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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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Are there any concerns that the title will affect the film's chances in the U.S. marketplace? "Well, the word 'reluctant' helps us," she laughs. "And also the fact that the book sold 1.5 million copies in America. People know the novel, and we have an amazing distributor in IFC. We're also fortunate in how it has been received by the American press at festivals [it played Venice, Toronto and London before Doha Tribeca], because it could so easily have been the other way and then you have to do damage control."

Reluctant Fundamentalist

On a critical sequence in which Changez explains to Bobby (Liev Schreiber), the American journalist to whom he's telling his story, why he celebrated the Twin Towers' collapse (he is shown smiling as it unfolds on TV), Nair calls it "a delicate moment that we approached very carefully. We wanted to look at it unflinchingly and not tame it. He explains himself in the screenplay without toning down his reaction, but it's not just revelling in something. I imagine with a studio, that scene would not have been able to exist."

Added Hamid: "Riz's character is allowed to express this thing but we also see Bobby's reaction to it. It's not just put out into the world as, 'Here's a smile,' it's put out into the world as, 'Look, we know people smiled and we know people are furious that people smiled' and you see both of those things."

Nair, who has good relationships with most of the U.S. specialist distributors, deliberately proceeded without one in place for 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' because she knew scenes like that would raise red flags, and she wanted to make it with total creative freedom. "Having a studio on board means you're always censoring and I wanted to be unfettered," she notes. "We have, I think, still achieved a great sense of balance but without the market scores and reshooting." She did, however, test the film several times in India, Pakistan and the U,S. before finalizing the edit.

The Doha Film Institute threw its full weight behind the project from the start, and ended up as sole financier after a second major investor pulled out right before Nair was about to start shooting in India, in July 2011. She was forced to shut down for two months as she made decisions to trim the budget, including opting to shoot on digital rather than film, complete post-production in India (which saved $1 million) and forsake most of her salary. "But we kept the global landscape because that was the point," said Nair, who shot in Delhi, Lahore, Istanbul, Atlanta and New York City. "What's the point of removing the whole skein of the story and just have two men in a bloody teashop?"

One advantage of the postponement from Nair's perspective is that, having met with several name actresses, she was able to keep first choice Kate Hudson on board as Erica, the privileged American woman with whom Changez enters into a tumultuous relationship. It appeared that Hudson might have to drop out when the original start date coincided with the birth of her second son. He was born on 11th July, 2011, and the gap before the new start date in late August was enough to keep the actress attached. "I got her with a two-month-old baby on the set and I loved how she looked," said Nair. "l loved the vulnerability, the womanliness and the fact that she wasn't the blond bombshell movie star, although we made her a brunette ourselves."

IFC Films intends to release 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' on April 26, 2013, bringing Nair's long journey to its conclusion. She's excited for audiences to see and judge the film for themselves now. "I was inspired by this subject matter because I'm so tired of always seeing the world from one point of view," she said. "It's so important to have a story like this one which creates a real bridge between the worlds that we all inhabit, and which casts a reflection and questions the two issues of the day: the fundamentalism of economics and money – look at what's happening in 99 percent of the world; and the fundamentalism of what is often known as just plain terror."

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.