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Doha Tribeca Film Festival: Mira Nair Defends 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist,' Discusses Difficult Journey from Page to Screen

Photo of Matt Mueller By Matt Mueller | Thompson on Hollywood November 19, 2012 at 4:11AM

Director Mira Nair was put in the unusual position of having to defend her film, 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist', from conflicting suggestions of pro- and anti-American bias at the film's press conference as opening-night film for the 4th Doha Tribeca Film Festival. One regional journalist wanted to know why Riz Ahmed's Changez, the Pakistani protagonist who switches from successful Wall Street trader to fundamentalist Muslim professor (and possible terrorist) in a post-9/11 world, repeats the phrase, "I love America"; another questioned whether the film's mistrustful ending ultimately serves as a condemnation of the U.S.
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The Reluctant Fundamentalist
'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'

Director Mira Nair was put in the unusual position of having to defend her film, 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist', from conflicting suggestions of pro- and anti-American bias at the film's press conference as opening-night film for the 4th Doha Tribeca Film Festival. One regional journalist wanted to know why Riz Ahmed's Changez, the Pakistani protagonist who switches from successful Wall Street trader to fundamentalist Muslim professor (and possible terrorist) in a post-9/11 world, repeats the phrase, "I love America"; another questioned whether the film's mistrustful ending ultimately serves as a condemnation of the U.S.

Nair and Mohsin Hamid, the British-Pakistani author of the source novel who also co-wrote the screenplay, addressed both questions eloquently. Nair explained her determination to address "enforced" assumptions in the post-9/11 world of "what you might be" because of your skin colour, place of birth or religion. "If there is a message at all, it would be first, to know the human being, in a way that is unflinching and yet with love, and including the language, politics and myopia with which we often view each other," she said. Added Hamid: "You can love America and still be disappointed by it. When you are critical in that way, coming from a place that also has love, in some ways it is more powerful than if you are critical just from a position of hatred."

The 'Is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-terrorist?' question isn't answered until the film's closing moments, walking a fine line of tension that was always one of Nair's and Hamid's fundamental ambitions for the story. The Indian filmmaker, who has lived in New York for many years, rejected any suggestion of censure, too, insisting that the film also serves as a celebration of America's openness and belief in meritocracy. "Condemnation would be too easy almost – and not what what reality is about," she said.

It was a five-year journey bringing 'Fundamentalist' to the big screen. At the press conference, she revealed that her initial approaches to A-list screenwriters were "met with a lot of ignorance and arrogance about our part of the world." The next day, when I sit down with Nair and Hamid face to face, I ask her to expand on those episodes. "I don't know if it's the novel or the subject matter but people reveal themselves very quickly in terms of their attitude," she said. "One of the people I spoke to said, as the very first thing in our first conversation, 'Well, we'll have to change the title of course. You couldn't drag me to see a film with Fundamentalist in the title.' That was the end of that conversation. I wanted a writer who would approach the subject with, if not knowledge, at least humility. And we found that in William Wheeler." (He gets the screenplay credit, while Hamid and Ami Boghani share a screen-story credit.)

This article is related to: Riz Ahmed, Mira Nair, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.