent acts comes a smart thriller that juxtaposes concerns of the vilified with those who salute their allegiance to the American Flag.
While the film offers no answers, more important is the manner in which it frames the question “Why?”
Mira Nair, who had the misfortune of helming a lifeless biopic of the trailblazing female aviator Amelia Earhart, returns to the director’s chair with a film that recalls earlier effort The Namesake where in which a young Indian man becomes more at ease in the presence of his Caucasian American girlfriend and her family than his own. Here we have a Pakistani man, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), who travels to the States to study at the prestigious Princeton University. It is while in America that Changez embraces the country’s sense of idealism, believing that in this country he will have an equal chance to win. This proves to be true early on when he becomes the golden boy at the powerful Wall Street consultant firm Underwood Samson. It is while with the firm that Changez is able to better international companies by essentially being economic fundamentalists, committed to streamlining outdated business practices to speed up performance. Remember the root word of “fundamentalists” – fundamental – for it bears repeating.
At the film’s onset we are in Lahore, Pakistan, the year is 2011. Carried through the opening credits with Sufi music, we quickly see that Pakistan doesn’t necessarily carry the cluttered visage that most Americans envision. Nair is more inclined to overshadow the slums that are probably just out of frame to give us the chic side of Pakistani life. Then the kidnapping of an American professor occurs and thus a scene shift to an old teahouse where two men meet for an interview.
Bobby Lincoln (Hollywood’s version of a baseball utility player in Liev Schreiber) is an American journalist who has lived in Lahore long enough to speak fluent Urdu and navigate the scene with relative ease. The man he’s to interview is Changez, ten years removed from graduating summa cum laude at Princeton and working on Wall Street, now a professor with a growing reputation for inciting his students when it comes to American diplomacy.
Yet, as the two engage in conversation, Changez tells Bobby something most already know in that looks can be deceiving. “I am a lover of America,” he says, and he does so with utmost sincerity, later adding that he was happy to be amongst the dollars and cents of Wall Street. The story isn’t how Changez went from being Pakistani to American, but the other transformation that occurs when he goes from being American to Pakistani again. It is this transformation that is key to The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Most of the film is told in flashback with Changez describing his Horatio Alger story to Bobby. Along with his rise from Princeton grad to Wall Street golden boy is his romance with Erica (Kate Hudson), a New York photographer dealing with a difficult personal history (let’s just say the emotional baggage is heavy). Remarkably, this is Kate Hudson’s best role in quite a long while, but sadly her relationship with Changez is also the least involving aspect of the film.
Where the story really gets interesting is how the attacks of 9/11 alter everything for Changez. Becoming a human spittoon for uneducated Americans that ultimately assume all Pakistanis and Indians are devout supporters of OBL, he now must decide who he is, where he stands, and what his response should be in the way America conducts itself around the world. While watching Changez’s life implode, I was reminded of the Japanese American internment that occurred shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Close to two-thirds of the internees were American citizens, and more than half were second- and third-generation US citizens. Going through history you could probably find dozens of similar situations in which an individual becomes guilty by association on account of the color of his skin, ethnic background, et al.
If you only needed one reason to see The Reluctant Fundamentalist it’s for Riz Ahmed’s performance. In a role that could have easily been superficial, Ahmed is more than able to portray the ever-changing facets of a man who becomes increasingly complex as the world changes around him.
Though one should remember that a single performance doesn’t distinguish a movie from being just good versus great. There are a number of films with killer performances that fail in other areas. Mira Nair’s film is no exception. As I mentioned earlier, the scenes with Ahmed and Hudson are the weakest, with the film almost becoming a melodrama at times.
Still, Changez is the centerpiece of this involving film and it is because of Ahmed’s performance the film works as well as it does.
Director: Mira Nair
Writer: William Wheeler, screen story by Mohsin Hamid and Ami Boghani, based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid
Notable Cast: Riz Ahmed, Liev Schreiber, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland