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.