The Reluctant Fundamentalist

RF poster

Last time I was back in dear Madras, I visited a huge sari and fabric emporium (“shop” just doesn’t begin to describe it) in search of material to have some clothes made for a wedding.  In all my visits to India, this was my first time examining any saris with much attention.

As the salesman rolled out some kancheevarams, I quickly realized just how many elements were layered together into one garment.  If the main color might be described as peacock blue that was only the most general of starting points.  Upon closer examination, I realized I was in fact looking at two cousins in the extended blue and green families married to the point where I couldn’t determine where either one began or ended.  In addition, there was an added color in the weave that gave a particular sheen to the silk.  Depending on how you held the fabric and caught the light, it looked at times more bluish, at others, more green.  But there was more.  The border of that same peacock blue sari had a very different background color running through it, a deep maroon which served as the foundation for the piece de resistance: a wide wave of golden threadwork woven into a repeating line of mangos nestled between twin tracks of yet more design motifs.

She may not sit at a loom with spools of silk, but the latest film Mira Nair has labored on for six years, her rendition of Mohsin Hamid’s successful novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, opening today, is also a rich union of multiple overlapping strands, albeit one that threatened to unravel several times due to potential backers aversion to funding a movie with a bearded Pakistani Muslim man as the protagonist.

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But, fortunately for us, the director persisted, and created an expanded version of Changez Khan’s story, that of a Lahori son of a poet, whose once affluent parents (the well suited Shabana Azmi and Om Puri) are not as concerned as he is that the family wealth has diminished, as their position in society remains.  Changez (played by British rapper and actor Riz Ahmed) is admitted to Princeton where he excels and impresses Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), the senior manager at a boutique Wall Street firm, who senses and avails himself of his new employee’s drive.  Changez’s American dream is complete when he falls for the (wealthy) bohemian artist, Erica (played by a chestnut-haired Kate Hudson).

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Just as he’s on the cusp of a big promotion while in Manila on a business trip, September 11 happens and by the time Changez steps off the plane in the US and finds himself singled out for a cavity search, it all starts to go to pieces.

As those around him – both the co-workers he knows and complete strangers on the street – start to eye him with suspicion, especially when he starts to grow a beard.  In turn, Changez starts to seriously question who he is and in what and whom he can believe.  While assessing a failing publishing house in Istanbul (yes,yes, where East meets West) his angst grows to a breaking point.

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In bringing Hamid’s novel to the screen, Nair decided to add a third act, with Changez back in Lahore a decade later.  In the present day Pakistan that she presents us, after ten years of The War on Terror and a messy, tortured relationship with the US, tensions are hair-trigger when an American professor is kidnapped.  Changez, now a popular professor himself, sits in the restaurant of a student hostel and is interviewed by an American reporter and possible spy, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber).  As the conversation continues and Bobby presses Changez to reveal if he knows the professor’s whereabouts, student unrest grows around them due to rough police tactics in their hunt for the kidnappers.  Just as you start to wonder if Bobby is a spook, it also looks possible that Changez might be in cahoots with the local militants suspected of the kidnapping.  Nair keeps the ground shifting throughout, for both her characters and her audience, until the very end.

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Riz Ahmed furthers expands the Leading Man section of his CV with this role.  He goes from carefree undergrad to troubled man with seemingly minimal effort, using his demeanor and his deep, intelligent eyes to relay so much.  Sutherland is perfect as the ramrod-straight, tightly wound boss who initially is also a stand-in father figure for Changez.  Kate Hudson is pretty as Erica, but seemed hollow when portraying the emotional depth and confusion of her character.

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More than just the leads in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it’s the perfectly chosen string of supporting actors who add the golden embellishments.  First, the compelling Haluk Bilginer is excellent as the worldly and resigned book publisher whose conversations with Changez serve as a wake-up call.  This man is divine to watch, even just smoking.  He’s so good you’d love to see more of him.  And then there’s Chandrachur Singh, a wonderful surprise after so many years away from film, as Bandy Uncle, whom we only see briefly and on the periphery of several scenes, but who manages to hold our eyes and attention when he’s there.  And finally Nelsan Ellis as Wainwright, friend and co-worker to Changez, unrecognizable to me as the same man who plays Lafayette on True Blood.

All the various layers and elements unite to illustrate how first impressions – often colored by our suspicions about ‘the other’ – can frequently be misleading and there is a real value in looking more closely before coming to any conclusions.  This is even telegraphed in the opening credits, where strings of numbers on the screen – which you would assume are code of some sort – morph into rows of tiny passport type photos.  Things are not what they seem.  Those black and white numbers on a screen or a page represent actual lives (a foreshadowing not just of the massive security and surveillance complex that has mushroomed after 2001, but also for the work that Changez’s firm does, making cold, hard decisions to cut jobs – that is, people – in service to X or Y company’s shareholders).

That tone is perfectly established with the opening scene, cutting between that American professor exiting a cinema discussing the film “Bol” with a female companion, and jump over to the Khan home, where Changez’s parents are hosting a musical evening.  The singers sit at the center of the scene, but Changez is restless and circulates on the periphery, receiving pictures on his mobile phone and taking a call.  As the music rises to a crescendo, and the camera focuses on the (blood red) paan-stained mouth of one singer, the scene then cuts back to the professor being grabbed and struggling as he is wrestled into a car which speeds off.  Is Changez connected to that abduction?

Final thoughts

This is such an important film, but not in the way that suggests “Eat your broccoli, it’s good for you” – rather, it deals with both sides of a reality that we are and have been living with for years, and it makes a case for understanding rather than jumping to conclusions.   As you might expect, this is a darker, sadder film than Monsoon Wedding or The Namesake, but it still comes with the trademark sensuality and beauty of those films and is visually and aurally delicious, with many meaningful treats nestled in the images and the dialogue and the music.

If, like Changez, you too have grown tired of the simplistic reduction of everything to assumptions and hazy misperceptions, you won’t want to miss The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens April 26 in New York (at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza) and Los Angeles (at The Landmark), on May 3 it opens in many other US cities.

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