By Amitabh Pal on May 26, 2013
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is a bracing film. Mira Nair has made a courageous, watchable work that brings bold ideas to the screen.
The movie, with Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, and Liev Schreiber, is based on a highly acclaimed Booker-shortlisted 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, whom I interviewed in Milwaukee in March for The Progressive. I saw the film on Friday here in Madison, Wisconsin.
Hamid showed audaciousness twice over in his book: He made the September 11 attacks the centerpiece, and he structured it as a monologue told by the narrator, Changez, to an American at a café in Lahore, Pakistan. Changez wryly explains why he becomes disillusioned with the United States.
Hamid drew on his own life for the book. Both Hamid and Changez studied at Princeton, worked for a while for Corporate America, and then left the United States. Hamid was in a gym in London when the 9/11 attacks happened.
“Being a writer, I watched everybody, and I noticed that some people were smiling as they saw the television coverage,” Hamid told me. “I didn’t know if the smile was just emotional overload or if it was a sense of pleasure at America’s discomfort. But that was when I first became aware of the notion of the smile. Later, when I spoke to people, I realized that many had that reaction. That animates the reaction of Changez in the novel.”
An unsettling thought, certainly, for a lot of Americans, but one that Nair doesn’t hesitate to highlight. Nor does she hesitate to touch on other disconcerting themes in the book:
that immigrants often possess within themselves a divided sense of loyalty.
that Muslims may sometimes feel even more conflicted due to the impact of U.S. foreign policy on Muslim countries.
and that American corporate minions are, in their own way, causing no less devastation by attachment to their “fundamentals” than are religious extremists by adherence to theirs.
Nair is already receiving backlash, with some commenters in online forums accusing her of offering an apologia for the Boston Marathon attack, an absurd charge.
Even the fact that the movie was completed was a marvel, since the project was abandoned and restarted a number of times due to financiers being hesitant to fund such a movie.
And the movie is truly global in the composition of its crew.
“Where else are you going to have an Indian director making a film of a novel by a Pakistani man with a British-Pakistani lead, supported by three big American stars?” Hamid remarked. “It represents an antidote to the ‘we must be in our own camps’ mentality.”
Mira Nair herself encompasses many worlds: Her parents are originally from Pakistan; she grew up in India and lives in New York; her husband, a Columbia University professor, is a Ugandan Muslim.
The movie does have one failing, though. It transforms the wonderfully ambiguous format of the book into a suspense story. Perhaps this was to be expected, and Hamid, who helped write the screenplay, reconciled himself to it.
“The novel is fundamentally about ambiguity,” he told me. “It creates a hole in which people insert their feelings of insecurity and dread upon one another. The film is more like a Hollywood thriller.”
Nair told an Indian interviewer, “An open ending is a tall order for a movie, my dear, and I don’t think I’ve reached there yet!”
The movie has so many assets that it still makes for compelling viewing: a riveting performance by Riz Ahmed in the title role, a strong supporting cast (including Bollywood legends Om Puri and Shabana Azmi as Changez’s parents), and an entrancing musical score. (A film that ends by melding together the great Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s words with Peter Gabriel’s voice deserves to be seen just for that.)
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” offers, for the most part, compelling viewing. Do take a look.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of “ ‘Islam’ Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today” (Praeger).