After an advanced screening of Mira Nair’s film version of Moshin Hamid’s 2007 novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, Nair told the audience about a conversation she had during finance negotiations. They had hit a stalemate, and she asked him to up the 2 million dollars he had offered to fund the film. He refused. “With a Muslim main character, you’re only worth $2 million dollars”.
I hope audiences prove him wrong and go and see this movie, because it is one of the finest movies I’ve seen in some time. Despite (or because of?) the incredibly sensitive subject matter of the movie, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an objectively beautiful movie. Even if you don’t know much about films and filmmaking, you’ll appreciate the aforementioned sights and sounds that Nair creates when she tries to paint a picture of New York through the eyes of a young couple in love – of Pakistan, at a time of incredible change; of Istanbul as the backdrop to a personal epiphany.
The wide, saturated shots of each location give audiences a flavor not only to the characters at the forefront, but their surroundings as well. You sense the difference between ordering a chai in a Pakistani run coffee shop in New York and ordering the same chai in a tea house in Lahore. It’s not gratuitous either. Without giving too much away, it’s enough to say Nair’s keen eye for these subtleties is integral to understanding some of the choices that the main characters make, and their outcomes.
With the word “fundamentalist” in the title, you can pretty much guess what the movie is going to be about. A young Pakistani man has to decide who he is and what he stands for in the shadow of the paranoia occasioned by 9/11. Changez’s journey – from a privileged but rapidly deteriorating middle-class background, to an Ivy league university, to Wall Street and back to Pakistan – will resonate with anyone who has left home to get an education. It’s a familiar story to any working class student. The allure of that quick buck on Wall Street that will help forestall your family’s financial implosion. The affirmation that comes from being accepted in the most privileged circles in the world. The added pressure, not simply to be good but to be the best. Nair’s light-handed but compelling filmmaking captures all of this angst with incredible beauty and sensitivity.
Of course, Changez’s transition is marred by a global event over which he has no control, and it’s interesting to see how these familiar themes play out against such a monumental circumstance. Changez doesn’t just have to grow up and decide who he is and what he stands for. He has to grow in the context of other people’s prejudices and preconceptions, and the subsequent violence done to his body and his sense of self. At his level, racism isn’t people burning crosses in his front yard, although there are such moments. It’s about micro-aggressions that remind him that he is different, or imply that his success is undeserved.
And somehow, through all of this, he has to fight for the woman that he loves, a greater struggle than all the others combined, because it changes the way he deals with everything else. This is the real genius of Nair’s filmmaking. She pulls so close into Changez that we see how the macro- and micro-aggressions are tearing apart his soul, and then pulls out to show us the context of these aggressions – maybe these folks aren’t so bad after all. And just when we begin to empathize with his challengers, she pulls in close again and reminds us that all politics is personal. Regardless of how much we want to abstract these things, in the end, it’s about individuals, and the great damage that we do to each other.
The stars of the movie are a delight. Riz Ahmed is perfectly cast as Changez: young enough to be convincing as an ambitious college senior, charming and stylish enough to pull off the role of the thirsty Wall Street banker, fragile when in love, and tough and steely when he is finally forced to unpack his own ideology (Plus, he’s very easy on the eyes). It’s easy to underestimate the importance of Liev Schriber’s character Bobby, but he does a great job of changing the tempo of the action when his time comes. Kate Hudson does a great job as the damaged and damaging Erica – I really hated her in the end, and I think I was supposed to. A slimmed down Kiefer Sutherland is sufficiently slimy and bloodthirsty as consulting genius Jim.
Most importantly for SnA readers, if you like movies but hate how terrible they are at dealing with race and power, you’ll also appreciate what Nair does with her supporting characters. There are no caricatures here. The owner of the decaying Turkish publishing house is an erudite and cloying Hemmingway-like character. Wainwright, the “black friend” (played by Nelsan Ellis of True Blood fame), is intelligent, driven, generous and sympathetic. The Asian family, headed by a poet, is privileged but dealing with the imminent loss of that privilege. Pakistani university students are angry but intelligent and just as confused about their country’s politics as outside observers are. The CIA spooks are misinformed rather than malevolent.
I could go on and on about this movie – it really is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. It has so many layers. Go see it if you like love stories. Go see it if you like political thrillers. Go see it if you like complex movies dealing with complex subjects. Above all else, go see it if you love music, because the way in which music is used in the film will blow your mind. It’s not just a soundtrack; it’s a narrator – an extra character that holds the audience’s hand whenever the action between on screen characters is too intense to handle or when an important detail threatens to slip away. The music is in Urdu, so don’t forget to read the subtitles. You won’t regret it.
(“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” opens in theatres around the world on April 26th 2013)