The Toronto International Film Festival has been a launching pad for many of acclaimed director Mira Nair’s films. Her debut feature “Salaam Bombay” debuted at the 1988 TIFF, and more recently, the festival screened her Jhumpa Lahiri adaptation “The Namesake.” At the North American premiere of the film at the Toronto Inernational Film Festival, festival Executive Director Piers Handling brought up the premiere of another of Nair’s films at TIFF, a premiere that never came to be.
On September 11, 2001, Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding” was set to premiere as a gala at the festival, but earlier that morning, the news came in that two a plane had hit the World Trade Center. The rest is well-known history.
This year, Nair was in Toronto with her new film “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a film that looks at the experience of a post-9/11 world on a young, professional Pakistani-American. Based on the novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid, the film follows Changez, a young man who comes to America from Pakistan to live the American Dream by proving himself as a whiz in the financial industry. The film shows an experience that is often neglected in mainstream representations of the impact of September 11 by focusing on the experience of Changez in Pakistan before and after his tenure in the United States as a Muslim permanent resident who also is serving with great zeal as an avatar of U.S. capitalism.
After her trip to Toronto, Nair chatted with Indiewire from her home in New York about bringing the film to audiences.
In his introduction of the film, Piers brought up your 9/11 story. What do you remember from that time?
On Sept 9, 2011, I had received the Golden Lion at Venice. I flew directly to Toronto, and my family was to join me on the 11th. I was doing 15 interviews a day, and i had started to do the first one. That’s when the first plane hit. I was in the Intercontinental Hotel, Juliette Lewis was in 2nd room. We had done “Hysterical Blindness” a few months before. She ran into my room when the first plane hit, she needed to be with me, with someone she knew. We didn’t know what was happening.
Four minutes later, the second plane hit, other actors, everyone being interviewed at the time was staring at the television. We realized this was something extremely serious.
It was a surreal time, all of us were sort of marooned. We were all living in the Park Hyatt with the doors open. People were in a daze. It was an enforced cocoon that we were in. David Lynch had rented a rock tour bus to go back to California, but I was headed to New York. It took me four days to find a train ticket, sixteen hours to get back to New York. Grand Central Station was a war zone. There was dust in the air. I drove up to where I live on the Upper West Side. It was a very strange time. There, people were walking their dogs looking normal.
Piers brought up that memory, but that memory isn’t what inspired the film. Obviously, however you experienced it stays in your mind and you think of it.
And so what did inspire the film for you?
It was what happened since 9/11 that inspired the film. An increasing war between the East and West, specifically the Western world and the Islamic world. It’s a divide that’s almost impenetrable except for war, and I’ve seen one war escalate into another. There’s no sense of dialogue or bridge-making.
The force for the film came when I went to Pakistan for the first time six years ago. My father, in fact, was born in Lahore but moved back to India before. My films are very popular there. I was raised Lahori. The [culture of the subcontinent] is richer in Lahore than it is in India. India has lost it. It was a world I had never seen, forget about in movies. I was inspired first to make a contemporary portrait of a country. It’s always about violence and hijackings, but never what it also really is. Indian filmmakers have done the partition many times in films, but never the contemporary Pakistan.
How did you come upon the novel?
I happened to read the book in manuscript. It was the perfect thing – modern-day Lahore. The journey of Changez, who dreams of America, who achieves it and loves it, and decides on a different course of action [after 9/11]. These genuine conversations – a world I know intimately. Of course, a movie is a movie, so the book gave me this template. I amplified the family, created the sister, really made what I call a human thriller, in its structure. You do not want to leave the theater until you find out what happened.
You mentioned in your introduction to the film that the Doha Film Institute, where much of the funding came from, was very hands-off. Was that an issue when you were looking for funders?
I’ve worked so much in the studio system. I’ve made many many films with many many kinds of partnerships. For this kind of film, I didn’t want overt pre-censorship before the film was even created. I knew to not look for certain mainstream moneys, i wanted to steer clear of that. We actually started with a few international investors. As the shoot came closer, some vanished and some stayed. The people stayed were there with total faith — they really admired the film and love my work. There was never any question with them to stay hands off.
The actors in this film are phenomenal. They deliver on the thriller aspect. The actor that plays Changez (Riz Ahmed) is new, but there’s also big Hollywood stars — Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland.
It took about a year and a half to find Changez. I found Riz in London at the end of my travels. I was so blessed to find him. Once I had changez, i approached Liev for Jim Cross for Kiefer’s role. He’s a great actor and raises for the part beautifully. I showed it to Kiefer and he was knocked out by the script — stood by us for the 4-5 months it took to raise the money. When I talked to Kate, she was 8 months pregnant. And I looked at her and said, “This ain’t gonna happen! We’re gonna shoot in a month!” But we ended up on the couch talking together for a few hours, which is very unusual for me. The film ended up shooting in 3 or 4 months. She told me she really wanted to do this…sent me love notes. [laughs] She brought that extreme reality to the film. I wasn’t looking for the screen goddess, but someone real and wounded. Kate was extremely intuitive.
In a way this film is about people being blameless — as being part of a system that is destructive.
It’s not about being blameless. When [Liev Schreiber’s US government agent] Bobby pulled a gun, I wouldn’t say that’s a blameless action. It is a gesture that is sometimes common in the face of sorrow and confusion and sort of a frenzy when you don’t know that you’ll be eaten or what have you.
Right, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say, that perhaps it’s not about blame, but that sometimes outside forces put people in situations in which they do things that are not ethical or moral.
Definitely. I’m not interested in black and white, it’s just that movies sometimes throw it that way, by not revealing the full context behind actions. I’m interested in seeing our films in our characters. That’s the key, not thinking we’re separate from them. I look for the humanity in people, however big the politics or oppressive the situation may be, whether it’s subsumed within a human being or between two human beings. I want to help us hold a mirror to ourselves. A big guru of mind is Gillo Pontecorvo and his “The Battle of Algiers.” He gives the same energy to both sides that are fighting…so intelligent.
This film, it’s true, is greatly about contemporary Pakistan, but it’s equally if not more about contemporary America. The film’s just been picked up by IFC. What are your thoughts about bringing the film to a US audience?
I’m really thrilled that we have a commitment to having a dialogue in America and IFC is committed to encouraging the conversation. That’s why this film was made; that’s what i was energized to find. The audiences are deeply engaged in this film. You may like it you may not like it but you have to discuss it. It will rock the world in a way. If people are having conversations, that would be my dream. We need to know the other side just as we know ourselves. We have to fear ourselves in the other. Why is it the other? I’d like to open a window and have questions. That’s what i’m hoping for. If something is presented to you hermetically sealed, it is not real.