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Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Mira Nair’s most engaging work

After <i>Monsoon Wedding</i> and <i>The Namesake</i>,<i>The Reluctant Fundamentalist</i> is Nair's most engaging work.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | New Delhi |
May 17, 2013 2:51:48 pm

Cast: Riz Ahmed,Kate Hudson,Liev Schreiber,Kiefer Sutherland,Om Puri,Shabana Azmi

Director: Mira Nair

The Indian Express rating: ***

Is being a person of colour a cardinal sin in the West,still? There is a moment in the film when the protagonist looks at a TV screen showing one of the most devastating moments of this century,and his instant reaction is horror mixed with,yes,stunned admiration. The response is involuntary. What audacity,he thinks,and the voice over lets us into his thoughts. The image is that of the twin towers under attack in Manhattan,those planes crashing,that leaping fire: the film takes us elsewhere after this,but those of us who saw those same images on the screen in real time,have an indelible spot in our eyes,and how the world changed,post 9/11.

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This mixed reaction and the voicing of it is the central triumph of Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist,based on the novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid (the author shares screenplay credit,too). It comes from Changez Khan (Ahmed),a young Pakistani who realizes his American dream is a bubble,that he is not and never will be an American despite his fancy Ivy League degree and his earning capacity of those coveted greenbacks via his employment at one of the most prestigious firms on Wall Street. As far as America goes after the attacks of 9/11,and that’s not very far at all,the brown-skinned,possibly-bearded Changez is and will always remain a suspicious person,who will always be asked to “step aside,sir” at an immigration queue. As far as America is concerned,Changez will always be a potential terrorist.

The place that he reaches,instead,as a ‘reluctant fundamentalist,’ is where the film falters,and adopts some of the stiltedness of Hamid’s slim novel. The tacked-on staginess is Nair’s,and it is most evident in the movie’s book-ends,if you like. The beginning and the end take place in Lahore,where Changez has engaged his visitor,the blue-eyed,straw-haired husky American Bobby (Schreiber) in a conversation that loops back and forth in time,over tea and old fashioned Lahori courtesy laced with menace. This is where the ‘thriller’ part of the film is meant to be concentrated,and this is where it gets flabby,focusing on a kidnap-and-rescue operation which ends badly.

But where Nair is deliciously spot on is when Changez,hopeful of a great future in the US,takes his first tentative steps into his workplace and,almost simultaneously,a life-altering romance. His interactions with his boss (Sutherland) show us a bright sharp young fellow who could have fit right into the cut- throat practice of making people redundant. But his tentative steps towards finding the love of his life in Erica (Hudson) makes him more aware: he sees both sides of his self,and finds he is not in step with the country that could have been home.

Nair’s film speaks to the complicated times we live in,in the way it shows us an America whose own responses went into a tailspin after the Twin Towers came down: either you were with them in their ‘war against terror’ or you were against them. Changez’s very reluctant fundamentalist shows that there is a place in between that is getting larger and larger,and that both victims and aggressors are people with their own sets of beliefs. The films that have come out post-9/11 have been many and various,but Changez’s conflicted individual at the centre of the narrative feels both vital and important.

Ahmed does a good job of Changez,especially when he is alongside Hudson who is real and hurtful and hurting. He has pride but he is contained in America,and liberated in Lahore. Or is he? And she,still smarting from the wounds of the past,if she will not find love with Changez,will she ever? I was invested in these characters. I wanted to know what happens to them. The presence of Shabana and Om lift The Reluctant Fundamentalist in the way only supremely seasoned actors can: as Changez’s Ammi and Abbu,they give us a sense of where he comes from. And the sounds of Coke Studio Pakistan that layer the film are outstanding: Nair has always had a ear for music,and here those sounds really add to the experience.

The film could have done with more finesse in the way it begins and ends,but there are enough subtle shifts in the main act to keep me with it. After Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake,The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Nair’s most engaging work.

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