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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

by Leonard Maltin
April 26, 2013 12:03 AM
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Photo by Quantrell Colbert - Courtesy of Reluctant Films II, Inc

Having made a number of movies dealing with cultural identity, Mira Nair was an obvious choice to direct the screen adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s critically acclaimed novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, even though she is Indian and the film is rooted in Pakistan. It is a provocative, multilayered film, and while imperfect it still feels genuine, and that is perhaps its most crucial asset. The story unfolds in flashback as American journalist Liev Schreiber interviews a controversial professor (Riz Ahmed) on a day when political tensions threaten to come to a boiling point in Lahore.

Ahmed is perfectly cast as a young Pakistani man who, in the year 2000, emigrates to the U.S. to live the modern American dream. (His sister wants to be like one of the women on Sex in the City.) He earns a scholarship to Princeton and an interview with a high-powered executive (Kiefer Sutherland) from a financial firm, who’s impressed with his drive and sheer nerve. Ahmed even falls in love with an American girl (Kate Hudson) who happens to be the niece of his company’s wealthy founder. Then comes 9/11 and everything changes, notably people’s perception of him. Almost inevitably, he is radicalized, and realizes he must return to Pakistan to seek his destiny and help guide young people on their path.

In such memorable films as Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, Nair has illustrated more benign clashes of modern and traditional cultures. The stakes are much higher here, but she still understands both sides of the coin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist doesn’t paint its characters, or the societies they represent, in terms of absolutes. America has much to offer its upwardly-mobile protagonist, but he has chosen to join a highly competitive firm known for its ruthless cost-cutting business tactics. (Even Ahmed’s father, a poet played by the imposing Om Puri, questions the worth of his son’s profession.) As for the seismic changes that occurred in the days following 9/11, anyone who was around at that time can verify the xenophobic feelings that targeted innocent Arab and Muslim people living here.

Nair has said, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an exercise in personal healing and reconnection. There are elements of my own family and me that have felt impacted by the events of the past decade. The film is an attempt, among other things, to knit the pieces back together. Not by denying the tensions that have appeared, but by illustrating the ways in which we can navigate them and be human despite them.”

Despite these good intentions, the film loses some of its momentum and focus in its final act. Yet simply by exploring the volatile emotions of the past decade it engages us and exposes us to different ways of thinking. That gives the film both relevance and value, despite its shortcomings. It even makes me think about reading Hamid’s novel. 

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  • ramot n aritonang | May 15, 2013 1:39 PMReply

    Despite the long running time and leaving some questions to some mid parts of it, the thought, the idea and values behind this movie has made it a must-see movie. The truth is, i am still amazed by the fact that the writer had catched the feeling of all innocent yet discriminated people as an impact of 9/11.

  • bob hawk | April 26, 2013 3:33 AMReply

    In the end credits, Nair dedicates the film to the memory of her father, mentioning that he was a Pakistani from Lahore (re your statement she was Indian). So, evidently she is "only" half Indian. Whatever, as an admirer of so many of her films I think this is one of her finest -- and it held me in its grip through to the end.

  • S Riddle | May 5, 2013 8:41 AM

    Bob Hawk are the former FBI agent?

    For me, this is what a movie is supposed to be - engrossing. Although it is entertainment, I think if offers something that I have never seen before - a human connection to the understanding of what tensions in this world can represent to a peaceful Muslim who called the US home. I loved the authenticity of the movie and it really made me think.

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